Oscar Marketing Smackdown: '127 Hours' and 'Buried'

127 Hours - Film Still - 2010
Courtesy of Cloud Eight Films

Last Thursday, the National Board of Review gave Buried's Chris Sparling the nod for best original screenplay, and S.T VanAirsdale hailed star Ryan Reynolds for one of "5 Great Performances Oscar is Bound to Overlook." So how come Oscar is unlikely to overlook 127 Hours? “In Buried, he’s stuck in a box, in 127 Hours, he’s stuck in a canyon,” says Carl Spence, artistic director of Seattle International Film Festival. Why did one claustrophobia drama tank and the other's an Oscar hopeful? Marketing may have something to do with it.

Buried faced the tougher marketing challenge. “The art crowd didn’t want to see a movie about a guy in a box and the thriller audience maybe wanted a bit more action,” says Maple Pictures president Laurie May, who distributes Buried in Canada. “I think it was a smart move to try to grab both. Nobody is better at genre film releasing than Lionsgate, and you couldn’t have done a better campaign than Tim Palen’s. He did Precious and Saw.” But the film's Hitchcock homage, critic raves, and cool Saul Bass-ish graphics were lost on genre audiences, and art types wanted to be trapped in a box with the star of The Proposal about as much as Woody Allen liked being imprisoned underground with an insurance salesman in Take the Money and Run.

Few fault Lionsgate’s marketing. “It reminds me of what Hitchcock did,” says Stephen Rebello, screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (which he says will “probably” star Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock). “I don’t think Lionsgate made a mistake at all—it’s a smart, elegant, stylish campaign and should’ve done the job. Audiences cheated themselves.”

Rebello compares Buried and 127 Hours to Buried’s inspiration, Hitchcock’s one-set Lifeboat. “Fox’s marketing people were sharp. Great posters. It’s vivid color, it’s water, a lot of rich people in difficult circumstances. Titanic was still in people’s minds. A large star cast suggested scope, not claustrophobia.” Buried’s marketing was about suspense, prestige – and inevitably, dirt, dark, stasis, one man’s isolation, like Hitchcock’s Breakdown, about Joseph Cotten trapped in a car.

127 Hours is a wide-open movie about isolation” says Rebello. “It opens with a bang, split screens. It has real scope, propulsive energy, chaos, sexy editing, pounding music. Ryan is good in Buried, and [director] Rodrigo Cortés has an interesting contemporary sense of what Hitchcock did with confined spaces. But 127 Hours blows up the hero’s world, broadens and widens it. It’s a spiritual adventure.”

The marketing dazzlingly captures this in bright nonclaustrophobic imagery. On the website, James Franco gazes at moving clouds, his right hand (doomed to be slashed) glowing like E.T.’s finger or the kindly dead in Hereafter. The trailer boasts soaring aerial shots of gorgeous nature with Franco’s funny, ironic, inviting voiceover setting up the plot. A bike crash. Cute flirty girls flying through cracks in red rocks with Franco, splashing into a blue pool cooler than Hef’s grotto, and only then the scenes of countdown-to-death confinement. Flashbacks and voiceover place Franco’s character in the context of the people he loves. We feel what he stands to lose. It ends with a message of fear and hope: “Do. Not. Give. Up.” “It’s not like Into the Wild, another good movie,” says Rebello. “Not just man vs. nature, more like Herzog, nature as a symbol of a man dealing with his own strength, mistakes, spirituality.”

Lifeboat ads stressed Hitchcock’s Oscar for Rebecca; 127 Hours’ note Slumdog Millionaire’s. “Danny Boyle’s movie is closer to Hitchcock. You can enjoy it as an adventure with a soon-to-be-notorious grossout scene. You can also have a more profound experience,” says Rebello.

127 Hours wins the marketing contest. But like 127 Hours’ real-life hero Aron Ralston, Buried isn’t dead yet. “It worked much better internationally,” notes producer Peter Safran. “It opened #3 in the U.K. behind The Other Guys and Despicable Me. It was in the top three in Spain and Greece. In Argentina it was the #1 movie of the week.” May says most movies do about 8 percent of North American business in Canada; Buried did about 30 percent. Is Buried too smart for American mass market, and better suited to smarter foreign audiences? “It’s an interesting point you bring up,” says Safran.

Buried will show up on a lot of Netflix lists,” says Rebello. “A movie that good on so little money is unstoppable.”