How to turn 'problem' chatter into B.O., award gold

When the industry sees a forthcoming pic as weighed down with baggage, it can take marketing savvy — and a little luck — to overcome those lowered expectations and stay competitive at year’s end.

The granddaddy of prediction confounders, “Titanic,” boded in late 1997 to sink and take a couple of studios with it. Then, barely three months later, “Cameron’s Folly” prevailed as king of the world at wickets and kudofests alike.

And “Titanic” is only the tip of the iceberg. Every year, pix exuding a problematic aura manage, through careful handling, to achieve a tipping point of critical and popular acceptance and go on to figure in the awards derby.

Last fall, Paramount’s decision to shutter Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” from fat awards season to February’s slimmer pickings set off a tuning fork of apprehension. But Megan Colligan, co-prexy of Par marketing, brooked no fears about the pic’s quality or viability.

“This was a business decision,” she says. “Sometimes, there’s the onus on a film to try to run an awards campaign at the same time you’re running a commercial campaign. In some ways, it simplifies things if you can concentrate on selling tickets to a mainstream entertainment.”

Scorsese’s “Island” became the celebrated helmer’s all-time highest grosser and remains in the hunt for top honors, especially for star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Through Warner Bros.’ robust campaigns and critical enthusiasm, DiCaprio’s “Inception” quickly shook off long-standing rumors of a $200 million cerebral art film, while “The Town” defied any notion of a sophomore slump for helmer Ben Affleck in the wake of “Gone Baby Gone.”

Sometimes it’s a feature’s legs, not quality, that’s in doubt. “Winter’s Bone” was strongly reviewed and walked off with the top Sundance prize, but its prospects were by no means assured.

“It was a movie without stars, set in the middle of the country with poor people, and yes, it’s bleak,” Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen confesses. “Even at Sundance, people would say, ‘God, it’s a great movie, but is anyone going to see it?’ “

Yet “Bone” avoided the typical indie road of a few playdates and quick DVD turnaround. Distrib exploited what Cohen calls “its genre elements. On some level it’s a murder mystery, with (heroine) Ree a Sam Spade character in the backwoods. … The reality was, it was a very satisfying drama with a great central performance (by Jennifer Lawrence), and people found it to be unusual when they saw it.”

Long runs in middle American markets like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Cleveland led to an October homevid release, well-poised to capture voters’ attention.

Even better reviewed — with 98% approval on Rotten Tomatoes — was DreamWorks Animation’s 3D adventure “How to Train Your Dragon,” which won its first week but with a $43.3 gross considered soft in light of expectations. Any sales team might reassess its options, but marketing president Anne Globe never wavered.

“We knew it was a very special movie,” Globe says in describing the decision to support “Dragon” on two post-opening fronts. “First, it was keeping the pedal to the media metal, emphasizing that our picture was the first choice of want-to-see and bringing out the audience excitement. Then, we were able to ride the continuous flow of critical accolades into the next weeks.”

Fueled by exceptional word of mouth, the epic barely dropped over two skeins, hit the No. 2 slot in week four and was back on top seven days later. Now it’s frequently mentioned in the same breath as “Toy Story 3″ as a favored contender, not just for best animated feature but for a berth in the Academy’s picture slate of 10.

“It’s a testament to the film’s playability,” says Globe, noting wryly, “it’s in no one’s marketing plan to hit No. 1 in week five. But there was a real kind of discovery about it. The audience felt a sense of ownership about the movie.”

No 2010 debut carried more potential animus than political thriller “The Ghost Writer,” whose release was no less charged than the pic itself. Helmer Roman Polanski nabbed the Berlin Film Fest’s Silver Bear for direction, while languishing under house arrest in Switzerland.

Little of the highly favorable “Ghost Writer” press failed to mention Polanski’s legal woes and rehash what caused them, yet opinions differ as to the controversy’s net impact. Producer Robert Benmussa, in daily supportive contact with the filmmaker, remembers “a very difficult period. Not having the director available to promote the movie was a huge disadvantage. It wasn’t a plus, that’s for sure.”

Yet to Nancy Kirkpatrick, president of worldwide marketing for Summit Entertainment, the noise was “utterly irrelevant. Research indicated people don’t choose to see or not see a movie based on legal issues. It was really the quality of the filmmaking that’s so memorable. It’s haunting, and it’s hard to get out of your head” (a condition she surely hopes will afflict award voters).

And from the sidelines, Roadside’s Cohen believes it may have worked in Polanski’s favor. The exec thinks the brouhaha “gave it a little frisson of something, a curiosity factor, a little notoriety, that helped to raise the profile. Of course, if he hadn’t made a good movie it wouldn’t have helped at all.”

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