When Crash won the Oscar for best picture, I was half-drunk at a party in Seattle but sobered up quickly. I had to. I'd promised my editor at MSNBC that if the unthinkable did happen, if Crash won best picture that night over Brokeback Mountain, I'd write a piece about it. I finished it at 10 a.m. the next morning. It included diatribe, head-shaking and a quiz. It included everything but a culprit.
Now we have one. In the Jan. 19 issue of The New Yorker, regular contributor Tad Friend writes about Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing at Lionsgate, the studio responsible for, on the one hand, Fahrenheit 9/11, 3:10 to Yuma, The Bank Job and Gods and Monsters, and, on the other, the Saw films, The Punisher (both recent versions), Good Luck Chuck and Witless Protection.
These two hands are obviously my hands, critical hands, hands that divide quality from crap. They would not be Palen's.
Friend drops a bomb early:
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.
That's great, insidery detail but it feels like it's missing the point. Yes, marketing, in this sad age, is selling what you don't have. But how is that a tease? A tease is offering what you do have but not following through. Selling what you don't have? The rest of us call that a lie. Sometimes we call it a felony.
In Hollywood, they brag about it.
"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.'"
Nice. Apparently Hollywood isn't dream factory enough. Apparently Hollywood filmmakers aren't offering enough wish fulfillment. That's where marketers come in. They lie to us about the lie. If the film is crap, they figure out ways to get us to eat it. Palen is one of the best at this. He entices us into the restaurant, gets us to sit down at the table, gets us to chew. By the time we realize what we're eating, he's gone.
And, yes, he's the one responsible for the bad taste in our mouths the morning of March 6, 2006:
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.
Remember how polarizing that battle was? That's Palen's specialty. The article opens with the premiere of Oliver Stone's W., a Lionsgate film Palen has to sell, even though, particularly for a Stone film, it's actually, unfortunately, kind of fair. Palen can't use that. "From the marketing perspective," he says, "we needed some teeth." Later, Friend writes: "Palen has always believed in being polarizing, always been willing to alienate much of the audience in order to motivate his core." Dots aren't connected, but one can't help but be reminded of someone else who sold us a W.
It's a sad article, a wag-the-dog article that is more effective for Friend's restraint. Marketers now run the show: Oren Aviv at Disney; Marc Shmuger at Universal. "Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make," Friend writes, "but who's in them." Why are stars disappearing? This is part of the reason. Why so many niche movies? This is part of the reason. Why do films no longer bind us together but keep us apart? This is part of the reason.
It's a must-read. Palen, whose mother was assistant to a cheese manufacturer, tends to use the word "cheese" to describe what he's selling. "America likes cheese," he says of Good Luck Chuck. "[It's ] straight out of the America-loves-cheese playbook," he says of an upcoming Gerard Butler trailer. That's a kind word for what he's selling. Don't bite like the Academy did.