BACK IN THE 1950S, when New York was the epicenter of the advertising world, Mad Magazine published a catchy jingle about a Madison Avenue huckster.“See his funny tight suit. See his funny hair cut. Hear his funny stomach turn. Churn, churn, churn. The ad man has a funny ulcer.” It’s a description certain to resonate with studio ad execs — forgetting for a moment that half of Hollywood’s marketing departments are run by women — especially now, in the wake of a truly ulcerous summer movie season. Marketers have suffered through week after disappointing week of flaccid tracking and flagging box office grosses. “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” is the only movie thus far to reach the magic $300 million mark; few will even reach $200 million. Things went from bad to worse this month, when Sony and DreamWorks released two of the year’s biggest flops, “The Island” and “Stealth.” These movies were so expensive and so unsuccessful, that rival marketing mavens have found it hard to muster even the usual level of schadenfreude. It’s hard to blame them. Marketers get none of the credit for a studio’s successes, and all of the blame for its failures. Talking about what went wrong this summer makes everyone queasy. Mike Greenfeld, a founding partner of ad firm the Ant Farm had only this to say: “Nobody is happy for anyone else’s failures. There’s no glee. It’s not good for any of us. We want everyone to succeed at this point. We all need the movie business to work. “ “STEALTH” AND “THE ISLAND” had similar marketing problems. In both cases, production executives handed the marketing departments a difficult, if not impossible, task. Neither movie had the brand equity of, say, “Star Wars” or “The Fantastic Four” or a contagious, big-canvas concept like “The Day After Tomorrow” or “Bruce Almighty.” And neither had quite the star power of “War of the Worlds” or “The Longest Yard.” These aren’t elements that can be manufactured in the marketing campaign. It’s no surprise that both suffered from sketchy tracking. “Awareness trailed signicantly on both films, and ‘want-to-see’ was flat,” one research expert told me. In situations like that, studios tend to triple their research; they cut more trailers and TV ads in a desperate attempt to find an angle that works. But there’s a downside to all that testing. The ad blitzes for “The Island” and “Stealth” were full of mixed messages: Were these dramas or romantic thrillers or techno-thrillers? What were they about? The titles were inscrutable, as were the vaguely ominous taglines, “Fear the Sky” and “Plan Your Escape.” Say what you will about “Wedding Crashers,” which trounced both films at the box office; its title and taglines (“Hide Your Bridesmaids,” for example) were perfectly clear. IN VEGAS they call it gambler’s ruin. On Wall Street it’s called blowing up. You’ve committed so much money to a disastrous bet or investment that recovery is impossible. You’re wiped out. That’s pretty much what happens when a tentpole flops. It’s been greenlit with a huge P&A budget — much of it committed up front — and a prime release date, carefully coordinated with promotional partners, and designed to serve as the optimal platform for the studio’s coming attractions. By the time it’s clear the movie’s a dud, it’s too late to change course or stanch the bleeding. Faced with a disastrous opening for “Stealth” and “The Island,” DreamWorks and Sony could not have cut their losses. The marketing campaigns were already in place. Half of “Stealth” was screened at ShoWest; half of “The Island” was screened at an early junket at the Academy HQ; they even gave away free sneakers. Both movies opened ultra-wide, “Stealth” on 3,495 screens, “The Island” on 3,122. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when a big movie founders, you can’t change course. In fact, it actually makes financial sense to keep spending against it. If you’ve already invested north of $120 million making the movie, and the marketing budget is greater than $40 million, there’s no real benefit in canceling your premiere or pulling a flight of TV ads in the last two weeks, which might save you $8 million to $10 million at best, while atomizing the last vestige of your opening weekend audience. Better to hold your head high and hope the audience comes. Even “Gigli” had a premiere. I was there. It wasn’t pretty. But at the time, I remember thinking about a book publisher I know who once gave me some marketing advice I’ll never forget: If you’re throwing a Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people and you drop the turkey on the floor when nobody’s looking, you don’t cancel the dinner. You wipe it off and serve it with all the trimmings.
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