Marketing a Departed Star

Releasing a movie into a perennially crowded marketplace is hard enough, but when one of the stars of that film dies suddenly and tragically, it becomes a minefield of economics and propriety. That is precisely the barrel Sony/TriStar is staring down with Sparkle, which stars and features music from Whitney Houston, who died Feb. 11 at 48: How does one create a marketing campaign both exciting and respectful that doesn't strike audiences as a crass cash-grab?

The key to posthumous promotion, says advertising firm Aspect Ratio's chief marketing officer Heather Phillips, is showing off a star's character and performance -- not just the performer's presence. "When you're successful at putting the character in front, it becomes less about [the star]," Phillips says. "It's really finding those moments that define the character."

Sparkle's social network advertising pushes Houston -- the film's Twitter and Facebook profile pictures are of the late singer -- but the one-sheets prominently feature Jordin Sparks, who plays the title character. Houston gets the same billing as the rest of the supporting cast, which includes Derek Luke, Cee Lo Green and Mike Epps. As Phillips contends, part of character-driven marketing is advertising a deceased star's role "however that character is involved in the story -- no less or no more. ... If you do it any other way, it feels false. It feels … like you're hiding something, or like you're trying to take advantage of something."

That's what Warner Bros. decided after the 2008 death of Heath Ledger, six months before The Dark Knight's release. Ledger's death sparked speculation that Warners would refocus its promotions, which included an elaborate, Joker-centric viral campaign. But in the weeks leading up to the film's release, the viral strategy, posters and trailers still highlighted Ledger's freakish character. Warners president of worldwide marketing Sue Kroll told THR in 2008, "It became very clear, when the family and others started to see some of Heath's bravado performance and what a centerpiece it was to the movie, that there was no thought of marketing the film without him."

Sadly, neither Sparkle nor The Dark Knight are Hollywood rarities: Rebel Without a Cause and Giant premiered after James Dean's 1955 death, as did Enter the Dragon after Bruce Lee's in 1973. (Eerily, Lee's son, Brandon, was fatally wounded on the set of 1993's The Crow, leading to speculation about a mysterious curse on the Lee family.) R&B songstress Aaliyah died before her turn in the Anne Rice adaptation Queen of the Damned hit screens, and September will finally see the debut of Dark Blood, the film that star River Phoenix was making when he died in 1993 at age 23.

Tasteful marketing sometimes doesn't seem enough. When Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes died in 2008 before the release of Soul Men, Malcolm D. Lee considered re-editing his film. "We'll go back and see if there is anything we can do better," Lee told USA Today. "I want my movie to be a tribute to both of them."