Marketing a war film? Skip the battles

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NEW YORK -- 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 and that it is worth seeing despite its difficult subject matter. 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."

And "Redacted" too, is trying to set itself apart from any other war-related films that have disappointed at the box office. "We're trying to suggest there's a very real difference between this film and anything else you're going to see this fall," Reichert said. "It's different from other Iraq films; it's different from other narrative films. It's unlike anything people are accustomed to watching."

Even studios releasing movies that contain war themes solely as the backdrop of their storylines are making sure their marketing campaigns distinguish their films from others about Iraq. 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.

"We know that people all around the country really loved this movie but we also know that when people come out of a movie that is serious, provocative and disturbing, it's hard for them to recommend that other people see it," Kim said.

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.

Marketers said the stiff competition, not just from other war-related films but an abundance of new releases this fall – many of which have also disappointed at the box office -- is also to blame for the weak ticket sales.

"I think there are too many of these films in a fall that's just a total glut of films in general," said one studio executive. "This is the most crowded market I can ever remember. And it's also a crowded sector of terrorist, war and Middle East movies. Audiences can't possibly see them all and just don't want to. I'm glad I don't have one of these films right now. If I did, I'd pull it and wait."

Marketers said "The Kite Runner" from Paramount Vantage, opening in December, is one film that may not suffer a similar fate both because it is based on a beloved bestselling novel that focuses on the relationship between two boyhood friends and because it takes place in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and Taliban rule but before the U.S. invasion ever began. Though its dialogue in Afghan Persian with English subtitles presents another challenge.

"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 join the war 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.

With so many of these films focusing on hot button issues, there is often additional publicity in the way of national news coverage as well as criticism and attacks from conservative commentators. Sometimes the publicity can raise awareness for the film and attract additional moviegoers opening weekend but it can also be a double-edged sword.

"There's a degree to which you don't want certain films so caught up in the news that they cease to be an option for entertainment," said Magnolia's Reichert.

Despite the overwhelmingly disappointing box office results for war-related films and the very challenging job faced by marketers trying to attract audiences to see them, producers have not been dissuaded and there are many more such films in the pipeline.

"The Visitor," from producer Michael London and politically-oriented Participant Productions, is an intimate character study of a professor whose lonely life changes when he meets two immigrants. But a big chunk of the film focuses on one Syrian immigrant who is racially-profiled and faces deportation due to the war on terror. Distributor Overture Films will use Participant's network of political groups to promote it, but Overture president of worldwide marketing, distribution and new media Peter Adee said the marketing campaign will largely bypass any politics and focus on the film's characters and performances during its tentatively scheduled spring release.

Even the highly political Participant production "SOP: Standard Operating Procedure," Errol Morris' documentary from Sony Pictures Classics about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, is likely to focus on Morris' long track record as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and the film's psychological study of how people can wind up committing atrocities they never thought possible, said SPC co-president Tom Bernard.

If the next round of war-related films due out over the next couple of months does as poorly at the box office as the current batch has, the marketing challenge for those now in production and development will clearly get even tougher.

Gregg Goldstein contributed to this report.
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