When the Bad Buzz Arrives Before the Movie Does
The humiliating box office returns for “All the King’s Men” may have trickled in over the weekend (a pathetic $3.8 million), but the death knell sounded almost a year ago and unintentionally came out of its producers’ mouths. When Sony Pictures announced, just two months before the film’s planned Christmastime release, that its opening would be pushed into the next year, the official reason was that more time was needed to complete the editing and score. But the unmistakable message sent to savvy audiences (that means everyone now) was: This movie is in trouble.
The studio ignored one of the harshest realities of movie marketing today: It’s almost impossible to recover from bad buzz.
Studios wield their marketing campaigns as they always have, priming audiences to expect the best. But with the media following every twist of a movie’s progress, viewers head to theaters loaded with behind-the-scenes information. A current television spot for the Ashton Kutcher-Kevin Costner action film, “The Guardian” (opening Friday), actually flaunts its preview audience test scores, calling it “one of the best-playing and highest-scoring movies in the history of Touchstone Pictures.” Even insidery advertising campaigns, though, can’t change the fact that blogs, television infotainment and mainstream entertainment reporting can amount to an antimarketing campaign, priming audiences for the worst.
Such bad buzz isn’t fate; “Titanic” was famously postponed from summer to the holiday season of 1997. But that happened largely because the production was complicated, not because the movie was taken in for repairs. More important, in the near-decade since then, as the entertainment media have become ubiquitous, audiences have become more suspicious.
“They changed the date because they had a good film that they thought could be better yet,” one of the stars said about his delayed movie; that was Billy Bob Thornton on the 2004 fiasco “The Alamo.” So when the producers of “All the King’s Men” hinted that their postponement would simply make the film more competitive for the next Oscar race, moviegoers could only think, “Yeah, sure.”
Desperately trying to spin viewers with higher expectations, “All the King’s Men” set itself up for failure because it is impossible to forget a year’s worth of factoids. When Sean Penn first appears on screen in the film, as the self-described hick and soon-to-be-political-savant Willie Stark, his short-sided period haircut may jog your memory: that’s the funny haircut he had at the Oscars two years ago.
And when the idealistic Stark becomes Louisiana’s governor and, overnight it seems, is accused of graft and threatened with impeachment, it’s easy to speculate that the scenes charting his moral fall must have vanished during the months of heavy-duty editing. True or not, every flaw plays into the sense that there was big trouble behind the scenes.
And in the end, the studio sent another message of no confidence by opening “All the King’s Men” in September rather than during the prime Oscar-bait holiday season. Oscar-ready films that have opened in September, like “Mystic River” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” have come out of the prestigious New York Film Festival. “All the King’s Men” went to the nonexclusive Toronto film festival, and the word there was that the movie was mediocre at best. Mr. Penn appeared on “Larry King Live” a week before the film’s opening, but a picture is really troubled if its best resource is the Larry-loves-everything school of buzz.
A film would have to be extraordinarily good to overcome the weight of such negative scuttlebutt, which “All the King’s Men” is not. But it is not the nightmare its brutal critical and commercial death would suggest, either, and if it had arrived a year ago, its genuine strengths, piecemeal though they are, might have emerged more clearly.
Within the morass of the writer-director Steven Zaillian’s self-consciously arty overhead shots and James Horner’s excruciating, heavy-handed score (that’s what took an extra year?) is a still potent story of idealism, power and corruption. A year ago that might have made the film seem an intriguing disappointment, not a blight. Last year Jude Law’s sensitive performance as Jack Burden, a journalist who becomes Stark’s spineless aide, might have been better appreciated as the heartbreaking depiction of a man desperate to avoid the least implications of his emotions or actions.
It doesn’t help that most delayed movies, like “The Alamo,” really are turkeys. Last year’s troubled delayed films included Terry Gilliam’s leaden “Brothers Grimm” and the Jennifer Aniston dud “Rumor Has It.” No wonder audiences are suspicious when a good film arrives behind schedule. “Proof,” the eloquent adaptation of the Broadway play, with Gwyneth Paltrow as the grieving daughter of a mathematical genius, was caught in the changeover from Miramax to the Weinstein Company and dumped into theaters nearly a year later than expected. What chance did this lovely small film have?
Studios are learning to use the Internet and viral marketing to steer the buzz, but for now that approach is still better suited to movies that aim for a young audience (“Snakes on a Plane,” though even that failed to match its Web hype), not those with artistic ambitions. When films like “Proof” or “All the King’s Men” arrive late, they’re like the fish you order in a restaurant on Sunday. Sure, you can do it, and maybe it’ll be fine, but you’re prepared for that whiff that says it’s not quite fresh, the fishy smell of failure.