Marketing movies with VW vans and lots of blood

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300 (Warner Bros. Pictures)
International boxoffice: $37.4 million (and counting)

'We became involved with this movie very early on, when the director came in with tests for what the film would look like, and all the worldwide marketing and distribution groups read the script," says Sue Kroll, president of international marketing, Warner Bros. Pictures. "We knew right away that it was going to be a very interesting and unusual picture. Even while it was shooting, we were able to have conversations with the director and develop an idea of how we would sell the movie.

"I thought it was astonishing and beautiful; it reminded me of an opera or ballet because the violence was so stylized. What was interesting was that early screenings indicated that women really liked the movie as well (as men), once they got to see it. We definitely wanted to appeal to everybody, females included. So, we had a poster of Queen Gorgo, one of (several) banners with all the characters.

"And internationally as well as domestically, it had a very loyal fan base, people who had read the graphic novel (Frank Miller, who served as an executive producer, wrote the graphic novel on which the film was based).

"We took the director, Zack Snyder, on the road internationally and introduced a lot of the footage to the press early on to get people to understand what it was," Kroll continues. "And we repeated that roadshow in Asia and in Latin America without him, introducing the footage to give people an idea that this was something special.

"We were very direct in showing what the movie was about -- the campaign was very true to the film, very graphic, very in your face, very unapologetic in its edginess. And that is really a pleasure to be able to do. How many posters do you see that say, 'Tonight we dine in hell'? It wasn't restrained at all.

"The graphic device of '300' is a scrawl -- it's not necessarily blood, but it does look like blood. Everybody discussed that. But this movie is about the battle of Thermopylae, not the picnic of Thermopylae. To paint it vanilla would have been a mistake.

"We ended up having a campaign that was consistent all over the world -- though Rodrigo Santoro, who plays Xerxes, was a huge part of the campaign in Brazil, because that's where he's from.

"But ultimately, what we sold was the beauty of the spectacle, the epic action. And then the movie became a cultural and social phenomenon. It was one of those rare things -- an incredible movie and an expansive campaign that is true to the film."

Pan's Labyrinth (Picturehouse)
Domestic boxoffice: $37.4 million

'Pan's Labyrinth' was a prebuy from the script, which is fairly unusual on a foreign-language film," Picturehouse president Bob Berney recalls. "Right when they started filming in the summer of 2005, I went to Madrid and saw the storyboards and the creatures on (director) Guillermo del Toro's computer, so I was able to get an early sense of the visual style of the film. Then in December 2005, we saw a cut of the film in the editing room with no subtitles and Guillermo translating, and even in those awkward conditions, we really felt we had a spectacular film.

"That said, the challenges of marketing a Spanish-language film were daunting. And the period of the film and the harsh violence were definitely major challenges. I was concerned that the traditional art audience, the older audience, might be put off by the extreme violence and that the younger audience might not understand the period and the politics of the film.

"We decided to promote Guillermo as the star. He has younger fans, of (2004's) 'Hellboy' and (2002's) 'Blade II,' and he has critics who are fans because of (2004's) 'Cronos' and (2001's) 'The Devil's Backbone,' and we wanted to merge both those audiences. Also, we really believed that the Latino audience in the U.S. was underserved and ready for a bigger film. These are very different audiences, and we had to pull all these elements together.

"We worked with (French distributor) Wild Bunch to try and get the film into (the Festival de Cannes) for the high-end critic aspect; it was In Competition. At the same time, we planned a major event in San Diego at Comic-Con, a huge comic book and fantasy convention. We had a huge presence there -- we actually built the tree (from the film), and you could stick your hand into this grotesque goop that mimicked the inside of the frog to win something. Thousands of people stood in line for that and to get an autograph from Guillermo.

"At that point, we started to get the sense that both the genre and art house audience were really responding to the film. Then we tested the film in Orange County and tried to have a substantial Latino audience, and it tested very, very high.

"We then planned our fall festivals and set a release for the very end of the year, Dec. 29. I looked at the landscape of fall, and it was just packed with quality films; I thought we needed to be at the end of the year and be the surprise. And that was also a strategy to combine the (prints and advertising) release money with our Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) campaign in an efficient way.

"We made our media buys in fairly traditional places: very good print and Internet buys. With this type of film, for upscale audiences, print was very important -- and obviously online was good for the genre audience. And we did a fairly substantial television buy for an independent film, really to demonstrate its incredible visual style. We did cable and also did heavy Comedy Central and Sci Fi (Channel) and (Fox's) 'The Simpsons.' We definitely did not indicate that it was in Spanish -- I felt we would overcome that. But we did do a lot of Spanish-language media, where we indicated the language it was in to the audience.

"We managed to draw all three groups that we wanted. An then we ended up with six (Oscar) nominations and three wins, and that was huge."

Little Miss Sunshine
(Fox Searchlight)
Domestic boxoffice: $59.9 million

"The movie screened at (the Sundance Film Festival) to an absolutely rapturous response and a thunder of applause," recalls Nancy Utley, COO of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which bought the film there for a reported $10.5 million.

"It became -- ironically -- a beauty contest, where the filmmakers and sales agent were positioned in a hotel restaurant and each of us distributors had our moment to come in and talk about how we would market it. Based on the success we have had with the quirky-comedy genre -- like (2004's) 'Napoleon Dynamite' -- we got the job.

"We told them we envisioned a platform rollout and using word-of-mouth screenings to let audiences find the film, instead of pushing it out on audiences in an aggressive way, and they agreed.

"So, then we worked backwards from our release date. We decided to release it in the summer (Aug. 18) because we had had success there in terms of counterprogramming. There comes this blockbuster fatigue, where the public and in particular the press get sick of seeing one giant movie after another, and we wanted to capitalize on that.

"We launched this very aggressive screening program over the summer and slowly opened the film. We did a total of 214 word-of-mouth screenings before the opening in over 60 markets with a view to making people our partners in selling the movie, because we found once we showed it to people, they became evangelical about it, and it is not very often that happens. We also toured (directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) to 13 different cities over July 6-Aug. 3 and had them do press in each city.

"And then we did some stunts. We started to use the little yellow bus (from the movie). In L.A., we did a drive-in screening on July 25 where we invited people who drove VW buses to receive VIP treatment, and that was promoted by KTLA and KROQ, and over 70 buses came, which gave us an incredible visual of all these VW vans watching 'Little Miss Sunshine.' We got national coverage of that.

"We also capitalized on the broad age range of the people in the movie. It turns out having a child, a teenager, middle-aged people and a grandfather (as characters) can help you attract a broad audience.

"We also played the L.A. Film Festival and did more crazy stuff -- we had yellow buses going into different markets on the Labor Day weekend and giving out ice-cream cones.

"In terms of media buys, there wasn't anything particularly original. We bought the morning shows and (NBC's) 'The Office,' when we could afford it, and we bought a lot of (Comedy Central's) 'The Colbert Report' and 'The Daily Show,' where there is a congregation of smart people who are culturally aware.

"We loved the movie, but we didn't expect a quirky comedy from Sundance to get so much notice, especially from the Academy. Getting to the best picture race was very, very exciting."         
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