The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Worst Billboard of the Year (So Far) Award

June 11, 2008 |  1:07 pm


Is this a good billboard? Or is it a marketing monstrosity? As I've been driving around town the last couple of weeks, I've found myself leaning toward the latter. The minimalism of the image is surely somewhat hypnotic, but I keep thinking to myself--is that all there is?

I know "The Happening," which opens Friday, is supposed to be a spooky movie about some sort of viral attack--spooky because, well, it's directed by M. Night Shyamalan and spooky is pretty much what he does for a living. But wouldn't it be spookier to show a spooky image than to simply say--as this billboard does--hey, kids, there's this new Night Shyamalan movie and, well, it's called "The Happening"?

Our Rachel Abramowitz talked to Shyamalan the other day. But he wasn't much more forthcoming than the billboard, basically saying that the film was a reconciliation drama mixed with "90 minutes of just straight paranoia."

I called 20th Century Fox marketing guru Tony Sella, hoping he could explain why the studio was giving us so little to go on, but he hasn't been any more forthcoming than the billboard--i.e. he hasn't returned my calls yet. So I phoned up three leading marketing execs, figuring they would happy to offer some insider expertise on the Fox campaign. Here's what they had to say:

Marketing Expert No. 1: "All I could think was that Fox simply has nowhere to go. They must be desperate beyond recognition. Let's face it--that image means nothing. I guess Fox thinks Night's name will sell tickets, but after his last movie did so poorly, I don't think that's a very safe bet. You get no sense of what 'The Happening' is. I have no clue. What genre is the film? Is it ghosts? Is it a nuclear attack? It's one thing to tease people, but when you have a campaign for a film, you have to do something to make people care. There's a simple equation to movie marketing: no hints = no interest."

Marketing Expert No. 2: "I was very underwhelmed. Night's stock isn't high enough these days to make people think this is a must-see film, like you could do if you put Steven Spielberg or Michael Bay's name above the title. And the title itself is bizarre, because it doesn't tell you anything. It's not good when you look at a billboard and you think, 'I still don't know what the movie's about.' Billboards are there to build awareness and create a level of intrigue--and this does neither."

Marketing Expert No. 3: "You sell movies by grabbing people, but this is so innocuous that it doesn't sell anything. The only way I can explain it is that it's a billboard by default, not by design. I'm sure Night has a lot of input into his campaigns, so what might have happened is that there wasn't any visual idea that the filmmaker and the studio could agree on, so they put this up as a place-holder. Fox is usually very creative with their outdoor materials, so maybe this was a compromise solution. It's hard to sell a horror movie without a bad guy and if the bad guy in this movie really is some sort of virus, well, that's a tough thing to get across on a billboard."

Photo by Patrick Goldstein / Los Angeles Times