How Warners survived the wild ride on Spike Jonze's 'Wild Things'
If they gave out Oscars for marketing campaigns, you could pretty much hand out the trophy right now to Warner Bros. marketing chief Sue Kroll, who almost single-handedly managed to find an audience for "Where the Wild Things Are," the new family movie that turned out not to really be a family movie at all.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine a movie that had a weirder opening weekend than "Wild Things." Adapted by Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers from the much-beloved Maurice Sendak book, the film grossed $32.7 million, despite the fact that families with children -- normally an overwhelming portion of a family film's core audience -- made up only 43% of the audience.
According to Hollywood conventional wisdom, "Where the Wild Things Are" looked like a disaster in the making. Over budget and beset by endless delays, the movie kept being pushed back on the Warners schedule, picking up a nasty case of bad buzz after word leaked out that children had fled an early test screening in tears, put off by the dark tone of the film.
Even as the film made its debut over the weekend, rival marketers were skeptical of its chances, saying, with plenty of justification, that "Wild Things" was a tweener -- not conventional enough to be a mass-appeal family film, but too associated with the soft blanket of childhood to appeal to Jonze's natural audience of twenty- and thirtysomething bohos, hipsters and cultural mavericks. Faced with two radically different audiences that rarely converge, most studios would have simply "cheated" -- passing the film off as squeaky clean enough to pass muster with middle-American families in the hopes of getting as big an opening weekend as possible.
But amazingly, Kroll managed to thread the needle, attracting a sizable amount of both audiences, who were prodded into the theaters by the studio's emotion-laden marketing materials and a raft of glowing reviews. (Not every critic liked the movie, including my colleague Kenny Turan, but the ones who liked it really liked it, giving Warners a lot of impressive quotes for its ads.) What impressed me the most is that Kroll was a realist, but one who was willing to think outside the typical marketing box -- coolly assessing the film's strengths and doing her best to amplify them.
She acknowledges that the film's early screenings weren't especially auspicious. "The younger children, the ones under 8, were not as engaged -- in fact, they were a little bored," she told me today, on the phone from London. "We were a little surprised to discover that the people who had the best experience with the movie were adults, even adults without children, and teenagers. So we knew our job would be complicated, but we just made an intuitive decision that we would come up with ads that would emotionally connect with these people."
The resulting campaign had a warm, handmade feel to it, which is pretty much the opposite of most campaigns for family films, which conk you over the head with every dazzling special effect or comic zinger in the movie. Warners simply decided that if young adults loved the movie, they would grab them. Kroll says that 70% of Warners TV ads were on shows aimed at teen and adult-oriented audiences.
"We didn't want the movie to look like one of those slick family films," she said. "We realized that this film got inside people in a very personal way, so went for something that, in terms of our ads, felt a little smaller, more special and more specific, as if to say -- this is a movie that's really for you."
Still, going into its release, the movie had received a lot of negative word of mouth. How did Kroll and her Warners marketing team overcome all the negative vibes? Keep reading:
It's been a long, rocky ride for "Wild Things," which was in development for years at Universal without ever getting a green light. The studio finally put the project in turnaround in late 2005, apparently convinced that the story could never be made into a commercial film. Jonze, who had attached himself to the project several years earlier, took the property to Sony, whose studio chief, Amy Pascal, was a huge fan of Jonze, having released his previous film, "Adaptation."
However, Jonze's timing wasn't fortuitous. In early November, when he was shopping for a new home for the project, Sony released "Zathura," a Jon Favreau-directed film whose quirky, low-tech feel was eerily similar to "Wild Things." (One critic described "Zathura" in terms that would be an almost perfect fit for "Wild Things," saying: "In the enchanted limbo between waking and sleeping, 'Zathura' feels both real and unreal, like a dream you could shake off at any moment.")
There was only problem -- even though the studio adored the film and preview audiences were equally enthusiastic, "Zathura" was a bomb, having proven virtually impossible to market. Unwilling to dig itself the same grave a second time, Sony passed on "Wild Things," which ended up at Warners, which in classic Warners fashion recruited a pair of outside investors (Village Roadshow and Legendary) who were willing to take most of the financial risk. Even though the film ended up costing in the $90- to $100-million range, Warners is only in for 25% of the film.
Jonze was the kind of smart and visually stylish director that Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group President Jeff Robinov liked to bring into the studio fold, it being Robinov's long-term strategy to marry hip filmmakers to mainstream material, a plan that has resulted in such hits as Chris Nolan's "The Dark Knight" and Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" series (and such duds as the Wachowski brothers' "Speed Racer"). Still, the movie's production didn't go especially smoothly, with Jonze having to do considerable reshoots as he wrestled how to animate Sendak's furry Wild Things.
I'd be lying if I said that I loved the final outcome. The film is loaded with emo-angst, which is probably why it plays so well with 25-year-olds, still figuring out their way in the world. But for me, the endless kvetching of the Wild Things was all too reminiscent of one of my family's quarrelsome Passover seders. I'm with Slate's Dana Stevens, who wrote: "If I avoid taking my 3 1/2-year-old daughter to this movie, it won't be because the wild things would scare her. It'll be because their endless therapeutic workshopping would bore her stiff."
As it turned out, most critics were on the side of the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern, who called the film "a movie lover's dream." If Warners had released the film a year ago, when the Internet was full of bad buzz, it might have spelled disaster. But everything changed last March when the studio debuted a new trailer that dazzled the naysayers, myself included.
A pop music connoisseur and longtime music-video director, Jonze had brought the studio a CD full of music he thought captured "Wild Things' " sensibility. The Warners marketing staff fell in love with "Wake Up," a song by Arcade Fire. A friend of the band, Jonze helped persuade the group to allow the studio to use the song in its advertising. The new trailer spared us any of the film's nattering dialogue, simply melding Jonze's striking visual images to the song's uplifting melodies.
The trailer was a Web sensation, being passed virally around from one Arcade Fire fan to another. Warners also signaled its intent to go after a more diverse audience by putting the trailer up in front of a wide range of films, including "Land of the Lost," "Public Enemies" and "I Love You, Beth Cooper." The Arcade Fire trailer turned the film's image around, wiping away all the negative vibes with its vivid emotional appeal.
Ever since its appearance, Warners found that the film had a far more receptive audience, as this weekend's surprisingly strong opening has proven. "For the first time, we were able to convey to people in an emotional and articulate way what this movie was supposed to be," says Kroll. "It really helped reinvent the movie for a lot of people. So we're feeling really proud of taking a film that may not have been immediately accessible, but finding a way to make it work."
Photo of Max (Max Records) and Carol (voice by James Gandolfini) in "Where the Wild Things Are" by Matt Nettheim / Associated Press