The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Funny People' ads: Did Universal forget how to spell Adam Sandler?

July 17, 2009 | 10:20 am

When I was driving to the Santa Monica farmers market the other morning, I found myself stuck in traffic next to a big bus with an ad for the upcoming Judd Apatow picture, "Funny People." The ad has a photo of Adam Sandler with the film's costars, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann. Even though Sandler plays a character in the film who thinks he's dying, the ad makes him look quite cheerful, with the three actors cozily resting their heads on one another's shoulders as if they were chummy old friends. 

Funny_people-(3)-(2) It's a warm, vaguely seductive image, but I have to admit what really grabbed me was the fact that even though Universal is paying Sandler a boatload of moola to star in a movie whose budget is somewhere north of $70 million, the studio didn't bother to put the world's biggest comedy star's name on the ad. Instead of seeing Sandler's name under the photo, we get one of those "if you liked these movies, you'll really like this one" reminders that reads: "The third film from the director of "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," which raises at least two questions: Why do we need to know it's Apatow's third movie? And why plug old Apatow movies when you could plug Adam Sandler? After all, "Funny People" isn't some tiny art movie. It's Universal's last hope for a summer blockbuster hit. Isn't it Marketing 101 to put the star's name on every bus in the country?

Broadcast Rival marketers were mystified by the omission. "Adam Sandler is the No. 1, 2 and 3 reason for people to see this movie," said one marketing chief. "If he's your best drawing card, why not shout it from the rooftops?" Said another marketer: "It must be a conscious choice, but it makes no sense. If you're selling a comedy, even a Judd Apatow comedy, why wouldn't you use Sandler and Seth Rogen's name everywhere you could?" Noting that the ad looks somewhat similar to the poster for Jim Brooks' "Broadcast News," with features its trio of stars in a similarly lovey-dovey pose, one marketing expert suspected that Universal was trying to position the film as a Brooks film, since with "Funny People," Apatow seems to be emulating the relationship-based drama that is at the heart of most Brooks films.

When I got Universal's marketing and distribution chief Adam Fogelson on the phone, I jokingly asked if the studio had forgotten how to spell Adam Sandler's name. I got a courtesy laugh. Fogelson admitted: "Is the ad unusual? Yes." But as he explained: "I know it's not commonplace, but Judd, Adam and I all saw the material, and none of us were at all concerned that we weren't doing everything that should be done to properly promote the movie."

So why not use Sandler's name? As it turns out, since there are three actors in the photo, if Universal wanted to use their names, guild restrictions involving outdoor advertising would have required the studio to run a billing block for the movie (that ugly block of type listing all the major contributors to the film, which is often bloated with the name of 14 different producers). Even worse, according to Fogelson, the size of the billing block is tied to the size of the movie title and the size of the name of the actors.

"So if we'd used Adam, Seth and Leslie's names, we would've had to run a very large billing block, which would've resulted in a messy and I think far less effective piece of advertising," says Fogelson. "We thought that all three actors are very recognizable on their own, and since the public is getting to see plenty of other ads on TV and in theaters that have effectively communicated who's in the film, we could just use a clean and simple ad for our outdoor campaign."  

Fair enough. On the other hand, last year 20th Century Fox ran big billboards for "Australia" that featured likenesses of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman without ever identifying who they were. The movie hardly took the U.S. by storm. Maybe if you go to all the trouble to hire a costly movie star, you should get your money's worth. 


Memo to Judd Apatow: Your movie is too long!