'Inception' is no dream for marketers

Unusual summer bow for such a cerebral pic

Consumers may wish more original films were wedged into the usual summer mix of remakes and sequels, but marketing executives know enough to be careful what they wish for.

Case in point: Warner Bros.' soon-to-bow thriller "Inception." Directed by Christopher Nolan, the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer has stimulated prerelease buzz simply on the basis of its A-list creatives.

Which is fortunate, as the pic's cerebral mix of brain-teasing plot points and effects-driven fantasy defies easy characterization in a one-sheet tagline or even a trailer, judging from materials released to date. Its online campaign similarly is based more on tease than glimpses into the narrative.

Studio marketing always aims to raise pic awareness and stoke must-see interest among prospective patrons, goals most easily achieved when moviegoers have a sense of what to expect from a film. With early -- and solidly positive -- reviews of "Inception" trickling out, word has circulated that the movie has something to do with industrial espionage and the invasion of dreams.

Well, that clears things up.

"I have heard everything from 'awesome' to 'a bit confusing' from those who went to the screening," one industryite said after a showing of the film at the recent Cinema Expo confab in Amsterdam.

In other words, the pic seemed to play well with the audience, but even the subsequent word-of-mouth tended to be vague, albeit positive. Even the movie's name fails to conjure anything specific.

"Nobody thinks it's a bad movie," an exec from a rival studio stressed. "The question is whether it's going to be the real breakout picture that everybody seems to think or just the darling of the East and West coasts and miss the rest of the country."

There lies the rub: how to entice Middle America without a lot of complicated explication? It obviously helps that "Inception" was helmed by Batman's favorite director and stars a maturing American heartthrob.

But what's a marketing challenge like this doing in the middle of popcorn-pic season?

"We're in the moneymaking business," a Warners insider said. "So when you have a great cast and a great movie, why not go when you can do the most business? This movie will play to moviegoers 15 to 50, and you have all those people going to the movies in the summer."

The studio sought to build awareness and buzz early by select media buys. Promos keying on complexity and vagueness of the pic's plot include Verizon Wireless' "Inception: Mind Crime" game, which is promised to help moviegoers "unlock some of the secrets of the story both before and after they see the film."

Studio execs are counting heavily on core support from Nolan's and DiCaprio's fan bases. Awareness has been slow to spread, but a high percentage of those with knowledge of the film show a "definite interest" in seeing "Inception."

Execs around town offer an unusually wide range of projections for the PG-13 pic's opening weekend, at $40 million-$60 million.

Nolan's penchant for cinematic riddles has some suggesting the pic basically is a big-ticket art film. Cost estimates run upward of $160 million on "Inception," which totes a 148-minute running time.

"It's the most expensive version of 'Memento' you could ever make," an exec from a rival studio quipped. "But it is unique in the marketplace, and I credit them for that."

But the question remains: Will Warners' good -- and original -- deed go unpunished by the marketplace?

"You really haven't seen that 18- to 35-year-old crowd mobilized this summer," a marketing exec from another studio said. "So this could become the cool and hip movie to see -- kind of like 'The Matrix.'"

But Warners opened its leggy 1999 hit in March, with "Matrix" topping out at $171.5 million domestically. To do much better, Warners might have to sustain pricey pic marketing longer than usual if word-of-mouth proves as vague as prerelease buzz.

"Inception" opens wide a week from today. Disney family adventure "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" -- that session's only other wide opener -- bows two days earlier and should ring up at least $30 million through its first five days.
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