Movie Marketing Madness: Burn After Reading

untitledIt’s tempting to say something like “You always know what you get with the Coen Brothers.” That’s an easy hook to hang a story on if you need to write some sort of feature on the writer/director siblings since there’s a public perception, it seems, that the two make nothing but variations on quirky but emotionally stoic characters who get themselves into outlandish situation.

It’s also very misleading and not at all correct. Sure, the Coens have created a body of work that frequently visits characters with a number of…let’s call them interesting personality traits. They insist to be referred to as “The Dude” or solely use Dapper Dan hair creme or find all their attempts at writing revolve around Lower East Side fishmongers. But they’re also the creators of the cold-blooded killers of No Country for Old Men and Blood Simple.

Their latest, though, is very much in the “quirky characters” mode of theirs. Burn After Reading tells the story of two gym employees who find a CD containing the tell-all memoir of a CIA agent has been left in the locker room. Deciding this is their key to a financial fortune, the two decide to try and blackmail him to keep it safe. Wackiness ensues.

The Posters

The theatrical poster is absolutely magnificent. As everyone at the time of its release noted, the design draws heavily upon the influence of classic poster artist Saul Bass, the man responsible for one-sheets for movies like Vertigo and countless others. The design is minimalistic and fun, with funky block lettering and tiny figures at the bottom that, with the way the one is looking through binoculars directly at the other one who’s pointing a gun at them, add nicely to the “Intelligence is relative” copy point that appears below the title treatment.

The Trailers

The theatrical trailer is more or less immediately identifiable as having come from the Coens as soon as it starts playing. The camera angles, the reaction shots of the characters and the line-readings from the actors all peg this as coming from Joel and Ethan Coen.

The trailer lays out the plot fairly effectively. It starts with the discovery of the CD by the two gym employees and the concoction of their money-making scheme. That leads into the main conflict of the movie, which is between the two of them and the agent that wrote the contents of the CD, played by John Malkovich. In addition to all that is George Clooney’s investigator, Tilda Swinton’s wanna-be spy and the FBI, which seems intent on making the whole problem disappear as quickly and painlessly as possible.

There was also a red-band trailer that covers most of the same ground but includes a few more curse words and a joke involving the mistaken impression that one character was asking for anal sex. The characters played by Clooney and Swinton are fleshed out a little bit more, but not enough to give the audience a clear picture of who exactly they are and what they’re doing. It’s about the same in terms of being funny, though, and adds to the first trailer quite nicely.

There were also two mini-trailers created that served to introduce us to two of the main characters in the movie. They largely contain footage already seen in the trailers but aren’t quite TV spots, so I’m going to include them here.

Meet Chad

Meet Harry

There were other similar spots created for Francis McDormand’s and John Malkovich’s characters as well.


The official website opens with the same Bass-inspired artwork that’s featured on the poster with animation running through the cast list and eventually resolving into the movie’s title. After that there’s little to do but dive into the sie.

“Videos” contains the movie’s green-band trailer as well as some clips and TV spots, though they’re all just presented under the generic header Clips. “About the Film” is a short but sweet synopsis of the film, including mentions of its Venice Film Festival debut.

Most all of the cast and filmmakers are mentioned within “Cast and Filmmakers,” all receiving brief write-ups about their accomplishments. “Articles” links to four features on the FilminFocus site that deal with the Coen Brothers in general or, in the case of one article, Tilda Swinton in particular.

There are 11 stills from the film, most all of them pulled from the trailer, under “Gallery.” Finally, “Downloads” just has Wallpapers, a Screensaver and a handful of AIM Icons.

The movie’s Facebook page features the usual batch of photos, videos – including a number of the clips, TV spots and trailers and the primary poster as well.

Over on MySpace there’s a bit more in terms of content. The trailer and poster are there, as is the same sort of description that’s on the official website. But there’s also a Soundboard that plays audio clips from the movie and the ability to download some similar ringtones. There are also two widgets to grab that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The one is just a countdown click, but the other is video-based, showing the trailer and then, if you click through, the character spots and clips as well.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Focus Features put ads for the movie in what was perceived to be a prime spot: The second episode of TNT’s new series “Raising the Bar” starring Mark-Paul Gossaler. The deal had TNT not only giving the trailer a prestige spot within the show but also mentioning the trailer’s appearance within promotions for the episode being done on TV.

Media and Publicity

Although the first review that came out of it wasn’t all that flattering, the movie did gain a lot of prestige by opening the Venice Film Festival. That slot built a lot of buzz for it going in to awards season, something the Coens were likely keen to do in the wake of their last film, No Country For Old Men, being such a critical success.

A week or so later the film made its first U.S. appearance at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was greeted with mostly positive reviews.


The biggest hurdle the Coen Brothers had to clear in successfully marketing Burn After Reading was to not present it as the follow-up to No Country for Old Men but as the next logical movie in their career progression. On that front they succeeded pretty darn well. Expectations are sure to be high for the pair’s future, and BAR’s debut at two of the season’s most prestigious festivals only escalated those.

But Focus Features has put together a pretty good, if somewhat unremarkable, campaign that will be immediately attractive to anyone who’s a fan of the Coen’s previous work. The camera angles, the reaction shots and everything in between all peg this as squarely Coen.

The trailers are funny, the poster certainly memorable and the rest of the campaign up to the task of making the movie’s presence known to the target audience, as well as a few outside that group who might have enjoyed Fargo or something like that. It’s a solid campaign (apart from the lackluster website) that should be able to support the movie toward some sort of success.


  • 10/2/08: Focus Features’ website FilmInFocus has a great slideshow up on how the designers arrived at the final version of the movie’s one-sheet, including the early variations the design went through, an evolutionary process that included a number of homages to different ’60s posters.

BlogOrlando details emerge

If you’re into self-destructive behavior you can read the description of my session in the PR/Marketing track at BlogOrlando which is coming up in just a couple weeks. Or you can read the desciptions of Jake McKee’s, Phil Gomes‘ or Joe Thornley’s that are also up. And that’s just in that PR/Marketing track. The Technical, Community and Journalism sessions are looking uber-interesting and once again make me wish I’d spent more time on cloning myself and not watching movies. Check out the whole list of sessions here and keep tuned for more details and an eventual live-blogging or other recap of the day.