Twin sequels demolish the marketing rules

This article was corrected on Jan. 22, 2003.

Joel Silver is a producer who likes to think and talk big. But even he finds himself marveling at the action surrounding Warner Bros.’ “Matrix” franchise.

What’s happening, he says, is “cosmic.” So is the cost. And the risk:

  • Two sequels released within one year

  • A grueling 294-day shooting schedule for a $300 million movie split into two parts

  • The creation of an f/x studio to tackle 3,000 shots

  • A multi-media blitz involving vidgames timed with the first sequel’s release and the creation of nine animated shorts to be distribbed on the Internet and one even theatrically

  • The possibility of releasing the third pic worldwide at the same hour of the same day.

The first “Matrix” in 1999 scared the hell out of the Daly-Semel regime, which capped its investment at $50 million and pulled in the Aussies at Village Roadshow to cover half of the $65 million production costs.

The payoff was huge, surprising everyone in Hollywood, and making all of those involved look brilliant, especially the Aussies.

The pic wound up with a worldwide B.O. tally of $458 million — impressive for any R-rated pic. Its DVD became an instant must-have and the first film to sell more than 1 million copies. It’s estimated to have sold over 5 million copies to date, bringing in roughly $100 million. “The Matrix: Revisited,” a DVD docu produced for less than $100,000, brought in an additional $20 million.

The film created a huge following, and its trademark “bullet-time” visuals showed up in endless film imitations and spoofs from “Charlie’s Angels” to “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.”

Other pic franchises achieved cult status after several sequels or advance buildup due to their books (e.g., “Harry Potter”) — but the “Matrix” pop culture phenom is based only on one film.

So it’s no surprise that the second and third installments, “The Matrix: Reloaded” and “The Matrix: Revolutions,” seem as close to a “sure thing” as you get — two words that strike fear into the hearts of every movie marketing man.

WB is naturally expected to run rings around the competish at the B.O., but everything associated with the pics, including DVDs, vidgames, animated shorts, online ticket sales and promotional partners like Cadillac, is expected to benefit and do brisk business.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Silver says. “I’ve never been involved with a piece of entertainment that everyone wants a piece of. You dream of having a picture like this that means something to people. People are so anxious to see it.”Every division at Warners is lavishing attention on the two sequels, stirring up quiet jealousy from execs on some of the studios’ other big pics, including Intermedia’s “Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines” and the “Harry Potter” franchise.

“The process of greenlighting ‘Matrix II’ and ‘III’ was much easier for me given the enormous success of ‘Matrix I,’ but the project was still Herculean in scope,” says Alan Horn, Warner Bros.’ prexy and chief operating officer. “It was beyond daunting and even the filmmakers (brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski) were surprised by its complexity.”

The Wachowskis were left alone during most of the production.

“The studio believes in the talent of the Wachowski brothers and that’s why we’re so invested in the process,” says Warners’ prexy of production Jeff Robinov, who repped the brothers at ICM before coming to the studio.

While the studio has elicited three movies from the geeky yet innovative Chicago brothers, whose appearance gives the word “discheveled” new meaning, one thing it will not get from them is any help with the press. The brothers stalwartly refuse interviews. It’s even in their contract. The reasons are unclear. One associate says it’s because they’re shy.

Another suggests they want to emulate Stanley Kubrick, a role model. “Kubrick never tried to explain himself, so neither will the Wachowskis,” he says.

Much of the films’ complexity involved the visuals. While “The Matrix” raised the bar for f/x (resulting in one of the pic’s four Oscar wins), the helmers, as well as f/x supervisor John Gaeta wanted to top themselves.

Shooting the sequels back-to-back in Australia made sense. Costs were lower Down Under, and keeping the production engine running for both pics helped cut costs further.

The films were supposed to be spread out over two years, with the first screened in 2002 and the third in 2003. But the thousands of f/x shots needed for both movies delayed the project until this year.

New technology needed to be invented for sequences described as so complex and expensive that “they will never be attempted again,” including a car chase that Silver calls “the most complicated sequence ever put on film.”

In another major scene, Keanu Reeves’ character fights over 100 copies of evil Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in a completely photo-realistic CG environment.

Complicating matters was the unexpected shuttering of Manex Entertainment, which produced the first pic’s f/x sequences.

WB came to the rescue, footing the $100 million needed to create not only the f/x, but also ESC Entertainment, a new f/x studio outside of San Francisco. The site houses the original Manex team, as well as former staffers from Industrial Light & Magic, Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Other shops scrambling to finish f/x shots in time for the sequels’ release dates: Imageworks, Tippett Studios, Cineffects, Buf Compagnie, The Orphanage, Pixel Liberation Front and Animal Logic.

Warners is trying to figure out whether to continue operating ESC once the two sequels are completed. The studio once briefly operated its own inhouse f/x studio before ankling that biz in 1996.

While Warners didn’t want to stress the f/x in its campaign for the “Harry Potter” pics, the studio isn’t taking the same position with “Reloaded” and “Revolutions.”

“We are not being as precious as we were about showing the f/x for Harry Potter because in that case, we didn’t want to destroy the magic or mystery for the kids,” says Dawn Taubin, prexy of domestic marketing, Warner Bros. Pictures. “Many people thought that ‘The Matrix’ took visual f/x to a new level and the core fans are expecting to see these movies raise the bar again. We didn’t feel we needed to hide that.”

Now that the sequels are nearing their release dates, Warners has kicked its marketing machine in high-gear, rewriting the rules of marketing and distribution.

“This time around we are trying to tap into all those people who didn’t go to see the first movie and are curious about the property,” says Sue Kroll, prexy of intl. marketing for Warner Bros. Pictures.

“Therein lies the pressure. It is now a huge property and it’s our job to manage it as effectively as we can through both films and maximize all of its various components.”

Up until the Super Bowl, Warners will have run what it calls its two-movie-sell, with print, broadcast, theatrical and Internet spots stressing that both pics hit theater screens in 2003 (first trailer bowed in front of “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones”). After that, however, it’s all about promoting “Reloaded” and “Revolutions” individually.

The second pic, which ends with a cliffhanger in the middle of a massive siege, will immediately be followed by a trailer for the third installment.

“The Matrix: Reloaded” bows May 15 and “The Matrix: Revolutions” in November. In recent sequel history, only Universal’s “Back to the Future II” and “III” were released within six months of each other. (The original pic hit theaters March 31, 1999.)

“Historically, the May period has provided the greatest launching pad for success” even for R-rated pics, says Dan Fellman, domestic distribution prexy for Warner Bros. Pictures.

Warners is also mulling the idea of releasing the sequels on a record number of screens, surpassing “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secret’s” 3,700 venues.

Internationally, Warners is moving ahead with plans to release “Reloaded” three weeks after it bows domestically, and make it the widest release for an R-rated movie overseas.

But fearing potential piracy, it’s thinking about releasing the third film in the same hour all around the world, which has never been done before. “It’s a very provocative idea,” says Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warners’ prexy of international distribution. “Piracy has definitely been a big issue for us in determining the release strategy.”

It’s also a logistical nightmare, considering time zones and the coordination involved.

The Wachowskis always conveived “The Matrix” as a trilogy, with the last two movies as one story told in two parts.

“Clearly it made sense, given the way they were conceived, to tighten that release window and release them closer together,” Taubin says.

With more tix being purchased online, Warners is mulling broadening the window for Internet sales and potentially selling tix for the sequels more than four weeks ahead of its release, which would be good news and a record for e-tailers like AOL Moviefone, Fandango.com and Movietickets.com. Theoretically, auds could potentially watch “Reloaded” and immediately buy tix for “Revolutions.”The rest of Warners’ strategy involves:

  • The DVDs: Besides rereleasing the first “Matrix” together with the docu “Revisited” in time for “Reloaded’s” debut, Warners isn’t planning anything new for the sequels’ DVDs. Second pic’s DVD will bow sometime in the fall, in order “to remind the audience of the saga since it’s really one movie,” according to Horn.

    Animated shorts: Warners plans to distrib nine animated shorts as part of a series called “The Animatrix.” Shorts are produced in the Japanese anime style. First four (each cost less than $1 million to create) begin bowing on the Internet in February, while the nine-minute “Flight of the Osiris” will be shown theatrically in front of “Dreamcatcher,” Castle Rock’s Stephen King thriller that Warners is distribbing in March. The shorts will be packaged onto a DVD in June.

  • The videogame: Most film-related vidgames don’t bow until the pic’s homevid release. But French gamemaker Infogrames is planning on distribbing a “Matrix” game day-and-date with ‘Reload” in May. Game features exclusive footage shot by the Wachowski brothers that stars Jada Pinkett Smith, along with other members of “The Matrix’s” cast. Plot points and characters cross over from an animated short to the vidgames to the movies.

  • Promotional partners: Warners has enlisted such heavyweights as General Motors, Samsung, Heineken, Ducatti motorcycles and Coca-Cola’s Powerade to help promote the pics. GM has had a promo partnership with Warners since 1999.

In another first, Warners execs say that the sequels’ filmmakers worked closely with the brands involved to come up with campaigns that work within the framework of the “Matrix” world.

The most notable partner by far is GM’s Cadillac division, with the company, who is trying to lure younger buyers with sleeker cars, planning to spend tens of millions in marketing. Pics, which include Cadillac’s new Escalade EXT and CTS models, represent the company’s biggest product placement and theatrical tie-in ever.

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