AdAge: Even Tom Cruise Couldn’t Beat This Summer’s Hollywood Memes

This article originally appeared on AdAge here.

In case you didn’t notice, Knight and Day, the new romantic action comedy starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, did not have a great opening weekend, grossing just over $20 million and coming in third place behind Toy Story 3 (which, as many have before it this year, repeated in the top slot) and Grown-Ups, the Adam Sandler and gang comedy.

It’s not as if this was surprising, though. Tracking had been weak prior to release, signaling that there was little interest in seeing Cruise and Diaz engage in wacky capers around the globe, with Cruise acting unhinged and more than a little insane while Diaz reacted hysterically to the events around her. At least there weren’t enough people who wanted to see that instead of going to see Woody and Buzz engage in much more heartfelt adventures with the rest of Andy’s toys.

So what happened? Let’s examine some theories:

I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least some portion of pontificating pundits who chalk this up as another example of one of 2010’s emerging Hollywood memes, namely the “Movie Stars Don’t Work” idea. These are two of Hollywood’s biggest stars we’re talking about here, after all, and so a movie with both of them should have been as automatic as Steve Kerr at the three-point line.

It might also be pegged to another contender for this year’s story hook, “The Audience Only Wants Sequels/Franchises/Reboots.” This is one of this summer’s only original properties, even if you can see aspects of a half dozen other movies in the plot outline. So this one might have some validity especially since sans everything else star power itself should have acted as the brand the audience latched on to for familiarity.

There’s also the much simpler explanation that the campaign was a bit disjointed, without a poster or outdoor ads that featured the two big stars that were in the movie – something Fox’s co-president of marketing Tony Sella said was an intentional tactic to make this film different from the rest of the pack – and a series of trailers which didn’t quite know whether to sell it as a romantic adventure or adventurous romance.

Whatever the larger reason there were things that the campaign did well (saturate TV with ads) and things that it didn’t (the aforementioned lack of movie star faces on posters) as is the case with most movies. But with as much warning that vast swaths of the audience simply weren’t aware or interested in the movie it seems that there would have been plenty of time to engage in an inspired word of mouth marketing campaign that could have turned the ship around.

Now Fox did indeed try to get word of mouth going for the movie, mostly in the form of running advance screenings of it about a week before release. That’s a tactic that’s been used over and over again to try and get audiences excited. It didn’t work in this case, though, so maybe it’s time for the industry to start trying new things.

Do something random: Let some people watch the movie – or at least a significant chunk of it – at home. Work with a VOD provider so that random customers can watch a severely extended preview. Or setup in-home viewing parties that are movie-themed of those previews. Cater the party and give everyone a 2-for-1 coupon for the movie at theaters.

Provide incentives: If people came out of those advance screenings having enjoyed the movie what mechanisms were in place to help them spread that message either online or off? A dozen business-card sized handouts or an encouragement to share their feedback on the movie’s Facebook page are just a couple of examples. Both need, though, to provide rewards of some sort for those behaviors that encourage people to take them.

If you’re going to engage in tactics that are designed to get people talking it only makes sense, especially taking social networks into consideration, that there be programmatic elements in place to help move that word of mouth move along. Hollywood could have used a hit from this movie to disprove some of the theories being bandied about but unfortunately this didn’t come through

By Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.