ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S most popular downloads last week was a trailer for a film that doesn’t exist.
“Brokeback to the Future,” a short video clip circulating through the blogosphere, is a daffy, unsanctioned edit of “Back to the Future,” scored with the plaintive “Brokeback” soundtrack and cut in such a way as to suggest a Romeo and Juliet-style romance between Marty McFly and Doc Brown. It’s the latest in a long succession of counterfeit “Brokeback” ads that have popped up online (my favorite being a one-sheet for “Dumbf**k Mountain,” in which Bush and Cheney play Ennis and Jack).
All this fake advertising is the product of a cultural phenomenon that’s kept “Brokeback Mountain” galloping through the national psyche well into the last weeks of the Oscar race.
Ang Lee’s star-crossed ranch hands have tapped into the zeitgeist. They’ve become what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls a meme: an idea or image that replicates itself in the cultural DNA of cyberspace.
THE WEB IS AWASH in memes and fake ads — a source of occasional anxiety to advertisers. Last year Volkswagen had to bat down rumors that it was responsible for a commercial circulating online in which a suicide bomber blows himself up inside a VW hatchback (the car sustains the explosion without so much as a scratch).
But such ads can be a windfall for studios. Most studio campaigns, after all, function like ads for a President’s Day sale at Bloomingdale’s. The goal is to open the movie on a particular date. An Oscar campaign is more like a run for office, a cross between a beauty pageant and a triathlon, requiring a level of ingenuity and stamina most studio offerings do without.
Take “Capote,” which opened Sept. 30 and went wide on Feb. 3. That’s 133 days. Sony Classics’ strategy was to keep a consistent focus on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance while running just enough TV spots during the fall to build momentum into awards season.
There were no guns in the first ads for “Capote,” but when the film went wide, it was sold as murder mystery, with ads on basketball games and wrestling shows. “We found it performed better in cities with high murder rates, with good runs in Detroit and Houston,” Sony Classics co-topper Tom Bernard told me.
“Crash,” which opened on some 1,800 screens in early May, remained on more than 130 screens in early September. Its longevity owes something to its highly diversified marketing plan, which used a succession of one-sheets and an outdoor campaign to highlight different emotionally charged moments among the film’s ensemble .
IN PREVIOUS YEARS, THE FILMS nominated for best picture have been positioned one way for consumers and another way for the Academy. “Once you’re in the Oscar game, you leave the jokes behind and go for texture and the weightiness of the themes,” one marketing exec told me.
Hence the campaign for “Chicago,” which treated the film the way a French butcher might treat a side of beef, serving up a half-dozen renditions of the musical, each positioned for a different audience. First it was sold as a true-crime story, then as a full-blown Broadway spectacle, then, in the final weeks of the Oscar campaign, as a high-minded meditation on the role of media in American society.
This year, however, most of the best picture nominees got the prestige sell from day one. Steven Spielberg didn’t even do interviews before “Munich” opened, holding out for the kind of Time magazine treatment usually accorded the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The official campaign for “Brokeback” has been fairly consistent, placing its emphasis on both the intimacy of Jack and Ennis’ relationship and the epic sweep of the narrative canvas.
Focus Features has also kept its eye on the two audience segments they hoped would provide a base of support even in the flyover states.
“The female audience and the gay audience were the core audiences from day one,” Focus marketing prexy David Brooks told me. “Because the movie became part of the zeitgeist and thanks to the awards attention, it’s now a movie everyone is showing up for.”