[via Mike Kuciak, from The New Yorker]
Tim Palen wants his core audience to feel that a film is theirs, one marketer says: “He gives them content that feels bloggy and street.”
Letter from California
Inside a movie marketer’s playbook.
by Tad Friend
One night in mid-October, as the movie executive Tim Palen looked on with panoramic vigilance, a roar from jostling photographers seemed to freeze Josh Brolin’s grin in place. Brolin plays George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s “W.,” a Lionsgate film that was having its première, and he was making such halting progress down the red carpet outside Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theatre that he seemed to be still in character. Palen, who is Lionsgate’s co-president of theatrical marketing—the studio’s resident promotional genius—had been working for months to make people care about “W.,” a film that didn’t have an obvious audience; indeed, the film’s subject, in the intense focus on the Presidential election and the economic crash, had all but disappeared. This evening would be a kind of sardonic resurrection: a few yards away on the red carpet, James Cromwell (who plays George H. W. Bush) was slyly telling an interviewer, “I play Dennis Kucinich,” and Richard Dreyfuss (Dick Cheney) was posing in a green velvet jacket that made clear he was no Republican.
When Brolin spotted Palen, his fixed grin became a real smile. He mimed opening a magazine with an expression of amazement, then rushed over and gave the marketer a hug. Brolin and Oliver Stone had taped an appearance on “Charlie Rose” earlier that day, and Rose had surprised the actor with a photograph that showed him yawning, flamboyantly, across a full page of the latest Newsweek. Palen, an accomplished photographer, had taken the picture in a session that also produced the film’s posters. Newsweek ran a lengthy essay about “W.,” which concluded that the film was, “surprisingly, more or less fair.” This had been Oliver Stone’s goal—and was now Tim Palen’s problem. His job was not to encapsulate the film’s artistry but, rather, to insist to a busy, jaded, and suspicious audience that “W.” would really stir them up. As Tom Ortenberg, Lionsgate’s president of theatrical films, told me, he had said at a marketing meeting, “Who wants to see an evenhanded editorial think piece from Oliver Stone?”
Publicity is selling what you have: the film’s stars and sometimes its director. Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have; it’s the art of the tease. A première lets the marketing and publicity teams join in a final effort to “eventize” a film, to move it to the top of the nation’s long to-do list. Many premières feel slack and dutiful, but this one had the fizz of a genuine event. Lionsgate, which, together with “W.” ’s other investors, spent about three hundred thousand dollars on the début—three times its usual outlay—later reckoned that coverage on “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood” and in dozens of other outlets was worth more than a million dollars in advertising.
Palen, in silence, watched the parade of stars until Thandie Newton, the British actress who plays Condoleezza Rice, came by and he reached out to clasp her hand. “I’m such a groupie,” Palen sheepishly acknowledged after Newton glided on. “I’m a fourteen-year-old girl. But having a girl’s viewing habits”—he is devoted to “The Hills” and “Project Runway”—“actually comes in very handy.”
Palen, who is forty-seven, has a shaved head, a graying beard, and the bulging, tattooed arms of a steamfitter. Usually he wears jeans and a hoodie, but this evening he was in a black Prada suit, a black Prada shirt, and black Prada shoes: his première outfit. His uncommon mixture of traits—he is warm, incisive, competitive, loyal, and catty—makes him fun to be around, even at premières, where he often feels anxious and out of place. When Michael Pitt, an actor who was in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” ambled past in a ratty military jacket, Palen said, “I see he got dressed up. Headache and the Angry Itch.”
You have to have some of that spitballer’s attitude to do Palen’s job; you have to love a ruckus. Even as movie attendance has dropped nineteen per cent from its peak of 1.6 billion theatregoers, in 2002, the number of films released each year since then has increased by thirty per cent. A dozen new films—three of them big studio releases—now vie for attention on any given weekend. To cut through the ambient noise, major studios spend an average of thirty-six million dollars to market one of their films. “Most of a movie’s opening gross is about marketing,” Clint Culpepper, the president of Sony Screen Gems, says. “You can have the most terrific movie in the world, and if you can’t convey that fact in fifteen- and thirty-second TV ads it’s like having bad speakers on a great stereo.” At Sony, executives ask, “Can we make this seem ‘babysitter-worthy’? Will it get them out of the house?”
Lionsgate, smaller, scrappier, and stingier than the six major studios, has released such distinguished films as “Crash,” “Monster’s Ball,” and “Away from Her,” but it has made its reputation with edgy, low-budget action and horror movies, particularly the five “Saw” films. In August, the company opened a new production division to make a broader range of films, including romantic comedies. The studio has also declared itself willing to make an occasional big-budget “tent pole”; it has cautiously begun to take on the big studios.
These changes will place a greater burden on Palen, not so much of additional work—the line in Lionsgate’s marketing division is that every job already includes “D.F.E.,” or “Do Fucking Everything”—as of adapting his sensibility to new audiences, and of curbing his instinct, usually couched behind a restless politeness, that he knows best. Many Hollywood marketers construct their campaigns in slow-motion groupthink; Palen strikes so quickly that one of his regular poster venders calls him “the Cobra.” He believes that if you express a strong opinion, fast, others will fall in line. But he also has a pitiless eye. At another Lionsgate première, for “Saw V,” in Las Vegas, he glanced at the romantic-kiss photo on the Paris Hotel’s marquee and remarked, “I don’t like that fingernail.” It became impossible to look at the marquee and see anything but the woman’s lurid white-tipped nail against the man’s neck, glowing like the evidence of a murder.
Palen’s campaigns, which have won many of the movie industry’s Key Art and Golden Trailer awards, are witty and pugnacious, particularly the ones that are borderline pornographic. For the gory 2006 hit “Hostel,” Palen created a poster from his own photo of a giant chainsaw springing out of a nearly naked man’s lap. For his “Rambo” poster, last year, Palen chose a dripping stencil of Sylvester Stallone’s face which called to mind the famous Che Guevara image. “A lot of people wouldn’t have had the nerve to do a piece of street art that subliminally sampled the Che poster,” Stallone told me. “Studios usually crowd everything in, hoping to reach you with something—I’ve had posters with nine overlapping images. But Tim’s was a piece of art.”
Paul Haggis, the writer-director of the 2005 film “Crash,” says, “I came in thinking Tim was doing everything wrong. He made the poster Michael Peña screaming over his daughter, rather than selling Brendan Fraser or Matt Dillon or Sandra Bullock. I worried that the trailer, a mood piece about how people have to crash into each other to feel alive, was going to seem like overly significant claptrap. Then Tim and Sarah”—Sarah Greenberg, Palen’s co-president, who handles publicity—“came to me and said, ‘We’re going to go for an Academy campaign.’ I really, really thought they were crazy: this was a little six-million-dollar film.” For the cost of three full-page ads in the Times, about two hundred thousand dollars, Lionsgate sent more than a hundred thousand DVDs of the film to every member of the Screen Actors Guild—pioneering a now common saturation technique. In a huge upset, “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain” and “Munich” to win Best Picture.
“W.,” an earnest drama that punctuates George Bush’s struggle to emerge from his father’s shadow with satiric sequences set in the Situation Room, was rejected by several of the larger studios before Lionsgate agreed to make it. “We took ‘W.’ because of Oliver Stone, pedigree, and built-in controversy—controversy leads to marketing,” Michael Burns, Lionsgate’s vice-chairman, told me. Palen said, “I don’t know if everyone here loved the concept of ‘W.,’ but we felt we could kick some ass on it.”
Stone, in an early meeting to discuss the film’s marketing, told Palen, “I know you’re good with ‘Saw,’ but this isn’t ‘Saw.’ ”
Palen replied, “It’s also not ‘Crash,’ and it’s not ‘3:10 to Yuma’ ”—two of the studio’s hits. “It’s its own movie, and we’ll treat it as such.”
Marketers and filmmakers are often quietly at war. “The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’ ”
To reëngage moviegoers with a dormant President, Palen spent twenty-three million dollars trying to tie the film to the long-awaited end of Bush’s term and to tap the same appetite for political ridicule that feasted on Tina Fey’s impersonations of Sarah Palin. Most of the movie’s trailers and TV spots were in the rollicking spirit of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which the studio also distributed: they featured Bush driving drunk, mouthing malapropisms, and looking confounded. At the close, Palen wanted to run a new banner ad on Internet ticketing sites and political blogs: “Sitting President,” a photo that he’d taken of Brolin as Bush on the toilet, posed like Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Stone vetoed it: he was concerned that Palen’s materials made his film seem giddy and trifling. “Josh on the toilet, that one I didn’t go for,” the director told me.
“I sympathize,” Palen told me. “Oliver Stone has the President taking a shit—how disrespectful. But from the marketing perspective we needed some teeth. Moritz Borman”—one of the film’s producers—“told me, ‘I don’t want to know about “Sitting President,” and if Oliver finds out and yells, I’m going to yell at you, too. But you have to do it.’ ” So Palen did. And Stone didn’t find out. (Borman says that he didn’t authorize the ad.)
Yet a number of Hollywood observers believed that no amount of marketing could save “W.” from being a “feathered fish”—a film whose target audience thinks it’s for someone else. “They made the movie look like ‘Animal House,’ a Judd Apatow film, and that audience won’t be going because they know it’s about Bush and politics,” one film-marketing consultant told me. “When the reviews reveal that it’s shockingly fair, the ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ crowd will stay away. And the people who like Bush are out once they hear it’s Oliver Stone. I think the film opens at five million”—disaster.
When Palen saw Stone on the red carpet, the men smiled and tapped each other on the wrists. Then Stone mischievously stuck out his tongue. “These are the duties,” Palen murmured as he watched the filmmaker move on. “We say ‘Hey!’ ” In effect, Palen had now passed the baton back. His work in selling what the studio didn’t quite have—a brisk, playful romp—would now begin to give way to what the movie really was. But not before the verdict on Palen’s marketing became clear, three days later, when the film opened.
One afternoon in June of 2001, Andrew Fogelson, a longtime Hollywood executive who had run marketing divisions at Columbia and Warner Bros., was driving down Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica when he saw a billboard advertising “The Fast and the Furious,” a forthcoming film about street racers. The billboard showed only a streaking yellow sports car. Recognizing it as a Universal Pictures film, Fogelson picked up his cell phone and called his son, Adam, then Universal’s senior vice-president of creative marketing, at his office. “Adam,” he said, “what the fuck is this car movie, and why would anyone go see a movie about hubcaps?”
“That’s why I’m here, and you’re on Olympic Boulevard,” Adam Fogelson replied.
“What are you hoping for?” his father asked.
“If that opens at twenty million,” Andrew Fogelson said, “I’ll eat it.” The picture opened at forty million. “My father saw a car, and not a particularly special car, at an angle on a billboard,” Adam Fogelson, who now runs Universal’s marketing department, says. “And he thought, How would that motivate? For us, that image was simply a graphic, readable reminder—an exclamation point—on a very expensive campaign of trailers and TV ads that had already got our target audience excited. If you’re my dad and you say, ‘What the hell is that?,’ it wasn’t for you in the first place.”
“In 1970, when I started,” Andrew Fogelson told me, “marketing was called ‘advertising and publicity,’ and it was a totally unrefined art that consisted of making posters that tried to capture the essence of the movie and said ‘Starts Tomorrow.’ ”
The business began to change in 1973, when “Billy Jack,” about a rebellious ex-Green Beret, was reissued by its writer and star, Tom Laughlin, after a Warner Bros. release fizzled. Laughlin’s company, Taylor-Laughlin Distribution, saturated the airwaves with television spots aimed at twelve different demographics—“carefully calculated overkill,” as one Taylor-Laughlin executive put it. When the film grossed a then enormous seventy-five million dollars, the studios suddenly understood that television ads really work. And if you’re going to spend a lot of money on advertising, they realized, you need to be in more theatres to amortize the cost. “Jaws” opened “wide” in 1975, on four hundred and nine screens, at the time a large number; big studio films now open everywhere on more than four thousand. And if you’re in that many theatres you need huge audiences as soon as a film opens—so you need a movie that sells itself. And then you need to sell the hell out of it.
One of the oldest jokes in the business is that when a studio head takes over he’s given three envelopes, the first of which contains the advice “Fire the head of marketing.” Nowadays, though, former marketers, such as Oren Aviv, at Disney, and Marc Shmuger, at Universal, often run the studios. “Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,” one studio’s president of production says. “So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, ‘This director was born to make this movie.’ ”
A studio film costs an average of a hundred and seven million dollars to make and sell, so merely having the germ of a brilliant movie is by no means enough to get a green light. The producer Brian Grazer, whose films include “Frost/Nixon” and “A Beautiful Mind,” mentioned a potential remake of a James Dean film: “I have the book ‘East of Eden’ and a script by Paul Attanasio”—an A-list screenwriter—“but I don’t know how I’d ever make it, because I don’t know how I’d sell it. With this material, I can’t reach you emotionally, tell the story, or be visually transcendent in a thirty-second TV spot. And there’s no ‘Holy shit!’ moment for the trailer.” (Grazer is continuing to develop the project, with a new writer.)
Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make but who’s in them—gone are lavish adult dramas with no stars, like the 1982 “Gandhi.” Such considerations account for a big role being written for Shia LaBeouf in the most recent “Indiana Jones” (to attract youthful viewers as well as Harrison Ford’s aging fans). They also account for the virtual absence from the screen of children between the ages of newborn (when they appear briefly, to puke on the star for the trailer) and that of the Macauley Culkin character in “Home Alone.” Why have a four-year-old character, when one who is ten will prompt ten-year-olds to find him “relatable,” and four-to-nine-year-olds to look up to him? “If we weren’t making decisions based on marketability, John Malkovich would be in every movie,” a top studio marketer says. “Great actor, but not someone you want to see half-naked in the sheets next to Angelina Jolie.”
Modern campaigns have three acts: a year or more before the film débuts, you introduce it with ninety-second teaser trailers and viral Internet “leaks” of gossip or early footage, in preparation for the main trailer, which appears four months before the release; five weeks before the film opens, you start saturating with a “flight” of thirty-second TV spots; and, at the end, you remind with fifteen-second spots, newspaper ads, and billboards. Studios typically spend about ten million dollars on the “basics” (cutting trailers and designing posters, conducting market research, flying the film’s talent to the junket and the première, and the première itself) and thirty million on the media buy. Between seventy and eighty per cent of that is spent on television advertising (enough so that viewers should see the ads an average of fifteen times), eight or nine per cent on Internet ads, and the remainder on newspaper and outdoor advertising. The hope is that a potential viewer will be prodded just enough to make him decide to see what all the fuss is about. It’s the “belt and suspenders and corset and parachute harness” approach.
“What I’m doing now is a totally different activity from what my father did,” Universal’s Adam Fogelson says. “We have to yell loud and long enough to perfectly inflate the balloon on the day of release—and yet not so loud that we pop it.”
It is often said in Hollywood that no one sets out to make a bad movie, but the truth is that people cheerfully set out to make bad movies all the time. It is more accurate to say that no one sets out to make a movie without having a particular audience in mind. Many studio executives argue that films can’t objectively be categorized as “good” or “bad”: either they appeal to a given demographic—and make the studio at least a ten-per-cent profit—or they don’t. “Most critics are not the target audience for most of the films being made today, so they’re not going to respond to them,” Sony Screen Gems’ Clint Culpepper says. “How a fifty-six-year-old man feels about a movie aimed at teen-age girls is irrelevant.”
An unexpected corollary of the modern marketing-and-distribution model is that films no longer have time to find their audience; that audience has to be identified and solicited well in advance. Marketers segment the audience in a variety of ways, but the most common form of partition is the four quadrants: men under twenty-five; older men; women under twenty-five; older women. A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn’t expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film’s budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach. The most expensive tent-pole movies, such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, are aimed at all four quadrants.
The collective wisdom is that young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, “you’re so gay” banter, and sex—but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance—but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.
Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most “review-sensitive”: a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.
Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. “Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to ‘Wild Hogs’ or ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ” the marketing consultant Terry Press says. “If all you have is older males, it’s time to take a pill.”
Studio marketers have a few rules for making their films seem broadly “relatable”:
Can’t we all get along? In “Stomp the Yard,” which was about an urban street dancer who goes to college, the poster showed the African-American hero with his back turned, leaving his race indeterminate. The campaign for “Bring It On” portrayed the story as a rivalry between white and black cheerleading squads, even though more than eighty per cent of the film was about the white squad. The first marketing materials for Fox’s X-Men franchise showed only an “X.” Why exclude half your audience?
If the poster shows a poster child, the movie is for kids. Posters are intended to tell you the film’s genre at a glance, then make you look more closely. Horror posters, for instance, have dark backgrounds; comedies have white backgrounds with the title and copy line in red. Because stars are supposed to open the film, and because they have contractual approval of how they appear on the poster, the final image is often a so-called “big head” or “floating head” of the star. Every poster for a Will Smith movie features his head, and for good reason: he is the only true movie star left, the only one who could open even a film about beekeeping monks.
Everybody’s a comedian. Any drama with at least three funny moments in it will be portrayed, in the trailer and TV spots, as a comedy. The trailer for the 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” conveyed a measure of the film’s delicate unease, but it was basically a series of wry exchanges. A joke, particularly a pratfall, is self-contained, whereas a sad or anxious moment is hard to convey briefly and out of context.
If it’s called “The Squid and the Whale,” it’s somebody else’s problem. That movie was produced by Samuel Goldwyn Films, an independent studio, and grossed seven million dollars—quite good for a small film, but not for a studio release. If a movie’s title and stars don’t tell you almost everything you need to know about a film—“Get Smart,” starring Steve Carell, say—marketers worry. Fox had to spend a little extra to sell “The Devil Wears Prada,” because casual moviegoers wondered what Meryl Streep was doing in a horror film. When a movie underperforms, an awkward title is often seen as the culprit.
Always cheat death. People die in movies; they almost never die in trailers. They are courageous (“The Express”) or missing (“Changeling”) or profoundly alive (“Revolutionary Road”). “If a movie is completely, one hundred per cent about death, then it’s also about life, right?” Fox’s co-head of marketing, Tony Sella, told me. The only thing marketers can’t pull off, Sella acknowledged, is “selling old to young”—persuading kids to see a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy.” “You can try with”—he adopted a baritone voice-over—“ ‘You don’t know where you’re going, but here’s what it’s going to look like when you arrive.’ But they usually say, ‘Screw you, I’ll wait.’ ”
T wo days after the “W.” première, Tim Palen and Sarah Greenberg were sitting in a theatre in Sherman Oaks, California, thumbing their BlackBerrys before a test screening for “Chilled in Miami,” when they were visited by Paul Brooks, the film’s producer. A romantic comedy starring Renée Zellweger, “Chilled in Miami” was to be released in late January. Zellweger plays an eager executive in a Miami-based conglomerate who flies to a small town in Minnesota to figure out whom to fire at the local plant. An earlier screening had had mixed results. “We made all the changes the last screening suggested,” Brooks said, “so if the film tests for shit, it’s NRG’s fault.” (Nielsen NRG, which conducts test screenings, is one of Hollywood’s leading research companies.)
Everyone smiled, a little carefully. Palen had explained the film to me earlier by saying, “Did you see ‘Baby Boom’? It’s that. It’s that without the baby.” He had been working to make a compelling trailer, using David Schneiderman, at Seismic Productions, who cut trailers for “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Sex and the City.” Paul Brooks wanted the trailer to be primarily comedic, but Palen felt that it needed an emotional through-line, “the stuff that tugs on the ovary.” Schneiderman says that Palen’s reaction to his first pass “was the worst: ‘Where’s the Mary Tyler Moore?’ He said, ‘This girl goes to this little town in Minnesota and she’s a cold person, and they warm her up, right? More warmth, more style, more “Devil Wears Prada.” ’ And I said, ‘I don’t know where that is in the movie.’ And he said, ‘Create it.’ ”
Palen often uses a jokey shorthand to convey the sort of campaign he wants; his internal name for “Chilled in Miami” was “The Devil Wears Patagonia.” He referred to “Good Luck Chuck,” a critically lambasted R-rated comedy starring Jessica Alba, as “There’s Something About Jessica,” and cut the TV spots to emphasize Alba’s tumbles and mishaps. “We cheated it and got the film open, which was kind of a feat,” he says. “America likes cheese.” (When I e-mailed Palen to tell him that I’d watched the film, he replied, “Can you get workman’s comp?”)
Each maneuver and ad buy in Palen’s campaigns is detailed in a confidential playbook. For marketers, much of the science of marketing is determining which old movie your new movie is most like, so you can turn to that movie’s playbook as a rough guide. Much of the art of marketing is developing a campaign that reassures moviegoers that the new film is very similar to (or at least “from the director of”) another one they liked. The top-ten-grossing movies of the last decade were all “pre-awareness” titles: movies like “Spider-Man” whose stories the audience already knew from another medium, or sequels. Familiarity breeds comfort until it suddenly breeds contempt. “Will Ferrell did great doing the same sports comedy over and over,” a leading marketing consultant observes. “And then ‘Semi- Pro’ was one movie too far. Unfortunately, you only learn that afterward.”
The big studios’ average marketing budget of thirty-six million dollars is one-third the total cost of making a film; Lionsgate’s average marketing budget is twenty-two million dollars, about two-thirds of the film’s total cost. In other words, Lionsgate is making much cheaper films that rely disproportionately on their marketing. “Fox probably spent fifteen million dollars more marketing ‘Transporter 2’ than Lionsgate spent marketing ‘Transporter 3,’ ” one of the action-film franchise’s producers, Steven Chasman, says. “But Lionsgate did just as good a job, because they take more care in lasering in on their targets.” “Transporter 2” grossed forty-three million; “Transporter 3” grossed thirty-two million but—when DVD sales and other ancillary revenues are factored in—will ultimately net Lionsgate about ten million.
Thrifty campaigns epitomize the studio’s abiding financial caution: it often sells off foreign rights and defrays production and marketing costs by teaming up with outside investors. As a result, Lionsgate, which has been in business for twelve years, has never lost more than ten million dollars on a film. (It has also built a thriving business producing such television shows as “Weeds” and “Mad Men.”) But its biggest earners, “Monster’s Ball” and the first “Saw” film, each netted a relatively modest forty to fifty million dollars, and its distribution deal for Tyler Perry’s comic melodramas—sizable hits, all six of them—has made the studio only about a hundred and twenty million dollars in all. The larger studios can lose more than a hundred million dollars on a film fairly easily, yet their occasional tent-pole blockbusters can generate six hundred to eight hundred million dollars in profits. And tent poles spawn sequels that give the studio some assurance of profitability in years to come.
Lionsgate’s vice-chairman, Michael Burns, acknowledges that the studio will have to refashion its marketing hooks as it begins fishing in bigger, murkier waters. “The wider the potential audience, the more difficult it is to find the comfort zone for how we’re going to market it,” he says. “I think we can do well with ‘Chilled,’ but it’s not in our historical sweet spot.” Some at the studio worried that the film, while funny and pleasant, wasn’t distinctive enough to establish Lionsgate as the new home of the “rom com.” No one could quite agree on a title that would improve upon the gloomy “Chilled in Miami.” And though some of Palen’s favorite films are comedies about strong women—“Working Girl” and “The Women” (the 1939 version)—he had no playbook for a PG-13 romantic comedy about a strong woman.
After the October test screening, Joe Drake, the head of Lionsgate’s motion-picture group, said to Palen and Greenberg, “Is it just me, or did that play really well in the room?” The scores seemed to bear Drake out: the percentage who thought the film excellent or very good, the so-called “top two boxes,” went from sixty-five at the earlier screening to seventy-four—in other words, from worrisome to respectable. (Studios love to see scores in the eighties.)
Yet testing is fraught: it rewards comedy, narrative, and familiar stars or plot elements, and often undervalues the new. Executives’ testing stories take divergent paths to the same punch line. Either they decided not to tamper with a “Pulp Fiction,” despite testing results invariably described as “the lowest scores in the studio’s history,” or they were confounded when an “Akeelah and the Bee” faltered commercially despite “the highest scores in the studio’s history.” In both scenarios, the numbers lied. “Testing is a sham,” one marketing consultant says. “All you’ve learned is what people thought of a movie they didn’t have to pay for. It does not mean they’re going to go pay for it.”
After the screening, Palen listened carefully to the focus group. Then, on the escalator down from the theatre, he said, “They weren’t talking about Renée Zellweger, but she was the reason they came, because she’s a movie star. So if we’re out on Super Bowl weekend as counter-programming—trying to get women—the trailer has to be about her and be all shellacked and lacquered. Though I wonder if ‘Fargo’ meets ‘Baby Boom’ might be more relatable, with the downsizing everyone’s experiencing.” I mentioned that Blanche (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), Zellweger’s administrative assistant at the plant, had got many of the biggest laughs. “Droll and folksy reads as quaint, reads as art house,” Palen said. “I love Blanche, but I can’t sell her.”
Like most comedies, “Chilled” lacked a huge trailer moment: the fabled five seconds that can open a film, such as the head of the Statue of Liberty bouncing down the street, in “Cloverfield.” So its trailer would be a standard three-act journey: where the Zellweger character has been, the world she’s in now, and where she’s going—all in two and a half minutes. The voice-over star Don LaFontaine, who died in September, was revered for his ability to quickly situate the audience with such trademark phrases as “In a world where . . .” and “From the bedroom to the boardroom.” Current trailers often achieve the same narrative shorthand with two-second establishing shots separated by dips to black accompanied by whooshes of sound. Of course, rapid cuts can create unease: what are they hiding? So a way to signal genuine quality is to “stop the trailer down” and let a scene play out for ten or fifteen seconds.
The marketing advantage that studios have over other industries is that they can give out free samples of a movie as advertising—promotional material that feels like content. But filmmakers object when a trailer reveals too much of the story, or their best fireball, or their funniest joke. Tony Sella, the Fox marketer, wanted to end his trailer for “The Simpsons Movie” with Homer walking his pet Spider-Pig upside down across the ceiling and singing his Spider-Pig song. “The writers told me, ‘Absolutely not, you can’t use it,’ ” Sella recalls. “I said, ‘O.K., we can not use Spider-Pig, and the theatres will be three-quarters full, and the audience will be tremendously amused when they see it. Or you can have lines around the block, and half the people will be saying, ‘Wait till you see Spider-Pig!’ to the other half.” Spider-Pig stayed in.
Another problem with free samples is: what if the product isn’t particularly remarkable? “How many great movies are there each year?” the trailer cutter David Schneiderman says. “We’re in the business of cheating, let’s face it. We fix voice-overs, create dialogue to clear up a story, use stock footage. We give pushup bras to flat-chested girls, take people’s eyes and put them where we want them. And sometimes it works.”
P alen grew up in Northglenn, Colorado, not far from Boulder, where his father ran a Texaco station and his mother was an administrative assistant for a cheese manufacturer. He was the middle child in a churchgoing Catholic family, bracketed by two sets of sisters, all of whom ended up married and living within thirty miles of their parents. Palen knew by age five that he was attracted to boys and even before then that his future lay elsewhere. “I always felt like a fish out of water in northern Colorado,” he says. “Uncle Jim had been Clark Gable’s stunt double on ‘The Misfits,’ and I wanted to be on that plan—to get out.”
He left college before graduating and wound up in Los Angeles, where he met his partner of the last twenty-one years, an entrepreneur named Abel Villareal, and began work as a marketer for Sony and then for Destination Films. He came to Lionsgate in 2001, and his first campaign there was for “Monster’s Ball,” which won Halle Berry an Oscar. But, like many marketers, he discovered that his skills are most needed on less accomplished films. The week after “W.” opened, Lionsgate released “Saw V.” The “Saw” series, refreshed every Halloween with an increasingly thin yet convoluted story line, would with this installment become the highest-grossing horror franchise ever. At its heart is a soft-voiced madman, Jigsaw, played by Tobin Bell, who kidnaps bad people and forces them to “play a game,” according to the videotaped instructions of his Jigsaw doll, that usually ends in their messy dismemberment.
Palen has showcased the films’ torture porn with inventive zeal, developing a “Saw” blood drive featuring S & M nurses, and putting a clip of one of the first film’s head-smashing “traps” online, with the tagline “How Fucked Up Is That?” For “Saw IV,” he slipped five-second “blink” ads into a pod of commercials on MTV: the screen filled with static, and then the creepy Jigsaw doll suddenly appeared, scaring the bejeezus out of viewers. “Tim recognized that you want the core audience to feel, for a while, that the film is theirs,” John Shea, the head of integrated marketing at MTV Networks, says. “So he gives them content that feels bloggy and street—like they’re behind the curtain. Then they become barkers for your film.”
Palen has always believed in being polarizing, always been willing to alienate much of the audience in order to motivate his core. Other studios thought, not without reason, that Lionsgate was sometimes flouting industry rules. For “Saw II,” Palen made the “II” a pair of severed fingers, then released the poster without seeking the approval of the Motion Picture Association of America, which forbids ads that show “dismemberments, mutations, or mutilations of bodies,” along with such objectionable elements as “people or animals on fire” and “sacrilege.” (To qualify the film for an M.P.A.A. rating, Palen later recast the poster so you couldn’t see the fingers’ nubs.) “Horror posters are usually a girl with big boobs running from a guy with an axe, and Tim has a beautifully composed image of freaking severed fingers,” Michael Kahane, who produces some of Palen’s trailers and posters, says. “We all thought, How did he get away with that?”
“Saw V,” buoyed by Palen’s poster—a haunting image of a brooding man wearing the severed face of Tobin Bell, attached by metal clips, atop his own—opened that weekend at thirty million dollars, bested only by Disney’s “High School Musical 3.” (Palen promptly took out ads on ticketing sites declaring “High School is for pussies.”) Yet the quick-and-dirty series has constrained Lionsgate’s reputation in the industry. Jeremy Zimmer, a board member at United Talent Agency, says, “You can’t grow without spending real money on movies. Eventually, you have to look into the eyes of a relatively untested filmmaker like Zack Snyder and say, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it—let’s make “300.” ’ You have to take the Big Gulp.”
“We now have a rule, as a department, that we don’t mention ‘Saw’ to other filmmakers,” Palen told me. “It’s self-aggrandizing, it minimizes the movie we’re working together on now, and it makes us look old.”
On October 17th, “W.” opened on two thousand and thirty screens. Opening Fridays are always tense: at Fox, they used to call the long hours “the Vigil,” and Universal’s Adam Fogelson says that openings are “an exciting, nauseating thrill ride best enjoyed with a piña colada far away.” If a film doesn’t find its audience the first weekend, exhibitors pull it from their best theatres, and eventual television-licensing fees and DVD sales fall correspondingly. Lionsgate’s movie executives spent the day at their headquarters, a bland, red-brick building in Santa Monica, anxiously awaiting updates on the grosses. During the wait, Oliver Stone called to thank Palen for his work; Palen said that it was one of the nicest calls he’d ever received from a filmmaker. “I’m only disappointed Oliver never threw something at me,” he added afterward. “I was hoping for that, almost, just to get to see a piece of the legend.”
The reviews were generally pretty good, which always helps “prestige” films, but Lionsgate’s hopes really rose when NRG’s tracking for “W.” jumped after the film’s première. Marketers pay particular attention to how many people volunteer knowledge of their film—if the numbers are low a few weeks out, they will tweak the campaign—and “W.” ’s “unaided awareness” had risen from two per cent that Monday to a healthy eight per cent on Thursday. The three main research companies use their tracking data to predict the opening weekend’s gross, and their predictions for “W.” were in the eight-to-nine-million-dollar range. These forecasts can be astonishingly accurate—or way off. Palen has found that the tracking for Lionsgate’s hits routinely underestimates their audience: people who are slightly outside the mainstream. (At the studio, they call these party crashers “the freak factor.”) NRG predicted that Tyler Perry’s first film for Lionsgate, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” would open at four to six million dollars, and it opened at $21.9 million. Tracking studies are conducted among people who’ve seen at least six movies in the past year, but Perry’s films have proved to be wildly popular with churchgoing African-American women. Other hidden pockets of interest made “The Passion of the Christ” and “Sex and the City” even bigger hits.
Kevin Goetz, president of the worldwide motion-picture group at the research firm OTX, says that his company, knowing it can’t track all of Perry’s audience, simply inflates the “unknown variable” segment of its predictive model by twenty to twenty-five per cent for his films. Often, then, the algorithm of box-office estimation, which is itself the algorithm of marketing efficacy, is actually the algorithm of the informed hunch.
At 5:30 P.M. Friday, Lionsgate’s distribution department sent an e-mail estimating that, based on strong early attendance in the East, “W.” would open at about twelve million dollars. Palen hates to make box-office predictions, but at the end of the afternoon he murmured, “If the number doesn’t have a ‘teen’ in it, I’ll be disappointed.” On Saturday, he e-mailed me to say that he hoped the film would stay in second place, behind “Max Payne,” so “I can break out the Bush on the toilet for next week with a huge ‘WE’RE NUMBER TWO!’ message (kidding . . . sorta).” When the film wound up a close fourth for the weekend, at $10.5 million, he pronounced himself “relieved and a little depressed.”
Given the industry-standard multiplier for ultimate box-office—two and a half times the opening weekend’s gross—this meant that the film was expected to gross about twenty-six million dollars. (It wound up at $25.5 million.) By late afternoon Friday, then, the entire success of the filmmakers’ years of work on “W.” was clear, and Lionsgate knew to a fair degree of certainty that it would ultimately net between three and five million dollars. For a tricky film, this was a satisfying result.
That Monday, Palen was back at work on the four other films the studio would open before the end of the year. He was particularly taken with “The Spirit,” the studio’s first wide release at Christmas and its first to have a thirty-million-dollar marketing budget. “The Spirit,” based on an obscure Will Eisner comic strip from the nineteen-forties, was Lionsgate’s attempt to build a tent-pole franchise. Frank Miller, the celebrated comic-book author, had written and directed a moody, snowy, sumptuous film about a masked charmer with a self-healing body who lives to protect his city. Palen produced a crescendo of three trailers, and everything from “Spirit” trading cards to snow globes to iPhone applications.
In November, Palen and his team met with the film’s producer, Deborah Del Prete, and her team to discuss his outdoor campaign. Del Prete enthusiastically seconded all of Palen’s plans; in this case, the producer and the studio were equally excited about the film’s prospects (and they were equally crushed when the film got swamped in the crowded holiday season, grossing only eighteen million dollars in the first two weeks). Often, however, such meetings are the final collision between the mutually aggrieved marketers, who feel the studio has been handed a worse film than they were originally sold, and the filmmakers, who suspect they’re being sold a cheaper campaign than they were led to expect. “Basically, the code is this,” a prominent agent says. “ ‘We will show you thirty pumped-up people, so you will go do the junket and go on “Letterman” and fucking perform with a sense of enthusiasm.’ It’s the same meeting we were having five years ago, except now there’s a girl in a sweater who does the Internet.”
The marketers go around the table, describing the campaign in a salmagundi of “rating points against the target,” and “owning fifty per cent of voice on Yahoo,” and “MySpace reskins.” The producer Brian Grazer admits, “I can’t say I one hundred per cent understand what the media buy really means. Though I might not say ‘What?’ in front of thirty people.” Another prominent agent says, “If you say the creative is no good, they say, ‘We love it and the testing supports it.’ If you say the release date is bad, they say, ‘No, it’s good,’ and show you that a bunch of similar films did well on similar dates. So the only thing that’s discussable is how much money they’re spending—which they totally lie to you about.”
“I can take a puny media buy and make it sound like the Second Coming,” Andrew Fogelson, the former head of marketing at Warner Bros. and Columbia, says. “I’ll say, ‘We’re going to own the two weeks leading up to your movie: we’ve got thirties here, fifteens there—you’re not going to be able to turn around and not see your movie.’ If you know enough, you then say, ‘What about the four weeks before that?’ And I then reply, ‘We feel this movie is really going to benefit from an ultra-concentrated effort at the end.’ The alternative is to say, ‘Joe, you made a shitty movie. And I work for a public company, and I want to keep my job. So we’re dumping your film.’ ”
The Renée Zellweger comedy wound up being called “New in Town,” a title no one actively disliked. And Palen wound up with a different campaign from the one he’d initially sought. Dissatisfied with his working poster—Zellweger shivering against a backdrop of townsfolk—he finally flew the star to Los Angeles one weekend and photographed her himself. Now she sits atop a Vuitton suitcase in the snow, wearing a knowing smile (and the red “Devil Wears Prada” shoes). “Renée was super dreamy,” Palen says, “and she agreed that having her shivering and miserable seemed less appealing than having her strong.”
As for the trailer, he told me, “Now it’s more fish out of water: it includes the little moment where she says ‘Kay?’ to the workers after her heel catches in the factory grating, and her running into a door, so she’s klutzy, out of her element, more relatable.” He deleted a joke about a barfing cat, and the moment when Zellweger’s character points out that her co-star, Harry Connick, Jr., has beer in his beard—the testing audience didn’t like them. In the end, Palen took out everything polarizing, and a voice-over supplied the warmth that he was looking for: “She may not be where she expected . . . but she’s warming up to the possibilities.” The trailer, in fact, became what Paul Brooks had originally suggested: a graceful string of jokes. When it was tested in “mall intercepts” of shoppers, it scored a seventy among young women and a seventy-five among older women—very good numbers. The new trailer made me want to see the movie, even though I’d already seen it. It looked like fun.
Yet Palen remained uncertain. The first two of his end-of-the-year films had done as well as he could have hoped; the second two had bombed. A campaign is only as good as the box-office proves it is—yet so much remains beyond a marketer’s control. “If you want to be depressed,” one marketing consultant says, “go stand in front of a multiplex on a Friday night, and watch all the people who come by to look at what’s playing, and then walk away. Look at all the empty seats at a wedding, where people told you they were coming and knew you were spending three hundred dollars on them.”
Many film marketers grow disillusioned with their jobs, with the lying and the cheating. But when I asked Palen whether the job had affected his understanding of our primary levers—of the human eagerness to give way to laughter, fear, sorrow, and passion—he looked at me sharply and said, “I hope not. Because owning the secrets of cattle mentality is not aspirational. I love my job, I love being a part of all this, of staying fresh and young.” He was thinking aloud, not his favorite mode of self-presentation. “I mean . . . my mom still listens to Patsy Cline. I have this—not a fear—but she stopped at a certain age, and I don’t want to stop, to get old.”
The last test screening I saw with Palen, on a perfect Southern California night in the Valley, was “Game.” Made by the same directing team that shot “Crank,” a low-budget adrenaline ride that turned a modest profit for Lionsgate, “Game” stars Gerard Butler as a death-row prisoner in the near-future who becomes a real-life avatar in a first-person-slayer video game to the death. His goal is to escape and find his wife, a hooker avatar in another game. The film struck me as brutal, occasionally vivid, and wildly incoherent. Palen, usually chatty after a screening, was stroking his beard. Yet th
e focus group, most of them youthful gamers, seemed genuinely excited by it. This made me feel old.
One of the film’s directors, Brian Taylor, a restless-seeming man with a shaved head, caught up to Palen in the hall and said, “So, I think it played pretty well in the room.”
“Yeah, it’s always great to see it that way,” Palen said.
“There’s a lot of candy for the trailer,” Taylor continued, with more assurance. “So many action sequences, man. Should be easy. So, what I was thinking is, this guy named Doobie cut together the battles and the battle-in-the-rave scene, and he’s, like, scary—sick fast, cuts it in two days with sound design. Like, he’s just off. And so we’d like him to take a pass at the trailer?”
“We can definitely
talk about that when we meet,” Palen said, agreeably. “Cool.”
He shook hands and moved on. When one of his colleagues asked how he was doing, he said, “I’m managing my stress that they want a guy named Doobie to cut the trailer.” (When Taylor followed up by e-mail,
a few days later, Palen assured him that he was already “deep into a cut.”) Outside, in a nearly empty parking lot, Palen said, “All the Doobieness is totally not the way you want to go with the trailer, which is more accessible, more ‘He was; she was; together, they were . . .’—straight out of the America-loves-cheese playbook.” Still, he said, brightening, “It has all the raw materials for a great action trailer. I think it’ll be easy to sell.”