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Not Being John Malkovich

There are no great surprises but a number of sharp nuggets contained in Tad Friend's New Yorker piece on the (pseudo)science of movie marketing. A few examples:

Marketers and filmmakers are often quietly at war. “The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’ ”....  At the close [of the marketing campaign for Oliver Stone's W., Lionsgate guru Tim] Palen wanted to run a new banner ad on Internet ticketing sites and political blogs: “Sitting President,” a photo that he’d taken of Brolin as Bush on the toilet, posed like Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Stone vetoed it: he was concerned that Palen’s materials made his film seem giddy and trifling. “Josh on the toilet, that one I didn’t go for,” the director told me.

“I sympathize,” Palen told me. “Oliver Stone has the President taking a shit—how disrespectful. But from the marketing perspective we needed some teeth. Moritz Borman”—one of the film’s producers—“told me, ‘I don’t want to know about “Sitting President,” and if Oliver finds out and yells, I’m going to yell at you, too. But you have to do it.’ ” So Palen did. And Stone didn’t find out. (Borman says that he didn’t authorize the ad.)...

Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make but who’s in them—gone are lavish adult dramas with no stars, like the 1982 “Gandhi.” Such considerations account for a big role being written for Shia LaBeouf in the most recent “Indiana Jones” (to attract youthful viewers as well as Harrison Ford’s aging fans). They also account for the virtual absence from the screen of children between the ages of newborn (when they appear briefly, to puke on the star for the trailer) and that of the Macauley Culkin character in “Home Alone.” Why have a four-year-old character, when one who is ten will prompt ten-year-olds to find him “relatable,” and four-to-nine-year-olds to look up to him? “If we weren’t making decisions based on marketability, John Malkovich would be in every movie,” a top studio marketer says. “Great actor, but not someone you want to see half-naked in the sheets next to Angelina Jolie.”...

Executives’ testing stories take divergent paths to the same punch line. Either they decided not to tamper with a “Pulp Fiction,” despite testing results invariably described as “the lowest scores in the studio’s history,” or they were confounded when an “Akeelah and the Bee” faltered commercially despite “the highest scores in the studio’s history.” In both scenarios, the numbers lied. “Testing is a sham,” one marketing consultant says. “All you’ve learned is what people thought of a movie they didn’t have to pay for. It does not mean they’re going to go pay for it.”

Read the whole thing here.

--Christopher Orr