Movie Marketing

Selling Movies Tinged in Controversy

A number of movie marketing campaigns this year have been shaded by issues that go beyond the actual feature film that’s scheduled to hit theaters. Instead the movies and their campaigns have been influenced in the public’s eye by the actions of the filmmakers associated with them.

Most recently that’s been the case with Hacksaw Ridge, which comes from director Mel Gibson. Gibson, of course, has been persona non grata in Hollywood for about a decade, following an incident where after being pulled over he spewed a handful of anti-Jewish statements that landed him in hot water. He spent much of the period since 2006 only acting sporadically – most notably in The Beaver from friend and director Jodie Foster – and making a few public appearances.

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That’s following not too long after the dust-up around The Birth of the Nation. The campaign was derailed about four months out from release because of renewed attention around an alleged rape by writer/director/star Nate Parker from his college days. The movie had such good buzz coming out of its Sundance debut earlier this year that it was snapped up quickly by Fox Searchlight for a huge sum and seen widely as a shoe-in for awards season. What role the controversy around Parker played in the movie’s subsequent drastic under-performance at the box-office isn’t clear, but the correlation can’t be ignored and it remains to be seen if Parker will be sidelined going forward by studios unwilling to court additional scrutiny.

Earlier this year there was the now annual tradition of hand wringing over the latest release from Woody Allen, this time Cafe Society. Allen, of course, has long been dogged by accusations of child molestation, charges that ebbed and flowed from the public’s awareness since 1992 but which flared up in 2014 when Mia Farrow’s son Rowan brought them back up. Not discounting the seriousness of the alleged behavior, but this is now a regular station which all must be crossed with any new release from Allen.

Three instances of this in one year may be a high concentration of this sort of lightning strike but shows how big a role personalities play in movie campaigns.

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There’s so much emphasis in film marketing these days on the brand. So many movies are part of an ongoing franchise in some manner or another or are based on existing intellectual property that is being positioned as a new franchise. Every year or so we get another story about how movie stars are a thing of the past, having been relegated to a secondary position to the franchises they star in. No one goes to see a movie because of the stars, the thinking goes, they’re there to see Captain America, Harry Potter or the Transformers.

That’s an interesting line of reasoning considering how big a role those inconsequential actors still play in the publicity cycle of the movies before the release. Robert Downey Jr., Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson and others still make the rounds of the talk shows to engage in slap fights with Jimmy Fallon, talk with Matt Lauer about how much fun they had filming and so on. The role of the movie star has not diminished in how they’re used to raise awareness of the movie.

And that’s potentially how things have shifted. If we accept the premise that at least in the cases of big event movies based on existing IP or franchises movie stars don’t move the needle in and of themselves, we have to reconcile it with the continued role they play in promoting the movie. The conclusion, then, is that that press activity isn’t activating an audience to see the actor in particular, it’s working to simply create or reinforce awareness of the movie as a whole. Put simply: People aren’t turning out to see the latest Robert Downey Jr. movie, but RDJ playing “True Confessions” on “The Tonight Show” helps people know there’s a new Iron Man movie coming out.

If indeed the mere presence of a movie star isn’t positively impacting box office results the way it did back in the days of Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, this year still has a lesson to teach us. Factoring in the mediocre results for Cafe Society, the disappointing sales for The Birth of the Nation and the lackluster third-place opening for Hacksaw Ridge, that lesson may be that societal transgressions will not be forgiven at the multiplex.

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It’s hard, though, to know exactly to what extent that happens. It’s not as if there’s polling going on – at least none that’s shared publicly – of the public who *didn’t* go see a movie to ask why they made that decision. It’s implied causality to be sure, not anything that can be quantitatively measured. Still, as we see more and more instances in which there’s a controversial figure

The actions of a public star will impact ticket sales, it seems. That may be why, during the Hacksaw Ridge promotional cycle, Gibson was largely unseen until just days before release, at which point most people had likely already made their decision to see the movie or not. Even then, his appearance on “The Late Show” was criticized for lacking an actual apology, though he’s apologized on multiple occasions before. That’s similar to how Parker was seen in the build up to The Birth Of The Nation, with many people saying he came off as belligerent and unrepentant about his actions years ago, unwilling to apologize or acknowledge any sort of awareness of wrongdoing. It’s not too much of a stretch to assume his approach to the situation turned some people off of the movie, even if they’d otherwise been anxious to see it for themselves.

While movie stars may not be as important to a movie’s fate, an equally strong case can be made that their off-screen actions can hurt the chances of success. That’s still influence, even if it’s less than ideal in the eyes of the studios who are hiring talent and acquiring movies with the hopes for critical and box-office success.

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