Lionsgate Marketing Guru on Branding 'Hunger Games' and Why He Once Used Real Blood on a Poster
The studio's Tim Palen dishes about creating franchises, Jennifer Lawrence's pay and when to use porn sites for advertising.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On Oct. 27, Liam Hemsworth joined art aficionados at the Leica Gallery in West Hollywood, where provocative photographs of the cast of The Hunger Games went on display though Oct. 31. The photos, shot by Lionsgate chief brand officer and president of worldwide marketing Tim Palen, have been used in the campaigns for the blockbuster film franchise since it began in 2012 (the final installment, Mockingjay — Part 2, opens Nov. 20). Palen, 53, joined Lionsgate in 2001 and quickly established himself as one of the most creative minds in movie marketing. His edgy campaign for Saw in 2004 helped launch the then-upstart Lionsgate's first franchise, and he was part of the core team pulling off one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history when Crash won best picture in 2005. This fall, he smartly sold Lionsgate's drug-war drama Sicario as a taut thriller and is gearing up for the March 18 release of the penultimate title in the Divergent saga. In addition to running a 75-employee marketing group that releases about 15 films a year for the Lionsgate and Summit labels, Palen has published three books of photography, most recently, Tim Palen: The Hunger Games. Palen, who, with Abel Villarreal, his partner of 27 years, splits his time between homes in Silver Lake and near Joshua Tree, invited THR to his Santa Monica office to talk about, among other things, how he once had real blood drawn from Saw actor Tobin Bell for a poster.
A filmmaker in Genova, Italy, once sent Palen a DVD of his movie — and a pair of underwear.
When was the first time your own photographs were used in a campaign?
The first poster that I did for Lionsgate was for a movie called Wonderland (2003). I'm really bad at sketching, and I fancy myself as an art director in addition to a marketer, but I had this idea for a poster. I wanted it to look sort of like a Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers album cover, and I started to sketch it, and it was embarrassingly bad. On a Saturday, I asked my friend to come over and we went to Hollywood Toys and got a fake gun. We stuffed something down his pants, went into the backyard and took a picture. I presented it with a few other sketches to the director, and he said that should be our poster. I said we would have someone properly photograph it, and he said, "No, that should be our poster."
And how often do you use your own photos?
I've done all of The Hunger Games, and some for Insurgent. I did the campaign for Precious, and I did a documentary, I'm Your Man, about Leonard Cohen. We didn't have any photography for the movie, so through the director I reached out to Leonard and asked if he'd sit for us. He said under two conditions: "One, come by yourself, and two, you have an hour." I'm a shy person, so that was heaven.
Palen’s 259-page book of photos from 'The Hunger Games.' He’s also helping design the company’s new theme park in Dubai.
Why does the bulk of money spent on campaigns still go to TV when eyeballs are shifting to digital and social media?
Television is the necessary evil; it's absolutely crucial and a huge part of the mix, especially with co-viewing opportunities like sports. People don't DVR sports. You can't underestimate something like that when you know people are in front of the television with the whole family and they're not fast-forwarding through commercials.
Prerelease tracking is increasingly unreliable. What's going on?
The landscape and the audience mix have changed. Remember when people would say African-Americans don't go to the movies? And then Tyler Perry was born. The first Tyler movie I worked on, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the tracking was off by some astronomical number because that segment of the population wasn't on NRG or on MarketCast's radar. At this point, we're forced to piece together things that give us a gauge of the weather, but there's no replacement for your gut and taste. One thing I'm super proud of is we've never tested a trailer for any of the Hunger Games movies, which is unheard of.
An email he sent to colleagues after reading the 'The Hunger Games.'
If you cut a trailer that's A+B = C, it will test better than a trailer that's just a big question mark. [But] when you build a campaign that is educating people about a property, that first piece sometimes should be a giant question mark. Testing would have told us: If you want to get boys, you need more action. That doesn't mean testing is wrong, but we would have been horribly wrong had we used that to guide our campaign.
What's been your most difficult campaign?
The first Saw movie was one of the smartest horror movies ever made. [But] it was uber-violent and gruesome. How do you tell people this is one of the most violent experiences you're ever going to have and it's going to blow your head off in a good way? We never used Tobin Bell's Jigsaw in a poster until the third movie. I have this belief that the more familiar the villain, the less scary they are. If the bogeyman looks like your handsome neighbor, it's way less scary than the bogeyman you imagine hiding under your bed. When we finally decided to debut him, I wanted to have this gorgeous, formal portrait of him. I though, "How great it would be if in a printer, we actually mixed in some of his blood?" So I pitched it to Tobin, who thought it was a really freaky idea. I sent a medical team to his house. We went to the printer and had to have hazmat people there because of disease control. We have footage of them mixing his blood into the red magenta and then running it through the press.
One of many portraits Palen shot of Lawrence in character as Katniss Everdeen.
I heard you advertised Saw in S&M magazines. True?
We have regularly bought porn sites because it's inexpensive and efficient. I think we did it for Expendables. I don't know that everybody does it.
The first Hunger Games established Jennifer Lawrence as a major star. What has been your experience watching her evolve?
She's authentically familiar and funny and unaffected and the girl you want to be friends with. The first time I photographed her in North Carolina on the set of the first movie, no one knew that this was going to be a rocket. She asked me to play a joke on Josh [Hutcherson]. I've photographed her seven times and for every shoot, there was a moment when she did something completely crazy and spontaneous.
The bow used by Lawrence in the first 'Hunger Games' movie.
Did you read her essay about gender pay?
I did. I think she's worth her weight in gold — her specifically, but I'm not smart enough about such deals to know.
Outdoor advertising is much bigger in L.A. than elsewhere. Is that because studio bosses live here and see billboards?
Well, also a lot of journalists are here and a lot the tracking services are here, so if your job is to make the world feel like something is happening, to be invisible is not a good idea.
“I like trucks,” says Palen.
Precious, which Lionsgate released in 2009, could not have been an easy sell.
It was a tough movie that I don't know everyone thought could work. We relied on the single biggest gift that any marketer could get, and that's a movie that moves people. It moves, changes and motivates people. That's an unusual thing to have. Oprah [an executive producer on the film] said the thing about Precious is we walk by her every day and choose not to see her. The first poster we did was an illustration of her without a face. I think Sicario was really similar in that, especially living in California, it's something that's too ugly to look at.
What campaigns have impressed you lately?
I think the Cinderella campaign was great. It was so elegant and smart. It didn't feel like it was a girls' movie. It didn't feel young; it felt like a big, glossy fashion event.
If there was an industry meeting of all the marketing heads, what would you say?
I'd call in sick.
A mask Palen created for a poster shoot for 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.'