Agents of spin attack on multiple fronts

On paper, “The Da Vinci Code,” based on Dan Brown’s bestseller, “Casino Royale,” the latest installment of the lucrative James Bond franchise, and a drama starring box office favorite Will Smith look like easy sells.

In reality, that wasn’t the case for Sony’s marketing team.

“People thought (“Da Vinci”) was going to be very historical and quite religious,” says Valerie Van Galder, president of domestic marketing for Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. “One of our challenges was to manage the religious community and their concerns with the material, while positioning the film as a thriller and entertaining summer film.”

For “Casino,” the 21st outing of the spy series, the studio had to launch Daniel Craig as the new secret agent donning the tuxedo.

“We took great pains to make sure everything felt fresh and new and modern so we could start the 21st century with an exciting new Bond,” Van Galder says.

And while Smith may be one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, the thesp showed off his dramatic side in “The Pursuit of Happyness” instead of doling out the wisecracks audiences are used to from him in his comedies and action films.

“Will Smith is one of, if not the biggest star in Hollywood,” says Jeff Blake, chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution for the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group and vice chairman, Sony Pictures Entertainment. “Having him was a tremendous advantage. But it was a change of pace for Will. The marketing had to be balanced and an over-the-top campaign wouldn’t have fit.”

Aided by Smith’s appeal, Sony turned the drama into a $164 million hit, which went on to earn Smith an Oscar nomination.

Versatility across labels

Sony has successfully opened high-profile tentpoles as well as low-budget genre fare like Screen Gems’ “Underworld” series.

“The Da Vinci Code” and “Casino Royale” helped Sony earn a record $1.7 billion at the box office in 2006, ending the year at No. 1 in market share.

This summer, “Spider-Man 3″ and “Superbad” are expected to help the studio cross the $1 billion threshold for the sixth consecutive year, more than any other studio. Also in the record books: 47 No. 1 openings since 2002.

Sony attributes much of its marketing success to the merger of its domestic and international marketing groups shortly after Blake added marketing to his distribution stripes in 2000, overseeing releases from Columbia, TriStar, Sony Classics, Revolution Studios and Screen Gems.

“It became our No. 1 priority,” says Blake of folding the groups under one roof and making each pic’s campaign strategy look the same worldwide.

That means Blake and Van Galder are essentially in the same meetings as George Leon, exec VP, consumer marketing; Dwight Caines, exec VP, worldwide digital marketing strategy; Stefanie Napoli, senior VP of media; Josh Goldstine, prexy of creative advertising; Andre Caraco and Gigi Semone, exec VPs of publicity; and Mark Weinstock, Screen Gems’ exec VP of marketing.

“You’ve always got to have a great team,” Blake says. “We can handle anything Amy (Pascal) throws at us.”

Global thinking

Blake says the move helped the group work together to turn pics like “Da Vinci” into “worldwide events.” The concerted effort also was evident this summer when “Spider-Man 3″ held its premiere in Tokyo before bowing in the U.S.

“The world is getting smaller,” Van Galder says. “We have to coordinate and look at things on a more global perspective.”

Like many studios these days, Sony’s had some outside help.

Leon has been wrangling the marketing muscle of promotional partners for the studio’s tentpoles and smaller pics.

For “Talladega Nights,” Leon worked with NASCAR to bring aboard Sprint Nextel, Wonder Bread, Old Spice and Perrier as partners. “Casino Royale” boasted Sony electronics and Ford vehicles; “Ghost Rider” had tax preparer Jackson Hewitt backing it; Timex backed “Stranger Than Fiction.”

“Our workload has tripled,” Leon says of his job to enlist marketing partners. Where he used to tie in partners on three to five projects a year, he now brokers deals for 12 films annually. “It used to be that this activity was reserved for the tentpole films. Now it’s become so important to fire on all of our plugs. There’s always the right partner for the right project.”

To a point. Blake stresses that while the studio supports such deals, “There’s a line between promotion of a film and overkill.”

Sony’s marketing team still has some issues to work out. At the top of the list is how to market its animated films.

“Open Season,” the first to bow out of Sony Pictures Animation in 2006, earned $84 million. But its follow-up, “Surf’s Up,” failed to hang ten with consumers, collecting $58.4 million domestically. The feature cost some $100 million to make.

“Everyone worked hard on it,” says Van Galder, “but it was in a really competitive summer. Everything around it was big. With animated films, you have to get kids in a lather. You have to eventize it. We’re still learning.”

“I think we’re heading in the right direction with animation,” Blake says, adding that “Surf’s Up” got caught in a tough spot.

“The branded product certainly seemed to have an edge.”

Studio also stumbled with dramas “Freedomland,” “Running With Scissors” and Oscar hopeful “All the King’s Men” — pics that didn’t get the critical support they needed to play well.

On a brighter note, Sony’s marketing team is looking forward to next year’s crop of pics, which could essentially be a repeat of 2006. The slate features the same players — another James Bond adventure, Tom Hanks in a second Dan Brown adaptation, Will Ferrell in laffer “Step Brothers,” Adam Sandler in the comedy “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” and Smith in the superhero pic “Hancock.”

“We know all the players,” Van Galder says. “It’s great because you have a familiarity with the people. There’s a comfort level. Because all of (the past) movies were giant successes, everyone’s enthusiastic to work together again.”

But each film will still provide its challenges, no matter how much the talent helps make them appealing to potential audiences.

“You have one weekend and you’ve got to make a lot of noise really quickly, and you’ve got to get the entire country to leave their houses over the same three-day period to justify the marketing expenses,” Van Galder says. “Marketing a movie is never easy.”

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