The roughest meetings I ever attended during my studio days were not about making movies, but rather about selling them. They weren’t debates; they were more like wars.
When I started working at Paramount, the ad guys hated “Harold and Maude” so ferociously that the movie opened with no campaign at all — just a sort of tombstone ad. The film became a cult classic anyway, which doesn’t necessarily mean the sales guys are always wrong and the so-called “creative” types are always right.
All this comes to mind now that a new regime has taken over at Universal, led by two men whose backgrounds are in advertising and distribution. Marc Shmuger and David Linde doubtless will try to make films they know how to sell. But, paradoxically, one of the first they’re releasing (albeit inherited) is particularly a tough one.
“American Dreamz” needs a bold and brash campaign. Instead, Universal has provided a wussy one — the sort that makes you question whether major studios can really foster films that wander out of the mainstream.
When it comes to subject matter, “American Dreamz” would seem to be highly promotable: It’s about the pop-culture fixation on “American Idol.” It’s about Simon Cowell. It’s about Iraq. It’s about the Bush presidency.
OK, it’s about too many things, and a lot of the jokes don’t work. In fact, the movie as a whole reminded me of the late Billy Wilder’s final cycle of movies. The satire is biting, the characters are nasty and the experience as a whole is something between an acid bath and a cold shower, but exhilarating anyway.
The film was written and directed by Paul Weitz, who with his brother, Chris, gave us a delightful film last year called “In Good Company.” The studio had no idea how to sell that one either.
If you look back at movies like “Election,” “Rushmore” or “Wag the Dog,” you don’t exactly come away with a highlight reel of great campaigns. Indeed, studios often seem downright intimidated by intelligent movies. Or eccentric ones.
I remember one sales meeting at MGM years ago when the CEO decided to change the title of Barbra Streisand’s rather bizarre movie, “Yentl,” on the grounds that it made the film sound “too Jewish.” Streisand went ballistic. “The movie is about Jewish people,” she explained in a voice that cracked the chandelier.
Idiosyncratic movies need zealous supporters. Joel Silver is often parodied for his action films, but I admire the way he puts his (formidable) heft behind projects as diverse as “The Matrix,” Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and, most recently, “V for Vendetta.” That doesn’t mean they’re great films, but he saw to it they were bold campaigns.
Harvey Weinstein, of course, initially put Miramax into the big time through his relentless (and imaginative) support of early films like “The Crying Game” and “My Left Foot” and by morphing films that might have been marginalized into the mainstream — “Shakespeare in Love,” for example. For that matter, DreamWorks came of age with its inspired promotion of “American Beauty.”
The job of selling “Spider-Man 3” won’t require the services of a creative genius. On the other hand, Fox Searchlight’s work in building an audience for “Sideways” was downright inspired, as was the Lionsgate campaign for “Crash.”
Should the studios dispatch all their “special” pictures to their “specialty” labels? Maybe, but a substantial number of filmmakers now suspect that these units increasingly are intent on making the very same studio films that their corporate parents are turning out, but at lower budgets. The unexpected success of “Brokeback Mountain” or “March of the Penguins” has persuaded the corporate Brahmins that there’s gold in what used to be called “art movies.”
All this puts even more pressure on those ad and marketing teams whose job it is to transform modest films into tentpoles. But, again, look back at projects like “Election” or “In Good Company” and you discover a more downbeat scenario — namely, innovative films that were diminished by bland, by-the-numbers campaigns.
“American Dreamz,” with all its flaws, deserves a better fate. “Harold and Maude” deserved one, too. It took about 10 years before the audience finally was allowed to discover the movie. That’s a long wait.