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Marketing the apocalypse, in time for holidays

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” won the Pulitzer Prize, but it’s likely the voters read it while holding a hand over their eyes and peering through a gap in two fingers. While it is a novel that explores the unwavering bond between a father and son, there are chilling and gruesome aspects that make a beautifully written tale somewhat cringeworthy. In a post-apocalyptic world, a man and his so
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” won the Pulitzer Prize, but it’s likely the voters read it while holding a hand over their eyes and peering through a gap in two fingers. While it is a novel that explores the unwavering bond between a father and son, there are chilling and gruesome aspects that make a beautifully written tale somewhat cringeworthy.

In a post-apocalyptic world, a man and his son navigate a god-forsaken landscape, filled with charred foliage, abandoned towns and bands of marauding cannibals. When it came out in 2006, it earned immediate distinction as the pick-it-up, put-it-down, pick-it-up again book of the year.

So how will the filmmakers who adapted it into a major motion picture go about selling such bleak fare to a holiday audience?

“I think generally you have to separate the film from the marketing of the film,” said Robert Levin, who teaches movie marketing at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and has previously served as head of marketing for Disney, Sony and MGM.

“The marketer’s task is to create that awareness and interest which makes people choose that film that they want to see, and in this environment to see it quickly so it can build word of mouth. Usually what it comes down to, when it comes to the grimness that we’re talking about, is very often not exposed in a two-and-a-half minute trailer or a 30-second television commercial.

“In film, a lot of times people can die of cancer, but you would never know it from the marketing materials.”

Levin could not be too specific in discussing the campaign for “The Road” — and The Weinstein Company, which is releasing the film, did not respond to requests to discuss the marketing of the film — but he said from what he has seen, the more positive and thus sellable aspects of the film are being emphasized.

Isaac Leicht is now a consultant who served as director of international marketing for The Weinstein Company and in post-production for Miramax. He said if the film is good, it goes a long way toward marketing it, regardless of the subject matter.

“The darkness of the film, the dark aspects of the story, are all relative,” he said. “If the movie is good enough and the relationships are good enough, then you don’t really have a problem. If you market a movie with dark subject matter and it’s not a good movie, then it’s in trouble.”

Leicht pointed out that moviegoers need assurances that they’re paying to see a film that’s worth their hard-earned money. “Things like reviews really help,” he said. “It helps to reassure audiences that a dark-looking film is still a great film.”

Generally, the reviews for the film version of “The Road” — starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee and directed by John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) — have been largely positive. It currently rates 78 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

The trailer is a major component in persuading folks to see a film. It can sometimes tease about the content without giving away too much. It can also spotlight certain parts of the film that are flattering to it, but ultimately give a somewhat misleading idea of what the film is about.

“If the movie they go to see is entertaining, if they didn’t have a complaint about the movie, there is seldom a backlash,” Levin explained. “What you get more of is ‘I didn’t expect it to be that, but I’m glad I saw it.’ If it’s a good movie experience, then people forget what got them there.

“Now, they may tell friends, ‘You have to see this movie, but the material isn’t exactly what they say it is.’ You find the same thing in comedy. I’m sure you’ve been lured into something that appeared to be much funnier than it really is. If you get lured into seeing a film by material that is not quite what the movie is going to be, but it’s sufficiently funny, then people are satisfied.”

“The Road” is not the only film out there that faces a marketing challenge. “Precious,” a film based on a novel by Sapphire, is about an overweight African-American teenager living in Harlem who endures a highly abusive home life and is given a chance to escape through a progressive alternative school.

“This movie was guided by angels,” said director Lee Daniels. “Why make this movie? Where’s the commerciality about a story about a 350-pound black girl? What’s wrong with me? What planet was I on when I decided to do this? If I thought about it, I might not have done it, I might not have had the courage. But something pushed me through.”

Unlike “The Road,” there is no cannibalism in “Precious,” but there are scenes of viciousness. “This ‘Precious’ is a very different movie,” Levin said. “If you look at the materials presented, there is a great presentation of hope. This very troubled youth found somebody that helped her turn her life around. “

Leicht mentioned the upcoming drama “Brothers,” starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman, as another film with unsettling subject matter. It’s a story about a Marine believed missing in action who returns home only to discover that his brother has established a relationship with his wife. Directed by multiple Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan, it reeks of prestige, but it also suggests an uncomfortable cinematic experience.

“If you look at that trailer,” Leicht said, “it starts light and sweet, but takes a dark turn and it ends on that. That’s OK, because the performances will be fantastic judging from the trailer.”

Ultimately, “The Road” could benefit greatly simply by being the progeny of an acclaimed novelist like McCarthy.

“‘No Country for Old Men’ was an incredible movie by the same author,” Leicht said. “If it’s good writing, people will want to see it.”