August 7, 2003

The non-stop blitz.

Coming Soon Nicole Kidman didn't have a whole lot to say at her press conference in Berlin way back in February, but that was hardly her fault. Quote-mongers packing the room were far more worried that she'd never love again than about her insights into the life and work of Virginia Woolf. But she did say something I appreciated: She doesn't watch DVD extras and tries to avoid any sort of E!-type behind-the-scenes programming (though she's contractually obliged to contribute to oodles of it herself). Because it ruins the "magic" of the film.

I agree. And yet, of course, I end up watching a lot of that sort of thing anyway. The temptation's too seductive. Ideally, you can wait a day or two after taking in the film, letting it sink in before gobbling up the DVD extras, reading the reviews and so on. But the blitz for each and every film, no matter how worthy or unworthy, weeks and months ahead the actual release and weeks and months after, is all but unavoidable. By now, the fact that the production around the production has become as large as, and sometimes, larger than the production itself is a horse way too dead to go on beating.

Even so, a month later, in Austin, I asked a panel at SXSW that included Film Threat's Chris Gore, the New York Times's Elvis Mitchell, Variety's Dana Harris, the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty, the San Francisco Examiner's Joe Leydon and the Dallas Observer's Robert Wilonsky if they could imagine a savvy producer deciding not to go that route. Could there be a clever way of working around the blitz, of convincing a distributor that audiences are sick of the overload and that now, more than ever, less is actually more?

Silent head-shaking all around. Nashawaty, who seemed most sympathetic to the cause, simply replied that there really didn't seem to be a way out: PR will go on screaming louder and louder to be heard above the ever-crescendoing roar while actually offering less and less of import.

But here comes Gary Dretzka at Movie City News with a very fine piece on how we got here:

It's become abundantly clear that these multimillion-dollar campaigns are mere preludes to the increasingly costly launch of a Hollywood movie in DVD, four months later. Along with foreign distribution, the frisky little tail of the home-entertainment industry now wags the dog of what's left of the studio system... Some astute observers of the scene have argued that profits from video have freed studios to spend obscene amounts of money on doomed projects, as long as a publicity-friendly star is attached, leaving those "small, personal films" to be bankrolled [by] others. The home-entertainment market has pulled more executive ass out of fires than the International Association of Fire Fighters.

But there is hope, and that's what Dretzka leads right off with, Gigli's lesson that there is such a thing as overexposure and that there's "a heightened awareness among marketing wizards that the public is turning its back on Hollywood star vehicles. Apparently, audiences have finally come to the conclusion that the movies themselves ought to provide a modicum of entertainment value as well." Until, of course, they run off and rent the DVD.

At the same time, let's not forget the age-old reminder recently warmed over by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker:

Jaws may have opened big because Universal marketed it well and released it widely, but it stayed big because people liked it. And controlling what people like is something that even the most clever marketer can't do. For all the money and energy that studio executives invest in trying to build blockbusters, William Goldman's famous Hollywood precept - "Nobody knows anything" - still holds true. A few years ago, the economists Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls did a detailed study of two thousand movies and concluded, "Revenue forecasts have zero precision. In other words, 'Anything can happen.'"

And that is why, despite all hope, for the forseeable future, the floodgates of PR will burst once again each and every time a product gets packaged. Especially now that the packagers are all but guaranteed a return on their investment from the ancillary market. If "anything can happen," the last factor you want to toss into the package is risk.

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Posted by dwhudson at August 7, 2003 4:45 AM