How to market a war film: Leave out the battlefields

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For New Line, one of the biggest challenges in marketing "Rendition," which stars Reese Witherspoon as a young American mother whose Egyptian-born husband mysteriously disappears, has been differentiating the film from other recent movies set against the backdrop of the Middle East.

The studio has been insistent on one point: The movie is not about the Iraq War.

Trailers, TV spots and posters have tried to position the Gavin Hood-directed film opening today as an engaging thriller that features an all-star cast that also includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep and Alan Arkin.

The goal is to convince moviegoers that the film stands apart from a recent string of war-related films that have been a disappointment at the boxoffice. In "Rendition," Witherspoon's character discovers that her husband, who disappears on a flight home from South Africa, was secretly flown to a prison overseas, where he is tortured under a controversial U.S. anti-terror policy called rendition.

"One of the biggest challenges beyond the topicality of these different movies is their sheer number," said Chris Carlisle, New Line president of domestic theatrical marketing. "It becomes a muddle for the consumer. But 'Rendition' is very different. Despite its Middle East backdrop, it doesn't take place in Iraq. We played up our cast and the thriller aspects of the story line. This film is an engaging, entertaining and emotional story, and that's where we focused our campaign."

The marketing challenge faced by "Rendition" also will be confronted by other movies about the Iraq War, the war on terror and the politics of the war in Washington.

Even "Redacted," the controversial Iraq war film from Brian De Palma that focuses on a group of U.S. soldiers who rape an Iraqi girl and kill her family, depicts no footage of soldiers, war or weapons in its trailers. Instead, Magnolia Pictures' campaign emphasizes De Palma's track record and the film's festival awards while taking advantage of its theme of images of the war being redacted or withheld. For nearly one entire trailer, only text appears on the screen with voice-overs from the movie.

"We're marketing 'Redacted' not as an Iraq film necessarily but as a film that is going to provide an experience that is going to be rich for moviegoers," said Jeff Reichert, Magnolia senior vp publicity and marketing. "That's why we went with this trailer, which we feel is intriguing and powerful. You're given a certain amount of information and you probably assume the film is about the war, but you don't see a soldier, anyone in fatigues or a weapon. The only image you see at the end is a man in a suit crying with his wife in a bar."

Partly because of the abundance of war-themed films, the Weinstein Co. recently pushed back the opening of "Grace Is Gone," which stars John Cusack as a widow struggling to raise his two daughters alone after his sergeant wife is killed in Iraq. The date moved from Oct. 5 to Dec. 7.

"Fortunately, 'Grace Is Gone' is not a typical Iraq movie," said Gary Faber, executive vp marketing at the Weinstein Co. "It's a movie about family. Its setting against Iraq makes it timely, relevant and, sure, somewhat controversial. But because the main theme, while serious, is ultimately emotional and uplifting, it should easily be able to separate itself from the heavier and medicinal Iraq/war on terror fare that the marketplace has seen recently."

The first films in the current wave have demonstrated the hurdles such movies face.

"A Mighty Heart," starring Angelina Jolie in the adaptation of Mariane Pearl's best-selling book about the kidnapping and murder of her journalist husband Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, has grossed slightly more than $9 million at the U.S. boxoffice. Studio executives said the June release amid summer blockbuster fare and the fact that Jolie's superstar status overshadowed the theme of the movie were at least partly to blame for the lackluster results.

"In the Valley of Elah," directed by Paul Haggis and starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, also has been a boxoffice disappointment, earning only $6.4 million in the U.S. since its Sept. 14 release. "It's really disappointing when you have a really good movie that audiences aren't ready to step up to," said Laura Kim, executive vp marketing at Warner Independent. The film is about a war veteran and his search for his son, a soldier who mysteriously disappeared upon his return from Iraq. It too was marketed not as an Iraq War movie but rather as an investigative thriller.

With a production budget of $70 million, Universal Pictures' "The Kingdom" also has fallen short, with nearly $41 million in U.S. ticket sales since its Sept. 28 release. The movie was marketed as an action thriller with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, who star in the film about an FBI team working with Saudi authorities to track down a terrorist who blew up a Western compound in Riyadh.

"This movie was not made to be a political film," Universal president of marketing and distribution Adam Fogelson said. "It was made first and foremost to be a piece of entertainment that was going to take the modern realities of our time and integrate them into that piece of entertainment."

Studio marketers are blaming the weak boxoffice results for such films on the fact that American audiences want to be entertained and escape the war they see daily on the news.

"Any time you deal with the current war situation anywhere in the Middle East, you risk U.S. audiences just glazing over," Picturehouse president Bob Berney said. "They look at movies as an escape and they want to be entertained."

Many studio marketers noted that such successful Vietnam War movies as "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" were not made until years after the war ended. "The Iraq War is so present right now, and it's too early for people to want to run out to the theater on a Friday or Saturday night to see a movie about a really tough subject," one studio executive said.

"Lions for Lambs," directed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Tom Cruise and Streep, is another film about to be released that deals with the politics behind the war on terror and the media's coverage of it.

In "Lambs," two characters in the film fight in Afghanistan after they're inspired by their professor (Redford) to make a difference with their lives. The marketing for "Lambs" focuses on the movie's star power, its positive reviews and theme of making a difference but doesn't shy away from the film's political war-related themes.
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