Wartime pix no picnic to pitch

Even laffers under pressure

NEW YORK — Movie marketing, like most advertising lately, has become a daily process that requires a sensitive touch and nimble hand as war coverage saturates the national media, said a panel of film industry execs speaking in Gotham on Thursday.

“We’re looking at it almost on a day-to-day basis,” said Dawn Taubin, prexy of domestic marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures. Post-9/11, Warner snatched “Training Day” from theaters for a few weeks and delayed the release of “Collateral Damage.” “Luckily, now I’ve got three comedies in a row,” Taubin added.

But lighter fare can require tough calls, too. Warner recently made headlines by airbrushing ads for teen romance “What a Girl Wants,” moving Amanda Bynes’ hand from flashing a peace sign into her pocket. “It seemed better not to make a political statement about a movie that had none. Looking back, whether it was the right thing to do, I don’t know,” Taubin said at Marketing of the Movies, a luncheon event sponsored by the Advertising Club and America Online and moderated by Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart.

Global scene

Miramax exec veep for marketing Jason Cassidy said the studio takes world events into account every day. Yet he also feels that “people want to be entertained” and they look to the movies for relief and a little “balance” from the drumbeat of war.

“They can escape,” agreed John McCauley, senior VP of marketing for movie theater chain Loews Cineplex. “At the end of the day, the best we can do is let people know we’re open.”

Theaters, he said, can present a unique opportunity for advertisers. “It’s one venue that’s not going to be interrupted by war.”

Exhibs have been ratcheting up the number of ads they show, a practice not overly popular with studios or moviegoers. McCauley and Taubin said that the ads must be creative and edgy.

“Taking an ad that runs on TV and putting it on the screen — there’s nothing more irritating than that,” McCauley said.

Taubin suggested 10 minutes of ads before the official movie start time, so viewers can choose to watch them or not — an idea unlikely to fly with advertisers.

Genre demands

Panel also addressed the high cost and complexity of marketing films of various budgets and genres amid intense media clutter. As marketing budgets soar to $50 million, $80 million, even $100 million, there are plenty of pics for which “you can’t spend that kind of money,” Taubin said. She used “What a Girl Wants” this year and “Barbershop” last year as examples of recipients of targeted niche media buys crucial to smaller films, which are often the most arduous to market well.

“The small ones take more time because they never go away. They can last 10, 12, 15, 20 weeks, and how do you keep it going and tweak the strategy?,” she said. “We hate to pull people off ‘The Matrix,’ because that’s got to do a certain box office.”

The strenuous focus required is one reason Warner is exploring a new classics division. “We want to make those movies,” she said. “Steven Soderbergh did ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ for us. … But he wants to make smaller movies, too, and we’d like him to make them with us.”

Early Oscars (the Academy Awards will be held a month earlier next year) is another issue facing studios. Taubin thinks a plethora of award shows has blunted the impact of Oscar, which “should be first.” Yet Warner will have to scurry to get Tom Hanks starrer “The Last Samurai” finished and taped for Academy voters in time.

Also, “You could have ballots in Oscar voters’ hands the week of the Golden Globes, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” she said.

Oscar watch

Tentpoles won’t feel much impact, the panel said, but a shorter holiday release window may squeeze specialty pictures.

Warner’s other worry is the R rating on two of its biggest pics this year, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” Last year, Taubin noted, not a single movie in the top 20 was a R. “We hope we break the mold.”

It’s movie marketers who usually take the heat if a pic underperforms. “When (a film) starts off with a $100 million opening box office, we think they did a great job,” McCauley said.

And no worries about those R’s, he joked: “There are some pretty enterprising kids out there.”

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