The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Midnight in Paris' has secret formula to lure adult moviegoers

July 7, 2011 |  4:21 pm

Midnightparis2Story Almost anybody with enough money and marketing muscle can get millions of wide-eyed fanboys to see a $150-million comic book superhero movie. But if you want to earn some real respect from your peers in the movie-marketing trade, you have to do something really daunting, such as turning Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" into the surprise hit of the summer.

Until now, the conventional wisdom held that Allen was in an irreversible career decline. The 75-year-old filmmaker has made nine films since 2000, with only two of them taking in more than $10.5 million at the box office. The critics had long ago abandoned any real passion for Allen, who seemed content to churn out lightweight romantic comedies that appealed only to his die-hards and aging urban cognoscenti. After all, most of Allen's box-office business came from theaters in the 15 or 20 top latte-sipping markets in the country.

But "Midnight in Paris," Allen's disarming literary fantasy about a disaffected Hollywood screenwriter who finds romance during his late-night rambles through Paris, is a genuine hit, having earned more than $35 million in the United States and nearly as much overseas. The film, which cost $30 million to make, is still in the top 10 box-office movies of the week after seven weeks of release. And even more surprisingly, it's doing business everywhere, even in small towns like Kerrville, Texas, the hometown of Sony Pictures Classics co-chairman Michael Barker, where the film has been playing at the Rio 10 Cinema for the last month.

"That's definitely a first for us," Barker says. "My stepmother is really happy, because she finally can take all her friends to see one of our films. But that's what makes this film such a pleasure. It's playing in theaters that have never played a Woody Allen film before. It's getting big numbers in theaters in Idaho and Montana, in Mississippi and Alabama."

Sony Classics knew it had a marketing challenge with "Midnight in Paris." As much as adults insist that they are eager to patronize good movies, they are difficult to lure into theaters, which is why the list of adult-oriented films that have struck paydirt at the box office outside of Oscar season is rather short. The Academy Awards are the ultimate marketing tool to woo adults, but the buzz of the Oscar carnival is a factor only from about November through February.

During the summer, older-audience films need to create their own word of mouth, as happened last year with "The Kids Are All Right" and in 2009 with "Julie and Julia." The key ingredient to those films' success was simple: good reviews. ("Midnight in Paris" has a sky-high 93 rating at Rotten Tomatoes.)  No critic has ever stopped a teenager from spending $12 of their parents' money to see "Transformers" or "Green Lantern." But bad reviews are fatal for adult-oriented films. Just ask Tom Hanks, whose "Larry Crowne" was drubbed by the critics and is limping along at the box office.

Sony Classics had some unique publicity issues with "Midnight in Paris": Allen was willing to do only a limited amount of publicity around the film's Cannes Film Festival debut in May. According the Sony Classics team, the film's lead actress, Rachel McAdams, didn't do any press, and the film's leading man, Owen Wilson, was already committed to spend his media firepower on "Cars 2," a Pixar blockbuster that opened in late June, several weeks after Allen's film arrived in theaters.

Undaunted, the Sony Classics team decided to take a lemon and make lemonade. They obtained a list of reporters who were invited to the "Cars 2" junket and sent them press notes from "Midnight in Paris," encouraging them to ask Wilson questions about the Allen film during the Pixar media day. Wilson happily complied, answering queries about his character in "Paris" that provided material for a host of stories about the movie. Sony Classics also got a hold of Wilson's schedule of TV appearances to promote "Cars 2" on shows like "The Late Show with David Letterman," then bought ad time for "Paris" spots on the nights when Wilson was a guest.

"It was a total guerrilla marketing campaign because we just don't have the kind of money that a big studio has at its disposal," explains Sony Classics co-chairman Tom Bernard, who says his company has spent $10 million marketing the Allen film, a fraction of what a studio shells out for a summer tentpole film. "If you're going to reach adult moviegoers, you have to use your imagination. When we were buying ads, we went through the TV guide, not the ratings book, because we were trying to find our specific audience, not just the show with the biggest ratings."

Bernard says Sony Classics bought national TV spots on the Tony Awards, CBS Sunday Morning News and  late-night talk shows, but spent much of its kitty on local ad buys. "You're always thinking -- where is that older audience," he says. "We bought time on the Weather Channel and the Cooking Channel, but we also did buys on a lot of local baseball games, especially on Friday night and Saturday day games, because baseball broadcasts definitely deliver an older audience."

If anything, this summer's box-office returns have shown that there are several kinds of adult audiences, including the graying folks who patronized "Paris" and the 30 and 40-something moviegoers who've made "Super 8" a nice-sized hit, having earned $110 million in the U.S. in four weeks of release.

Of course, good reviews can do only so much for a film. Terrence Malick's critically praised "Tree of Life," which cost a reported $40 million to make, has made only $7.5 million after six weeks of U.S. release, despite a huge wave of media coverage after its appearance at Cannes. Despite the good reviews, "Tree of Life" hasn't enjoyed the same strong word of mouth as "Paris," which is more of an easygoing entertainment than "Tree of Life," which has much more of a challenging art film sensibility.

Sony Classics believes its Allen film hasn't peaked yet, with the picture still playing on 850 screens across the country. It is starting to attract a younger audience, which could give it a longer tail as it dips into a wider demographic. With people still worried about the economy, "Midnight in Paris" seems to be serving as a virtual getaway for some viewers.

"I was talking to the head film buyer at AMC Theaters who'd gone to see the film over the 4th of July weekend," Barker says. "He said that when he left the theater, his wife said, 'I felt like we'd just been to Paris on vacation.' And I think a lot of people feel that way. For 94 minutes, they're transported somewhere magical and far away. It makes them feel good."


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-- Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Owen Wilson, star of Woody Allen's new film "Midnight in Paris," at a screening in Beverly Hills.

Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press