I used to believe that marketing mavens had it made. All they had to do was to figure out how to sell a movie; they didn’t have to worry about making the damn thing. If the film flopped someone else took the fall — after all, it wasn’t their decision to give it the green light.

Well, all that has changed faster than you can say Chris Pula. More and more studios are putting their advertising and publicity people smack in the middle of the “green light” process. At Universal, the marketing people not only have to vote “yes” or “no” on a project, but also how much money they’ll commit to open it. Similar rules prevail at MGM and no equivocation is condoned at decision time.

So look where things end up: If a movie bombs, the ad types catch a double whammy: First, they voted for the project and, second, their campaign sucked.

The marketing troops have a right to be a little paranoid these days, especially since the ground beneath them is shifting. The “Blair Witch” phenomenon demonstrated anew that there are ways to catch the attention of filmgoers that are less costly than a spot on the Super Bowl. Thanks to the Web, people felt caught up in the creation of “Blair Witch.” They became participants. Film marketing will never be the same.

If “Blair Witch” was unsettling, so was the adventure of “Eyes Wide Shut.” The mis-selling of the Kubrick movie was so dramatic that even Steve Brill’s Content Magazine, which usually disdains showbiz, showcased it in its October issue.

The keys to the “Eyes Wide Shut” campaign were sex and secrecy. No one was allowed to see any part of the movie except for a 90-second teaser — a sexy scene involving Cruise and Kidman. Nonetheless, one magazine after another was encouraged to go out on a limb trumpeting its eroticism. Rolling Stone billed it “the summer’s sexiest movie.” The cover of US suggested this would be “the sexiest movie ever” and even Vogue rambled on about its “erotic audacity.” Mind you, at this stage no one had seen anything.

The “sex sell” was augmented by interviews with the breathless co-stars. During a Diane Sawyer interview with Tom Cruise on “20/20,” the questions were persistently prurient: “Were you making love to your wife in front of Stanley Kubrick?” she cooed.

A cool cat, Cruise wasn’t going to let the secret out. “You gotta go see the movie,” he replied coyly.

Meanwhile, everyone was cashing in on the mythic erotica. The “20/20″ Cruise interview was the fourth–highest rated network TV show that week. A Time cover showing lots of Cruise-Kidman bare skin was one of the year’s hottest sellers on newsstands. And there were other fringe benefits: David Granger, who’d put a sexy Kidman on the cover of Esquire without having seen a frame of the movie, got some free publicity by hosting a party for her in Los Angeles.

Through all this, the pressure kept mounting from critics. “Why won’t you show us the movie?” they demanded. The media community finally suspected they were part of a con.

Soon the secret was out. “Eyes Wide Shut” wasn’t erotic at all. It was, in fact, “the dirtiest movie of 1958,” as the Washington Post put it. Those who’d cooperated in the covers and TV interviews finally realized this wasn’t “the sexiest movie ever.” It was, in fact, a sad anachronism, over-long, incoherent and downright boring.

Marketing mavens will long argue whether the false hype helped or hurt Kubrick’s final movie. Its opening weekend was a solid $ 22.8 million. It hit the wall at $ 55 million. Did a counter-reaction set in? Did moviegoers resent the con? It would seem so.

“The jig was up the minute the movie got shown,” Terry Press, the head of marketing of DreamWorks, told Content. Certainly her plan in opening DreamWorks’ provocative film, “American Beauty,” has followed the mirror-opposite strategy.

Step One: Press let herself be quoted in a number of publications that “American Beauty” is a wonderful movie but she had no idea how to sell it.

Step Two: She then proceeded to sell it, first by schlepping the film to many college campuses, next by inviting every ambulatory critic and journalist to see the movie. Indeed, the selling of “American Beauty” could be re-titled “Eyes Wide Open.”

Most of those invited loved the movie. A few hated it. After the closed-door policy of the Kubrick experience, nearly everyone was delighted by the access. A positive word-of-mouth started to build.

The marketing types were watching all this with keen interest. If a movie tanked, they realized, no longer was it the other guy’s fault. They’re the ones sitting on the fault line.

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