“Matrix” producer Joel Silver offered a rare of glimpse under the hood of the international hit in a one-on-one interview with Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart — the first in the Cannes Conference Series at the Variety Village running through Wednesday.
The salient theme at Friday’s sesh — how Silver and ultra-reclusive directors the Wachowski brothers are trying to reinvent the blockbuster business — is of pressing interest at a festival where studios are promoting their biggest summer movies.
Silver recounted the strategy behind the global release campaign for “The Matrix Reloaded,” which will see the release of the “Enter the Matrix” videogame, written, directed and edited by the Wachowskis; an animated spinoff series, “The Animatrix”; and a host of sponsorship deals with major companies.
Silver said the promotional blitz was “content-based.”
“There aren’t lunch boxes and Happy Meals,” Silver said. “The game and ‘The Animatrix’ are story-based.” Of the sponsorship deal with Cadillac, he said, “They gave us 100 cars and I don’t think we returned any of them — well, we didn’t drive any back.”
Thanks in part to the massive public awareness of the franchise, and the proliferation of sponsorship deals, Silver said, “It’s shocking how little we spent on advertising.” He noted the ad expenditure on “Reloaded” was half of what was spent to launch tentpoles like “Ocean’s 11.”
“The tracking was so great, we didn’t need to slam the movie down the audience’s throat.”
The producer said he is mulling a releasing of the third “Matrix” installment on the same hour in every key territory around the world. “We’re playing with the idea of having that be a promotional idea. We’ve already canvassed the world with publicity for this movie.” The third pic will bow in November.
Pointing to the R rating of “Reloaded,” Bart asked whether the movie’s success — the opening weekend grosses are projected to be well above $100 million — would remove the stigma of an R rating.
Ratings matters, the exec responded, but he noted that his plan was always to accept the designation of the MPAA. “We weren’t going to go in and adjust anything.”
He also noted that the difference between an R and PG-13 pic is often vague, observing that PG-13 pics “X2” and “Austin Powers in Goldmember” didn’t strike him as any less racy than “Matrix.”
Silver said movie audiences aren’t required to play the videogame to understand the film, and compared playing the game to doing research on the Internet.
“If you want more information on the Matrix, you can get it by going to the game. I think the movie plays by itself. But the videogame enhances the experience.”
Considering the studios’ predilection for sequels, Bart said, “A generation ago, nobody made sequels unless they had a gun to their head.”
Silver traced the current sequels craze to “the golden age of Hollywood,” and films like 1947’s “The Egg and I,” which launched the immensely successful Ma and Pa Kettle franchise.
“The audience loved these characters,” Silver said. He noted that he had produced some sequels that “were successful commercial movies, but weren’t successful as movies. They didn’t have a story.”
In “Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix,” Silver added, “the story continues from film to film.”
Silver recounted the origins of the “Matrix” franchise. The Wachowskis approached him about the project while rewriting another film for him, Silver recalled, and he optioned the material using his discretionary fund, “which is why you should have a discretionary fund.”
He said that despite the trepidation of Warners toppers during the shooting of the first “Matrix,’ “We made the picture without a lot of studio interference.”
The behemoth “Matrix” franchise clearly hasn’t slowed down Silver’s production company.
He talked of readying his next film for the Dark Castle label: a franchise invented with Bob Zemeckis, typically shot on one set, with budgets less than $25 million and released on Halloween. The next Dark Castle pic is “Gothika.” It stars Halle Barry and Penelope Cruz.
Silver said he hopes to ramp up Dark Castle to the point where he can release two such pics annually.