Friday, July 08, 2005

Schadenfreude-R-Us

Okay... it's tacky... I know it's tacky. But I can't help it. We laugh when others suffer. I believe it's human nature. 'Round about these parts, when something goes wrong... it goes spectacularly wrong! Seems that Fox Publicity and Advertising department took another blow over the New York premiere of our latest, The Fantastic Four, Wednesday night. A minor publicity stunt in L.A. didn't exactly go as planned either. The publicity campaign was such an all-over fiasco, the New York Daily Observer's online blog, The Daily Transom, felt the need to do three whole posts about it here. And here. And here, too. Oh, how they laughed....

Those of us who work in the "majors" (major movie studios) have a special relationship with our respective P&A departments. These are the people who believe -- deep in their heart of hearts -- that nobody will go to see a movie that isn't named after either a comic book or a bad '70s song -- even if the song has nothing to do with the picture. This explains the inane reasoning behind taking a movie based on Laura Zigman's wildly successful chick-lit novel, Animal Husbandry, and renaming it Someone Like You. Remember that horrible Rod Stewart song? No? Well, judging by the number of people who didn't see this movie, you're not alone. The reasoning of the Fox P&A department was that women would be offended by the title Animal Husbandry. Of course, they would. That explains the tremendous success (complete with multiple printings and formats) that Dial Press enjoyed, in hardcover, paperback and audio, of this book to... did I mention it was chick-lit? If I'm not very much mistaken, that's women, is it not? Yes. Well. Most studio in-house P&A departments are renowned for backing the wrong horse, right after renaming it and whipping up a totally misleading trailer for it. Their decisions are all based on the following tragic misperception: "We know what makes a movie sell."

I'll let you guys in on a little secret. No, they don't. Neither do I. Neither do you. Know why? Because it's magic. No. Seriously. Magic. Smoke and mirrors, coupled with planetary alignment and just the right wind velocity. No one knows what will make a movie a hit. There were people at Paramount -- highly placed people who make decisions about what's good and what's bad all day -- whispering fertively that Forrest Gump would tank. Obviously, they were wrong. But they might not have been. Think about it. It's a weird little movie. It could have all gone horribly wrong, even with Hanks in the lead, Zemeckis behind the camera and an accomplished screenwriter like Eric Roth providing the screenplay. The difference between a ground-breaking, innovative, exciting, blockbuster movie and a well-intentioned, gone-awry, ambitious, expensive failure is approximately the width of an ant's eyelash. And no one -- not the studio, or the director, or the star, or the screenwriter, or even the P&A department at the studio -- can be sure in advance which movie will hit and which will fail.

Granted, a Forrest Gump or an Independence Day has certainly got a much better chance of succeeding than a Dude, Where's My Car or a Freddie Got Fingered. But a good script, good direction and brilliant performances can be thwarted by an ignorant P&A department. The perfect example is a little film released two scant months after Gump. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my all-time favorite films. Badly conceived trailers and a lackluster advertising campaign nearly put it in the toilet -- until it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including a "best screenplay adaptation" nomination for writer/director Frank Darabont. Darabont has said that, though Shawshank won no Oscars that night, the constant mention of the movie's name during the ceremony piqued people's interest, and when the film was released on video a couple of months later, it promptly shot to the top of the "most rented" video list. It remains one of the most rented videos/DVDs of all time. Yet it's total theater box office tally in its original release was shy of $29 million (as compared to Gump's $329 million).

All because some dumbass executive in the P&A department said, "The Shawshank Redemption? Forget about it. It's Nowheresville." And thanks to that arrogant dumbass executive, it nearly was.

This is why, when things go so horribly, terribly, monumentally and publicly wrong for a studio publicity department, those of us who love film have to smile to ourselves. We like to think it must be kharma. We like to think to ourselves that, though there isn't always evidence of it, the world is a just place. A good place. A place where the scales all balance out in the end. For every decent movie that was brought to its box-office knees by P&A neglect, there will be one grandly touted premiere that will turn into an utter and complete disaster, complete with vomiting actresses, backward fireworks and skywriting, and a relentless downpour. The misery and humiliation of others occasionally fills our hearts with unabashed joy.

Is that so wrong?

~C~

3 comments:

  1. What I find interesting about film and audiences is that if you go to Yahoo Movies and check out the movie grades, almost every movie is user rated in the "B" range. Yet some movies score big box office business and others tank. I can understand the movie executives' angst.

    But I did like War of the Worlds, special effects junkie that I am.

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  2. Catharine... you're so right about publicity. But I have to say, it must be a tough gig. Now that I've had to work with these people during post-production, I realize that they're running blind most of the time. How do you put together a marketing strategy for a film you've never seen? Sure, we give 'em hi-rez stills from the VFX shots that are finished early... and don't get me started on how trailers are put together.

    In any case, I agree. The elements that allow a movie to make money are elusive and mysterious... kind of like the Mac Fairies in my computer that make it go (or make it freeze-up, if they're PC Fairies).

    You get points for the title Schadenfreude-R-Us, though. I laughed out loud. And yes, it's okay to take just a little pleasure in the embarrassment of the Pub Dept, they who have the power to kill a perfectly good little movie, just because they didn't get it (or maybe, because they didn't see it).

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  3. What was wrong with Freddy Got Fingered?

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