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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Fox's Tony Sella on 'Knight and Day': 'Blame me, not Tom Cruise'

Tom_cruise When it comes to surviving the nasty world of Washington politics, people have often said that if you want a friend, get a dog. The same goes in Hollywood, especially when your movie has crashed and burned at the box office.

So it's no surprise that all of the industry buzz over the weekend has focused on the rocky opening for "Knight and Day," the supposed sure-thing romantic action comedy that did a belly flop at the box office, barely topping $20 million for the three-day weekend (giving it $27.8 million in five days of release).

Despite having Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in starring roles and a wall-to-wall marketing blitz of TV ads from 20th Century Fox, the movie simply didn't find an audience, finishing a distant third to "Toy Story 3" and Adam Sandler's "Grown Ups." In Hollywood, when a movie fails to open, the blame game begins in earnest. Many in the media thought the problem started with Cruise, who did tons of press for the film but couldn't pull moviegoers into the multiplexes. Many in the industry, including several people close to the film, were privately pointing fingers at Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman, who picked the movie's title, its release date and micromanaged its marketing campaign, down to approving stills and press kits for the film.

Also coming under fire was Tony Sella -- Fox's co-president of marketing, who is viewed as one of the best in the business -- for having done a poor job of positioning the $117-million film, the studio's third consecutive dud of the summer, after "Marmaduke" and "The A-Team." Sella's critics say that audiences were confused by the studio's initial trailer for the film, which ran on the front of "Avatar," the phenomenally successful James Cameron film that dominated the box office this year. When tracking about audience interest in "Knight and Day" became available several weeks ago, the numbers were surprisingly low. Despite frantic efforts by Fox to reconfigure the film's marketing message, the numbers never recovered.

Knight-And-Day-Poster-Tom-Cruise Those close to the film contend that the movie's title was off-putting to younger moviegoers, saying it evoked wheezy, 1980s-era action films like "Tango and Cash." They were also surprised to see Fox running posters and outdoor advertising that didn't have any images of Cruise and Diaz, opting instead of silhouette style cutouts of the actors -- if you're going to pay multiple millions to movie stars, why not get your money's worth from using a sexy photo of their images in the campaign? After all, for all of the inside-the-industry backstabbing of Cruise after his outbursts of off-putting behavior, the actor successfully opened 2008's "Valkyrie," a Nazi-era World War II movie that represented a far more questionable commercial genre than an action thriller like "Knight and Day."

In a rare interview Monday morning, Sella, who is painfully media shy but a delightful raconteur when he's far away from a tape recorder, took full responsibility for the film's poor showing. He was especially vocal -- and unusually candid -- when it came to the issue of the Cruise Factor. "Blame me, don't blame Tom Cruise," he said. "We did lots of focus groups for this film, and no one ever said there was a star problem. Never. Tom Cruise was not the issue. I take full responsibility." He laughed. "And if the movie ends up going to $100 million, I want full responsibility too."

Sella contends that the silhouette-style representations of the film's stars weren't meant to hide the actors from view. "I was doing an homage to [fabled title designer] Saul Bass," he explained. "It was a way for us to signal that this was a different, adult kind of movie. The whole campaign was designed to evoke a film like 'North by Northwest.' It wasn't in any way us trying to hide anyone, simply to make the film look unique, so you didn't just look at the billboards as if they were designed to say, 'The Two Stars Go Here.' "

Sella acknowledged that the film's initial trailer didn't get its message across properly. But he insists that Fox wasn't asleep at the switch when the lousy tracking numbers began showing up, as some critics have contended. "We knew there was an audience disconnect, and we reacted and tried to adjust the spots accordingly," he said. "You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that when you got your trailer out in front of the biggest movie of all time and you still didn't have the tracking numbers you should have, it wasn't an awareness problem. It was a problem with our message.

"The minute the tracking came out, we went into Def Con 5, because the tracking never lies -- if the numbers aren't there, you know you need to do something. We reacted almost daily in a way to make the campaign better, with different ideas and different spots. Whether we reacted effectively or not is another question, but we did our best, because we always believed in the movie." 

So what kept moviegoers away from "Knight and Day?" Keep reading:

Sella found himself in a classic marketer's quandary. He'd been running an offbeat campaign to make the film feel unique. But once the audience registered its confusion with his campaign, he found himself simplifying the message, which created a new set of problems. "Once we decided to change the message to be as literal as we could be -- to help moviegoers understand the film -- then people started to say, 'Oh, I've seen that movie before. It's 'Mr and Mrs Smith' or it's 'True Lies.' And that was exactly what we'd tried not to do, to make the movie feel like something you'd seen before."

One of the biggest problems with "Knight and Day" was that it appealed largely to an older audience, either because younger moviegoers have little interest in a sophisticated "North by Northwest"-style thriller or because Cruise and Diaz have even less of a following among younger moviegoers than anyone had imagined. According to reporting by my colleague Ben Fritz, under-25 moviegoers made up 44% of the film's opening weekend audience, a figure that doesn't bode well for the film, since even fewer younger moviegoers will be available after the new "Twilight" film opens Wednesday. 

In the summer, adult moviegoers rarely drive the box office, especially when your film skews as old as "Knight and Day" did and receives decidedly mixed reviews. "If you're over 40, this movie was a rock star -- the whole concept, the Nick and Nora of it all," says Sella. "It's a grown up film. That was the whole theory behind selling the film, that it was a cool, adult movie, hence the poster and the graphics behind it. We wouldn't have called it 'Knight and Day' if we weren't going for an adult audience. I guess that if I'm guilty of anything, it's that I always believed an adult movie could work, even in the summer."

But why didn't the young moviegoers come too? Sella falls silent. "Honestly, I don't know," he said. "I've still got to try and figure that out." He dismissed complaints about the film's title, arguing that titles, good or bad, are overrated. "If there are three words that you should never put in any title, its 'Dead Poet's Society,' and yet that film was a huge success. Titles really don't hurt movies, and for that matter, I don't know what else we could have called it. What we were up against was bigger than that."

Frankly, no one knows for sure what kept moviegoers away from "Knight and Day." Even if the film had a lousy title and a questionable release date, it's easy to name dozens of films that have triumphed over those factors, just as it's easy to name dozens more films that had unbelievably enticing titles and a perfect release date -- and still went down in flames. If Angelina Jolie opens "Salt," a July 23 action thriller that looks eerily like "Wanted," her last action thriller, then we'll have to wonder if Cruise and Diaz really have completely lost their drawing power. And if "Salt" is a disappointment, then perhaps people will cast a wider net, saying that movie stars are even more overrated than ever before, or argue that action thrillers are dead -- at least until the next one that comes along has a terrific opening.

It's why Hollywood loves to play the blame game. In a business where there are no infallible filmmakers, where audiences are perpetually fickle, blowing hot and cold over every fresh new actor or hot new trend, the only constant is that our movies are our most enigmatic consumer product of all, their appeal a perpetual mystery. All we know is that something was missing from the witches' brew represented by "Knight and Day," something that even a savvy marketer like Sella is still having trouble figuring out.

It's why movie marketers are often a little tightly wound. The ground is always shifting under their feet. Slam dunks are for basketball. Home runs are for baseball. When it comes to the movies, you could lose an awful lot of money betting on a sure thing.   

Photo: Cameron Diaz, left, and Tom Cruise in "Knight and Day." Credit: Frank Masi / Associated Press / 20th Century Fox.


Comments () | Archives (77)

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It's simple, really. Cruise and Diaz were huge stars over 10 years ago, but not today. The stars of today are iPads and iPhones, and movies and musicians that appeal to tweens. Sad, but true.

Tony Sella, it's not your fault. I'm over forty and I find Tom Cruise repulsive. About the only character that he has played in the last twenty years that I liked was the one in "Tropic Thunder" where he was barely recognizable. His grating personality is okay in small doses. But when he's carrying a whole film, UGH.

Unfortunately for Cameron Diaz, her shining personality is outweighed the overbearing weight of his.

I saw "Knight and Day" over the weekend. I enjoyed the flick, and hadn't realized there was a genre for it, the "romantic action comedy." Yes, I'm older, and while the storyline wasn't strong, it was there, and was a nice context for all the action stuff. And, there were a lot of "inside jokes" from other Cruise films that teens won't get, 'cause Cruise has been at this for 30(!) years. I 'spose it's like "Seinfeld." If you had seen the previous episodes, you got it, unlike me, who only occasionally watched, and wondered what was so damn funny. My gut tells me this film will linger, that the word-of-mouth will be positive. Hey, it's summer, and like certain wines in summer, it's a lovely "quaffer." Go see it.

I'll tell you why this movie flopped: it's because Cameron Diaz is washed-up. She's old and her track record speaks of lame movie performances. Her presence tells you that this movie is just another re-tread.

This had a negative effect on Tom Cruise, as well, who is also getting long in the tooth, and after all his antics, this movie may be another nail in his movie career coffin.

The title was corny as heck, too, which took me back to the era of 70's action flicks... The whole idea and look of the movie looked dated, it just didn't feel like an "event" type of movie or "must-see."

It would seem that movie-goers are not taking seriously these two aging actors. It's as clear as: "Knight and Day."

The trouble with this movie is Tom Cruise... If they had cast Sean Penn or Samuel Jackson in the lead then they might have had a chance... Cruise is history along with people like Adam Sandler ( a real loser ) and Larry the Cable Guy. When will Hollywood wake up to the fact this man is NOT leading man material... though he might do well in light melodrama....however, he's certainly no leading man. One or two more turkeys like this will most certainly put him out to pasture where he is long overdue.

Why didn't it open?

Because, from the TV spot - it looked like it sucked. What these marketing guys don't understand you could fill a superbowl.

The TV ad and the trailer are there to sell the movie, to sell what is good in the movie. If the trailer can't find anything good, then the moviegoer assumes there's nothing there. And that's what those TV spots looked like. Nothing.

Tom Cruise has destroyed his brand. Has he made a good action film in years? No. So audience is not responding to Knight & Day because they've felt let down by Cruise's most recent efforts, specifically Mission Impossible crud he's been spewing onto the public. Tom Cruise in an action movie = another overproduced, underwritten, ridiculous action movie. That's what the MI movies did.

Could it be that the poor opening is just due to the incredible "Toy Story 3" that appeals to everyone at every age? Maybe the Cruise movie just opened on the wrong day. Pixar is simply phenomenal.

I honestly think, whether the studio heads want to believe it or not, that people want an original script. This is just True Lies, Mr and Mrs Smith over and over and over. People are hungry for originality, and here we go with Jolie in a typical sci-fi killer fembot story line...yawn...Oh, how about another sequel. I know the studio bigwigs believe, somewhat correctly that repetition sells, but for the love of God, something original? Tom Cruise is a bit of damaged brand, but there is hope for rebirth. Diaz is good, but needs more Lucille Ball and Teri Garr roles.
Good luck

The box office tally did not surprise me. First the horrible initial trailer was completely off the mark and convinced people to stay away. First impressions are very important, if you haven't noticed. Second, Tom Cruise is no longer a big box office draw like he used to be. That's the hard truth. Nobody cares about Cameron Diaz--she has never been able to open a movie, period. I understand the "counterprogramming" involved in trying to open it with Toy Story 3 and Grownups, which would appeal to a different demographic, but you had to have known Toy Story 3 would open big and Grownups would do the normal Sandler opening gross around $40 mil. It appears 20th Century Fox had too much confidence and it backfired.

After seeing all those almost identical promos for Ashton Kutcher's film last month with what's her name from Gray's Anatomy... I just kept thinking... like... a new idea please! Really. For what they pay all these people please come up with something new or just make more ToyStory movies.

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