Marketing exec on a run

Van Galder sharpens her skill set

When Valerie Van Galder, president of marketing at the Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, introduced TriStar Pictures' "Running With Scissors" last week at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, it marked a significant moment in the marketing executive's career.

Before stepping into her current position, Van Galder served an 18-month tenure as president of Sony's TriStar Pictures. "Scissors," Ryan Murphy's adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' memoir, which Sony Pictures will release Friday, was the first film she greenlighted. The R-rated drama, which stars Annette Bening, reflects Van Galder's tastes: quirky, sincere and artistic.

Van Galder had barely settled into the top production job at TriStar when Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Jeff Blake plucked her to run Sony's domestic marketing operation. She immediately moved from developing films to managing a marketing staff of 100 that handles about 25 releases a year.

So far, the transition appears to be working. Since Van Galder, a Chicago native who grew up in Southern California, took the reins in December, Sony has been on a roll. The studio crossed the prestigious $1 billion mark in domestic grosses in August, faster than any other studio this year. And this weekend, the Culver City-based studio achieved its 12th No. 1 opening of the year with the $22 million million bow of "The Grudge 2."

With the exception of the Sean Penn starrer "All the King's Men," the studio has experienced few setbacks. Between "The Da Vinci Code" and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," TriStar's "Silent Hill," Revolution Studios' "Click" and Screen Gems' "Underworld: Evolution," among others, Sony's current year contrasts sharply with 2005, when the studio seemingly couldn't catch a break as it released a string of misfires.

Deciding to shake up its roster, Sony accepted the resignation of its marketing head Geoff Ammer and turned to Van Galder, whom it had earlier enlisted to oversee such campaigns as 2003's "Big Fish" and 2004's "Adaptation," two idiosyncratic films that required a delicate touch.

"I've been captivated by Val's enthusiasm and positive energy since we met," Blake said. "It was always tempting to bring her in on certain campaigns. And when we needed to make a change, it made sense to bring her in to run the entire slate."

As a marketer, Van Galder has championed trailers and posters that take a nontraditional approach. From the "Adaptation" poster that used a broken orchid pot with Nicolas Cage's face transposed on it to the current campaign for "Scissors" that features a hand, holding scissors, grafted onto two legs in running shoes, she had opted for striking imagery. "I like to do things that are iconic and unique," Van Galder said. "I'm a big fan of art and graphic design, and I try very hard to champion these ideas through the studio."

For the trailer for Mike Nichols' "Closer," Van Galder suggested using both the Damien Rice song "The Blower's Daughter," which the director used in the film, and Suzanne Vega's "Caramel," a song that had been haunting her. Submitting the trailer to Nichols, she was nervous that he would shoot down the idea; instead, he called her at 6 one morning to approve it enthusiastically. "It was definitely a highlight, considering I worship that man," she recalled.

Van Galder got her start in Hollywood in 1985 when publicist Ronni Chasen hired her to work as her assistant at the PR firm Rogers & Cowen. Chasen, who was intrigued by the young assistant's range of interests, observed, "She has a lot of outside hobbies that a lot of us just don't have time for."

Van Galder spent five years at the firm learning the basics of movie publicity before moving on to a gig as head of marketing at the Hard Rock Cafe, where she spent four years planning openings and booking bands.

Interested in writing, Van Galder left the Hard Rock to develop a magazine called Mouth to Mouth for Time Inc. Ventures. Van Galder described the project as a "dual-gender publication for teenagers," but it never took off, and Van Galder returned to her roots, securing a publicity job at the fledgling Fox Searchlight, under the then head of marketing David Dinerstein.

Van Galder and Dinerstein along with a few assistants launched such films as "The Brothers McMullen," went on with a larger staff to release "The Ice Storm" and "The Full Monty." At Fox Searchlight, as part of a small startup, she was involved in every aspect of a film's release, which allowed her a crash course in all parts of movie marketing.

"Val is one of the smartest execs working in the business today," Dinerstein said. "She is the complete opposite of what the industry refers to as a suit. Filmmakers get along with her really well and, in executive meetings, she isn't afraid to voice her opinion about how she really feels."

Her stint at Fox Searchlight was followed by five years as exec vp marketing at Screen Gems, Sony's genre label, where she launched such movies as "The Mothman Prophecies," "Snatch" and "The Cave."

Van Galder's rapport with filmmakers eventually led to the post as TriStar president. According to Matt Brodlie, who served as her production executive at TriStar and is now a senior vp at Paramount Vantage, "She has a way with filmmakers, connecting to their creative minds and understanding the creative process, which I think is rare for someone in an executive situation."

Despite her success, Van Galder insists her true desire is to run away to London to open a knitting shop. For the moment, though, that fantasy is on hold.

"I'm working nine out of the next 12 weekends, but I wouldn't change it," Van Galder said. "I love the people I work with, so smart and so interesting. It's like being with your favorite friends all day long and getting paid for it."