Specialty marketers have bad fall

Big strategies don't translate to arthouse fare

Marketers of specialty pictures have had a difficult run this fall, despite the fact that they’ve stolen a few pages from the tentpole playbook.

They’ve tried wide releases of art movies. They’ve injected more stars into the equation. They’ve stepped up their ad budgets, sometimes to the point of profligacy.

Yet none of this has worked — at least not up to expectations. And expectations are important because much of the specialty product comes out under studio-owned labels such as Vantage, Searchlight or Focus. That means corporate numbers guys apply their criteria to a business they don’t really understand.

So given these problems, the specialty units should consider one further strategy that has worked for the tentpole business — namely, sequels and threequels. If sequels about pirates and comicbook superheroes work so well, why not try them in the arthouses?

Consider the following:

  •  “Crash II”: Those confused folk are still banging into each other in downtown L.A., trying to figure out the meaning of life, so why not move them all to New York and give them another movie to deconstruct?

  •  “The Passion of the Christ II”: Jesus has made enough return appearances, so why shouldn’t Mel?

  •  “Brokeback Mountain II”: The Heath Ledger character surely could resolve his ambiguities in another 2½hours of post-Gyllenhaal relationships.

  •  “Boogie Nights II”: Well-endowed and newly incentivized, the Mark Wahlberg character was just coming into his own in the original.

Other sequel opportunities suggest themselves: “Pulp Non-fiction”; “More Sex, Bigger Lies and Much More Videotape”; “Crouching Tigers Meet Dragons Who Come Out of Hiding”; and, of course, “Sideways II,” when everyone finally switches to vodka.

I realize that a few arthouse sequels flopped so badly in the past that they’ve been relegated to the junk heap, but that shouldn’t prevent yet another stab at sequels like “Blair Witch III” or “My Big Fat Greek Bar Mitzvah.”

Talented filmmakers tend to abjure sequels, but we should remind them of certain verities. After all, The Gods Must Be Crazier, and Shakespeare will forever be in Love.

All right, I realize the problems of the specialty sector are not a joking matter, but I’m also impatient with pundit analyses of the situation. Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times last week reiterated the standard management excuses — too much product resulting from too many hedge funds.

That’s fine and good, but aren’t we letting some highly paid marketers off the hook?

Here’s a more credible explanation: a badly front-loaded release schedule that pushed too many terrorist-themed films into competition with one another. Why were all those Meryl Streep, Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones films bunched together? Will audiences really be able to choose between “Redacted” and “Rendition?” Or between “There Will Be Blood” and “Savages?”

Scrutinizing those few films that survived the fall brings up some other interesting questions. Take “Across the Universe,” a film that opened without screenings, parties or publicity — just a bad buzz suggesting that neither the production entity (Revolution) nor the distributor (Sony) approved of Julie Taymor’s final cut.

When I finally saw the movie after several inquiries, Sony’s security officers seemed so suspicious that I would visit the studio to see the Beatles picture that my trunk was carefully inspected and my credentials reviewed. The message: Why the hell are you wasting your time seeing “Across the Universe”?

By the way, I thought the movie was remarkable (unlike my Variety critic). I also wondered why it was kept a secret. Others seem to agree with me: It’s grossed $21 million.

So there’s hope out there for some non-tentpoles, after all. It comes down to the old challenge: We need some more good movies.

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