Nearly a year ago, the nation’s movie theaters were floundering and exhibitors were fearful that moviegoing could become a relic of the past. Sure, there were occasional big-screen hits, like “A Quiet Place Part II” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” but even those films weren’t bringing in pre-pandemic ticket sales and nothing was getting people really, truly excited about going to the movies. (Remember, this was before “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and, later, “Top Gun: Maverick” swooped in to save the day.)
So AMC Theatres, the country’s largest cinema chain, took matters into its own hands. Rather than waiting for Hollywood studios to release the Next Big Thing, the company wrote a check for $25 million and set out to craft an advertisement to promote movie theaters rather than just movies. To convey its message, AMC turned to Nicole Kidman, the Oscar-winner who endeared herself to audiences through crowd-pleasers, dark thrillers and tear-jerkers like “Moulin Rouge,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Hours.”
Kidman enthusiastically took the job, and for reasons that still appear to be unclear to him, turned to her friend, screenwriter Billy Ray. At her request, he penned a 60-second spot to wax poetic about the “magic” of the movies and that “indescribable feeling we get when the lights begin to dim and we go somewhere we’ve never been before.”
Initially, the plan was to run the spot between the onslaught of trailers and the main event… at least, until attendance at AMC picked up again.
And then, something incredible happened.
Moviegoers didn’t just tolerate the ad, they fell in love. For those who hadn’t committed the script to memory, some helpful patrons handed out printed copies so fellow theater-goers could recite the dialogue with Kidman. Grown men stood up to salute the screen, while others made T-shirts emblazoned with Kidman’s stoic face and the ad’s most famous line, “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” When AMC later attempted to shorten the commercial, fans created a change.org petition, urging the chain to restore the full-length version.
Ray, who counts the Oscar-nominated “Captain Phillips” and the billion-dollar blockbuster “The Hunger Games” among his credits, calls the spot “by far the most viewed thing I’ve ever written in my life.”
AMC’s CEO Adam Aron, too, has referred to the campaign as “the best work of my career.”
As the ad celebrates its one-year anniversary, Ray spoke with Variety about writing the already-iconic prose… and his idea for the sequel.
How did this collaboration come about?
I worked with Nicole before [on 2015’s “Secret in Their Eyes”] and, obviously, I was a fan and admirer and friend. She had been asked by AMC to do an ad and wanted my help with it. I said, “OK,” of course, because it’s Nicole. She connected me to the team that was going to be producing it, Jeff and Tim Cronenweth, who are extraordinary. And I went to work and started sending in drafts and got it to a place where everybody was happy.
Why do you think Nicole thought of you?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask her. I think she knows movies aren’t just my job. They’re also my passion and my hobby.
What did they tell you about the concept of the ad before you started writing?
That it was basically going to be Nicole looking amazing and walking into a movie theater. I knew the idea had to be welcoming people back to the cinematic experience after too much time away.
Can you talk about your writing process? Do you write chronologically, or do certain lines come to you and then you build around them?
In this case, I had to start from the beginning. But, I will say that line, “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this,” I knew that was staying, for sure. It’s kind of my favorite line I ever wrote in my life.
How long did it take you to write the entire ad?
The first version probably took 15 minutes, and then five minutes two or three times after that [for revisions]. You start with a fundamental assumption about movies, which is that everybody who works in movies, we are there to service stars and make them look, sound and feel right. That’s what the makeup people, hair people, costume people are there to do. But, particularly in a vehicle like this, what you’re selling to the audience is: “Come back to the movies, and you’ll get to see people like Nicole Kidman.” Then, it is all about… what is going to sound great coming from her? And, of course, what is going to be true to the universal experience of going to see a movie?
Audiences have really latched onto the line “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” How did it come to you?
I was trying to think, “What do I so cherish about the movie-going experience?” And, “Why is it so important for people to hear stories along with 1,000 other strangers?” And what occurred to me was there are certain cathartic experiences that movies provide for us. We see our characters go through hell, and we get to cry about that. There’s something very cleansing about it because it feels bad. But it doesn’t feel like what they’re feeling. They’re walking through the feeling for us. They’re walking through the devastation for us. And, so, our heartbreak does feel good in a place like that.
Did any movies inspire that line?
No, Nicole inspired that line. Nicole inspired every word I wrote.
But were there any specific movies that you recall making you think yes, heartbreak does feel good in a place like this?
Too many of them. It’s an experience that I’ve had so many times, and I’ve seen the people I care about have so many times.
When did you realize the ad had become so popular?
About a week or two after it debuted. This is by far the most viewed thing I’ve ever written in my life. I mean, by far, there’s nothing close. It’s been seen by hundreds of millions of people. But about two weeks after, the chairman of AMC started writing me saying, “OK, there’s a reaction out there that we did not anticipate. People are starting to talk back to the screen. People are calling out the lines.” He started tracking it because he was seeing on-the-ground data. And he was having people report back to him about his theaters. Then, I started to notice on Twitter, like, “Whoa, people are tweeting about this. That image of Nicole is everywhere.” Someone on Twitter was wearing a T-shirt with the image [of Nicole] and the line “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this.” I ordered 10 of them. If I wore the T-shirt, people would point at it and go, “Oh my god, I love that thing.” It was just sort of everywhere. It’s the first ad I’ve ever written in my life that wasn’t for a politician. And those I do for free. So, I don’t know how to top it.
Why do you think it resonated in such a big way?
Because people need movie stars. And people need movies. And they didn’t realize how much they missed those two things until they got to go back. Something about Nicole as a representative of that. She’s such a pure movie star. God, that was a good idea to put her in the spot. My hat is off to AMC.
Have you and Nicole been in touch since the commercial has taken off?
I write to her like every three months saying, “Can you believe this?” And she writes back, “No” with 100 exclamation points. We’re both just really tickled. And so is the director and the producer and, happily, so is AMC. So we’re going to do another one.
When did AMC approach you about writing a second commercial? Are you worried about recapturing its lightning-in-a-bottle success?
About three weeks ago they asked, and of course, the answer was yes. For me, you don’t try to top it. You don’t try to duplicate it. You do something very different that has a little bit of a wink toward the original. It acknowledges the iconic nature of the original, but it doesn’t try to [recapture] it.
Will any other movie stars be joining Nicole?
If I have my way, they will.
Nobody that I would tell you about, Rebecca.
Did Nicole give you any notes on the original script?
Where does this rank among your favorite Nicole Kidman performances?
It’s got stiff competition. The top of the top is what she did in “The Others,” which is a performance that is otherworldly. But what I would say about her performance in this… she knew where the target was, and she hit it. It’s crazy.
Have you been to an AMC Theater to experience the spot yourself?
Yes, it was in Los Angeles. I saw the Pixar film “Lightyear.”
Did you get a good audience? Were they hyped for the ad?
Did a part of you want to scream, “I wrote this!”?
There were also 30-second and 15-second versions of the commercial. Was it difficult to pare down the script?
An editor did that. They didn’t ask for different versions of the script. They made their own cuts, and I was pretty thrilled the audience wanted the longer version. It’s kind of like when [Francis Ford] Coppola released the director’s cut of “Apocalypse Now.” In the case of “Apocalypse Now,” everyone thought the longer version was terrible. This was amazing. They tried to do a cut version, and everybody flipped out and said, “Give it back to us in full!”
Was there an even longer version that got scaled down to what audiences have seen?
I don’t think so. We were pretty careful about timing it as I was writing.
You recently tweeted, in reference to your movie “Shattered Glass,” “There’s no credit in my career of which I am more proud.” Does that include the AMC ad?
Well, I put it in a separate bucket. It may be the thing that makes my obituary one line longer.
Between this, “Captain Phillips” and “The Hunger Games,” you’ve written a lot of iconic one-liners. Can you rank “I am the captain now,” “I volunteer as tribute” and “Somehow, heartbreak feels good in a place like this” in terms of their cultural impact?
Well, I can’t take credit for “I volunteer as tribute” because that was in the book. We’ll have to see if the “heartbreak” line hangs in there as long as “I’m the captain now.” I’m not sure yet. Let’s do a follow up interview in three years.
Before Nicole’s ad aired, Vin Diesel attempted to make a similar spot about the magic of the movies tied to the release of “F9.” Why do you think it failed to catch on in the same way?
Because he’s not Nicole. You cannot overstate the power of movie stars. They just matter.
Have you already written the second commercial?
I’ve written it, but I haven’t sent it in yet.
Can you describe it in three words?
I think those three words would be I’m not telling.