The 'Milk' marketing conundrum

Focus eschewing publicity for the gay-themed movie

The opening of "Milk," Gus Van Sant's account of the personal and political life of the country's first openly gay politician, is four weeks away. Yet you wouldn't know it.

Unlike the hoopla over Focus Features' previous gay-themed awards movie, "Brokeback Mountain," which was drawing calls of agenda-pushing from right-wingers months before it opened, there's been hardly a peep in editorial pages or on talk radio.

Admittedly, many of the noisemakers are busy agitating on the election. But Focus also is doing something deliberate: It's eschewing publicity, keeping its awards contender out of fall fests and heavily restricting media screenings.

"The best way to help this film win over a mainstream audience is to avoid partisanship, and the best way to avoid partisanship is to let people find out about the film from the film itself," one person involved with the Sean Penn starrer described the gambit. Giving up word-of-mouth to avoid hot air is not a typical trade-off -- notice how Lionsgate effectively flogged politically charged movies like "W." and Religulous" -- but it's one Focus is willing to make.

Not that it will last. The political football will be kicked off when the movie premieres tonight in San Francisco and then put in play after the election. And when that happens, the studio will face a marketing dilemma: how to accommodate the gay-rights angle the core audience expects while appealing to mainstream filmgoers who might not be immediately moved to see a movie about the subject.

One example of those filmgoers: At a recent Vegas test-screening for a middle-class, straight audience, several senior citizens tried to leave after a gay love scene in the early moments but couldn't because they were trapped in the middle of a row (near Focus production chief John Lyons, in fact). The seniors eventually said they were happy that they stayed, but, like independent voters in an election contest, these are the viewers Focus must woo.

Like its initial phase of playing keep-away from cable news, the post-election phase will also involve staying above politics. Focus plans on selling "Milk" in part as a story of hope and change (Harvey Milk won equal-rights battles against great odds) that happens to be gay, just as it sold "Brokeback" as a love story that happened to be gay.

The ploy was logical with "Brokeback." It's less so here.

Like "Brokeback," "Milk" features a gay romance. But unlike "Brokeback," "Milk" is made by gay filmmakers, features the polarizing Penn and puts itself squarely in a political context. Milk's fight against California's anti-gay-rights Proposition 6 -- a drama the movie deals with in great detail -- spookily parallels the current California fight over the anti-gay-rights Proposition 8.

Embracing the political message would, first off, do right by the movie. Studios' knee-jerk reaction to political films is to say they don't want them politicized. But why not? "Milk" is about politics.

More to Focus' concerns, it could help with awards. A win for John McCain or Prop 8 may drive voters to cast a ballot for Penn (a lock for an Oscar nom) or best picture. (This on top of voter sympathy because they didn't support "Brokeback.") Awards love will further put it in pundits' crosshairs, which will further draw awards voters.

GLAAD president Neil Giuliano told Open Season that "since this movie is about a beloved politician who was killed, it won't be easy for our adversaries to fight us on it." Focus and its Oscar handlers should get the weaponry ready anyway.
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