Goldwyn marketers go museum hopping with 'Ghosts'

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Goldwyn's "Ghosts:" In today's overcrowded specialized movie marketplace creative marketing is essential and really creative marketing that doesn't cost a fortune to execute is even better.

A case in point is the innovative art museum campaign orchestrated by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. and its distribution arm IDP Distribution Partners for Milos Forman's powerful historical drama "Goya's Ghosts." The film, which opens Friday in 10 major markets, reteams Forman and producer Saul Zaentz, who previously collaborated on the Oscar best picture winners "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus." "Ghosts," an epic film that could put them back in Oscar and Golden Globes awards action later this year, was written by Forman and Jean-Claude Carriere and was executive produced by Paul Zaentz. Starring are Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard.

Forman's award-winning behind-the-camera team includes cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, winner of five Goya Awards (Spain's equivalent of the Oscar), including for "The Sea Inside" in 2005; production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein, an Oscar winner in 1985 for "Amadeus;" and costume designer Yvonne Blake, an Oscar winner in 1972 for "Nicholas and Alexandra."

In "Ghosts" Forman tells through the eyes of legendary Spanish artist Francisco Goya the story of several people caught up in the political turmoil of the final years of the Spanish Inquisition in the late 18th Century and its aftermath in which Spain was invaded first by Napoleon and the French and then by the British under Wellington. Bardem, a best actor Oscar and Golden Globe nominee in 2001 for "Before Night Falls," plays Brother Lorenzo, a member of the Inquisition's inner circle.

Portman, a best supporting actress Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for "Closer" in 2005, plays Goya's teenage muse Ines, who's wrongly accused of heresy and imprisoned where Brother Lorenzo becomes infatuated with her. Portman also plays a second role that it's best not to discuss here to avoid giving anything away that would spoil "Ghosts" for those who haven't seen it yet.

Skarsgard, a European Film Awards winner in 1998 for his performances in "Amistad" and "Good Will Hunting," plays Goya, who painted not only commissioned portraits of royals and church leaders but scenes depicting the brutality of war and life in Spain at the time.

To launch Forman's film revolving around Goya and his art, Goldwyn's marketers went museum hopping, in effect, by putting together an extensive program of screenings at prestigious art museums in key cities across the country to generate word of mouth. From late June through July, "Ghosts" was shown to audiences at such museums as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Chicago Institute of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dallas Art Museum, Atlanta's High Museum, San Francisco's Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum, Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Portland Art Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts.

After I found myself applauding Forman's "Ghosts," I was pleased to be able to focus on the marketing effort behind its release with Samuel Goldwyn Jr., chairman and CEO of the Samuel Goldwyn Co., and IDP president Michael Silberman.

"We saw the picture and we liked it," Goldwyn told me. "I've always wanted to do something with Saul. He's very much an old friend and, of course, I'm an admirer of Milos Forman. We were excited about the picture and we worked out an arrangement to distribute it."

Unlike so many films that are acquired these days by specialized distributors, "Ghosts" wasn't something that Goldwyn saw for 15 minutes at a film festival and then went running up the aisle to bid for with a half dozen other would-be buyers. Asked where he first had a look at the movie, Goldwyn replied, "In my projection room. Our team saw it and the guys (at IDP) saw it in New York. We work as a team. Part of the operation's in New York and part of it is in L.A. We look at pictures and strategize and think, 'What can we do? What can we not do?' We were all very excited about the picture and thought it had some very unusual ways to market it. Michael and his team came up with this museum (screenings approach)."

That was late last year. "I thought it was very well done. It's an intriguing story and I thought it had some wonderful performances in it," Goldwyn added. "And we thought it was a picture that was a perfect specialized picture."

When I observed that "Ghosts" looks like a good contender for awards consideration, Goldwyn observed cautiously, "Well, you never know. I think one would hope that, but you never know. I've been at this long enough (to know) that you get surprises. Sometimes you think you've got one and it's going to be and then sometimes you get them and they're not. So I'm always afraid to say that (but) I can dream, can't I? But we did feel that we wanted to position the picture at a time which was appropriate. I think so many (distributors) kid themselves that they've got an Oscar picture and they bang them in at the end of the year and then you've got a lot of specialized pictures banging head to head. We wanted to go at a time (that avoided that problem)."

"We thought that the summer would be a nice play time for the film," Silberman told me. "It's typically never a good weekend in this business to open a movie. Every weekend you're going up against a pretty heavy release schedule. But in summer play time traditionally the major blockbusters are there and the sequels. And there's this perception out there and rightly so for our audience, which is a little bit older and educated and sophisticated audience, there (aren't) a lot of quality movies to go and see. (There's only) a handful and this year we expect to be one of the few that kind of breaks through the pack.

"Because of the pedigree of the movie it'll be able to find an audience so we're going out July 20. We're going into 10 markets initially. We're going into New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Seattle and Houston. And we'll be (playing on) between 40 and 50 screens. We've done a lot of our traditional grassroots marketing on top of the advertising we traditionally take. What we really felt was special about this movie was the connection that we could make with the museums."

Elaborating on how they went about marketing "Ghosts," Silberman said, "We tried to identify who the audience for this film was. Obviously, it's very expensive to market a movie and you really want to try to target directly who you think is going to go see this movie. So we kind of profiled who would see this film. It's an educated, cultured, sophisticated person that was our moviegoer. That sort of defined (tie-ins with museums). The art world, Goya and the political nature of this film kind of led itself directly into a museum setting.

"If we were granted access into this world we could create an awareness and this would be the audience that when they're presented with a weekend of moviegoing (choices) would choose a film like 'Goya's Ghosts' as their first choice. So we felt if we could gain access there, we'd be very, very fortunate. We made phone calls, we worked with field agencies, we got teams out and we approached the curators for the major museums and we got a great reception from them. They agreed that it was a natural fit."

"We insisted that they see the picture before they did it," Goldwyn said. "It was almost unanimous they wanted to do it. They found programs to tie in with it within their own museum. Then, of course, this (screening program) began to expand. We started with New York and Washington and Los Angeles and it just began to grow."

"Sam has a great love for the art world," Silberman pointed out, "and every time we'd book a museum Sam would come up with, 'Hey, what about maybe Cleveland? What about Phoenix?' He'd throw museums out at us and we'd be off to the races contacting the local curators. Pretty much we lined up 20 of the top museums across the country in order to do screenings for us and help build awareness."

Exactly how each museum participated varied market to market. "Some of the museums are screening the film as an event fund raiser for programs that they're trying to get support for," Silberman said. "Others are just screening it for their patrons. They're screening it in beautiful movie theaters that they have on their premises -- state of the art theaters with wonderful sound systems. They're ideal settings and they're holding q&a's after the screenings. They're having screenings with guest lecturers and curators and some of the film's creative team has traveled."

"Both Milos and Saul have done it," Goldwyn said.

"They were in New York," Silberman said. "Now, unfortunately, Milos has back problems. He hurt himself falling and so it kind of curtailed some of the traveling that we would have liked for him to do. But we then worked with the museums on a local basis and either they supplied a spokesperson or we brought somebody from the film to help run the Q&A's. There were packed screenings with great responses and were really pleased. It really helped in terms of building an awareness (of the picture)."

"What's interesting is that in most American cities that have a museum they now have not only a movie theater but a state of the art movie theater," Goldwyn noted. "It's beautiful, beautiful conditions to show a picture in."

"Sometimes it's the best place in town to see the movie," added Silberman.

"And these museums also have a tremendous outreach," Goldwyn said. "For instance, you take a place like Seattle. They have something like 91,000 people that they have access to (on their Web site per month)."

"Most of the museums will send out an e-mail blast to all the members on their lists, letting them know that there's a screening available," Silberman pointed out. "Some of the museums were on a first-come, first-served basis. Others gave (tickets) to their patrons who had sponsored certain events. Others used them as fundraisers. It was left to the museums (as to) how they would like to work with us. We wanted to be as friendly as possible. We didn't want to have just one blanket policy as to how this would work. So we wanted to work with each individual museum to kind of fit their needs as well as ours. So it was a situation that worked very well for both parties."

"With a specialized picture, the niche is very, very important," Goldwyn said. "It's like the bigger pictures. A picture that works for a family is not going to (work for an audience that wants) an action picture. So (with) a picture that's slightly more adult and a little bit more sophisticated, I can't think of a better way to reach that audience than (by working with museums) because most of those people either belong to a museum or they go to museums once a year, at the least, and sometimes many more times. So you've got a way of getting to the audience.

"The toughest thing to do is to figure out who your audience is and then how you get to them directly. Numbers will only mean something when we see how the picture performs, but I saw statistics (showing) that we were in over 600,000 printed newsletters. That's a lot. We screened (the film) for roughly 7,000 people of the real core audience for this picture. That's a lot of word of mouth screenings."

The museum screenings are, Silberman added, "just one component (of the film's marketing campaign). It's a major component to that plan. We would never want to open up a market without properly building awareness and creating a buzz and a want-to-see. We've been working with National Public Radio and (have been doing) some screenings with them. We feel that the best sales tool for the movie is the movie, itself, and the movie has played really, really well with audiences. The best thing that we could do is get this movie in front of an audience that is appreciative and has the same sort of sensibilities that will connect to the film. We do all the traditional trailering, newspaper advertising and radio advertising. We go about doing the small things like getting postcards in coffee shops around town and in museums. And we work very hard on publicity. Publicity is a very, very important component for us."

"But the thing about this museum business is," Goldwyn said, "that we know that most of the people that go in and out of that museum -- with the exception maybe of school groups -- are a potential (audience for the movie). They're usually anywhere from 28 to 60 (years old) and that's the specialized audience. It's a good fit if it works. It made sense to us to try because it was something that nobody has really done because they didn't have the right picture. They may have done it years ago with something like the original 'Moulin Rouge' (John Huston's 1952 biopic about Toulouse Lautrec), but we just felt it was a thing we should try.

"What we were amazed about was the spirit of cooperation we got from the museums, themselves. They included us in the newsletters and their mailings and prominently displayed our poster. The museums today really realize that the relationship between art and film (is very real). They're no longer two worlds. It's all one world."

Looking at the overall specialized film business and how it's grown in recent years, I asked Goldwyn, who's been in the field way longer than many of his competitors, if it's tougher now than it used to be to attract audiences for such movies. "Well, it's tougher with everything because there's so much product," he replied. "I would say 60% of the specialized pictures don't work and that probably applies to the big pictures, too. But if you have a good picture (you can do well). 'La Vie En Rose' (from Picturehouse is an example of a specialized film that) has done very well this year. We've had success with pictures that have appealed to that kind of audience, but they're very choosy and they're very fussy. But our job is to at least get it in front of them. They don't respond to the conventional things. That's one thing that I've really learned. The size of ads doesn't necessarily sell the picture. And you can't hype them to death. It doesn't work. The word of mouth on the picture is more important than anything."

How about reviews for a film like "Ghosts?" "They're important," Goldwyn acknowledged. "I wish good reviews were more valuable (the way) they used to be. The power of reviews is less than it was. We all know that years ago, if the New York Times review (was favorable) you could put that on the marquee all through the country. It meant something in the days of (Times movie critic Vincent) Canby, for instance. Nothing seems to matter (today) except the picture and the word on it. You can open a picture, but to keep it open it has to have (a certain level of business). Watch the drop in the pictures from week one to week two. That's reflective of something.

"I'm no guru. One thing I've learned is that there's no set answer. We had a picture a couple of years ago called 'What the Bleep Do We Know?' (a 2004 comedy documentary written and directed by William Arntz and Betty Chasse). It got half a star in terms of reviews -- and we did very, very well with the picture totally (thanks to) word of mouth."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 31, 1989's column: "Asked if the foreign market is of growing importance to Hollywood, Jean-Louis Rubin, 20th Century Fox International's president of distribution and marketing, replies it is and adds, 'You see more and more important films doing as much from a (foreign) theatrical point of view as domestic.

"'From the business reports I see, 'Rain Man' foreign is going to do a little better than domestic. 'Indiana Jones?' Definitely. 'Batman' should be very close to domestic. With 'Die Hard' we're neck and neck with domestic. And if you look at the net results, we are ahead of domestic because when domestic spends $20 million to $25 million on releasing a film, with the same film in the foreign market you (only) need to spend $10 million or $12 million.

"A key reason that it costs less to market movies abroad, according to Rubin, who has headed Fox's international division for the last eight of his 24 years with the studio, is that in many key foreign markets, 'You still don't have access to television, which is a big (expense). In France you still cannot buy television. Or in Scandinavia. In Germany you are starting to be able to buy some television, but the market is not tuned in to massive advertising on television.

"'In the foreign market you open the U.K. and a little later you open Spain. Then you open Italy. If something goes wrong in your marketing, you always have a chance to pull seven markets and the damage will be done in only a small portion of the market. We can readjust in an easier way than in the domestic market. Here you open and it's over.'

"Foreign releases aren't going wider the way they have been domestically, he explains, 'because the number of theaters has not increased and we don't have the possibilities of going beyond a certain number of prints. To go over 400 theaters in the U.K. I don't think you'll find the theaters (or) you'll find theaters where the income is so low it won't even cover your print costs. You're almost saturated when you go with that kind of wide release -- like with 55 or 60 prints in Paris. How many more prints can you put in the market?'"

Update: In the nearly two decades since my conversation with Rubin, the international marketplace has mushroomed in terms of its importance to Hollywood. Exhibitors around the world have built new air-conditioned megaplexes that have made moviegoing a year-round activity for people in countries where the summer months were once a terrible time in which to open a movie. Today it's routine for domestic blockbusters to do much bigger business abroad. In the case of "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," for instance, international grosses already account for about $625 million compared to domestic ticket sales of around $305 million.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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