Studios' marketing mojo builds a sameness into every film

Controversy sells. Films including “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain” have proven that public debate can work wonders at the box office.

But those films were released by indies or studio specialty arms. The public may be demonstrating a bigger appetite for topical fare, but the major studios still seem to have trouble selling it to them.

When studios have films that could provoke strong reactions, their instinct has been to head off controversy before it starts.

Teams of consultants are marshaled and potential critics are solicited for input, all while the studio proclaims that it isn’t taking a particular stand with the film. If all goes well, the storm (real or imagined) passes.

The variation in approach is, in part, one of differing institutional cultures. Studios are playing with much bigger stakes and often on a much bigger stage. Star names bring built-in attention. And the first order of business is to avoid alienating auds or corporate shareholders.

Major-studio marketers often resent comparisons to their specialty brethren, who, without big TV budgets and high-priced talent, are tempted to pick fights for attention. “We don’t have to do those things. We live in a different world,” says one major exec. “They’re taking a small thing and making it big — we’re taking a big thing and trying to make it bigger.”

Allan Mayer of Sitrick & Co., which has been hired by studios to help manage their potentially politically prickly pics, says, “It’s not that big studios don’t like controversy. What they fear is a controversy that gets out of control. And controversy gets out of control when people start using a movie as a tennis ball in their own match.”

By contrast, the name of the game in the specialty arena is building an audience, a niche marketing approach that may involve turning off some people.

“A primary model of ours is to find pictures we can market and distribute to a niche audience,” says Lionsgate prexy Tom Ortenberg. “Once we’re satisfied that we’ve reached that niche, we try to broaden it. At the same time, we try to be sure not to overreach. We don’t want to risk turning the picture into nothing for everyone.”

Consider two of last year’s success stories: Lionsgate was aggressive in promoting best picture Oscar winner “Crash” as a meditation on the current state of racial relations, showing the pic to auds in places such as the NAACP annual meeting.

And while some suspected Focus might soft-pedal the gay-romance angle in its materials for “Brokeback Mountain,” its upfront approach led to the film being adopted by those who advocate greater social acceptance of gay relationships.

Then consider the campaign for the 2004 “The Day After Tomorrow.” When the Roland Emmerich tentpole was embraced by environmentalists as a global-warming warning, 20th Century Fox execs kept the supporters at arm’s length. The studio declined to either support or repudiate the groups, lest liberal advocacy for the film turn into a political football for various political factions.

Josh Baran, a consultant who worked with MoveOn.org and Al Gore to capitalize on “Tomorrow” and is consulting for Paramount Classics’ release of Gore’s doc “An Inconvenient Truth,” argues that corporate culture is also at work. “The bigger side of the studio feels more accountable to leadership and boards of directors, and the specialty units feel more independent,” he contends.

In its release plans for “The Da Vinci Code,” Sony is favoring question marks instead of bold statements. The contents of the book are well known, since “Code” has become a runaway bestseller, with author Dan Brown saying he believes in the secret history of Christianity that his novel portrays.

But Sony and Imagine have been pushing “Code” as a simple thriller, trying to mollify Catholics who hold a hostile view of the book.

As one exec close to the film deadpans, “It’s an entertaining thriller. The reason Sony and Imagine are making this movie is not to advance the notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a kid.”

Sony spokesman Jim Kennedy says, ” ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is a work of fiction, and at its heart, it’s a thriller, not a religious tract or historical documentary. We know the novel and its story have inspired debate and discussion about history and religion, and we agree with many religious leaders that the release of the film can provide a unique opportunity to educate people about their work and beliefs.”

The studio has set up a Web site, TheDaVinciDialogue.com, where Christian groups can have their say on the film.

Despite there being 40 million copies of the book in print, Sony and Imagine are keeping every minor detail of the film a secret. Media interest in the historical theories behind the book, however, has only been stoked by the pic’s May 19 day-and-date global release, two days after its world preem at Cannes.

The thriller-not-heresy PR strategy is having some curious results. Time recently did a “Code”-themed cover package, looking inside the secretive Opus Dei society that plays a central role in Brown’s book. The mag got the secret society to open up; members insist they are normal people, not maniacal conspirators.

But helmer Ron Howard wouldn’t even tell the magazine whether the sect is mentioned in the film. He first says, “Yeah, Opus Dei is in the movie,” then immediately adds, “I don’t say it in the movie one way or the other.”

Baran says, “At the end of the day, you’ll find that if the movie makes $300 million, everyone will say they’re brilliant. But if it doesn’t work, you could say that by running away from the controversy, they also ran away from the ticket sales.”

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