creative feature: Show and Tell

A movie trailer with no scenes from the film? Cliff Freeman lets the fans do the talking
IN NEW YORK’S GREENWICH VILLAGE, a long line of 20-something hipsters wait more than an hour in the fetid air to see a recent sold-out screening of The Blair Witch Project. Once inside the Angelika theater, they jockey for seats and watch on-screen admonitions about turning off cell phones. The anticipation rises as the previews begin and a trailer for The Minus Man fills the screen.
Slated to open in Los Angeles and New York on Sept. 10, The Minus Man is about a young drifter named Vann, played by Owen Wilson, who is so aw-shucks engaging that his serial killings are merely the independent film’s back story. The movie also stars Janeane Garofalo, Dwight Yoakam and Oscar-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl, but you would never know it from viewing the 140-second trailer.
Produced by Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York, the preview features a young, urban couple, portrayed by unknown actors who do not appear in the film. Directed by Rocky Morton of MJZ Productions, Los Angeles, it opens with the couple walking out of a theater showing the film. The camera follows the two vociferously debating the movie as they walk around Manhattan. Before they know it, the sun is rising over the East River, and the woman breaks away, running in a panic through the streets. It ends with a visual punch line so astonishingly funny that after a moment’s silence, the audience bursts into appreciative laughter.
The movie promotion is the maiden voyage for Cliff Freeman’s new relationship with The Shooting Gallery, the 9-year-old New York studio responsible for films such as Sling Blade and Henry Fool. Last October, TSG tapped Cliff Freeman to market all its films and create its brand identity.
“An agency must go places where no one has gone before,” says chairman Cliff Freeman. “Movies are the most influential thing that ever happened in the 20th century, but they’ve been marketed the same way since day one. The challenge of doing something different was enormously exciting for us.”
Paul Speaker, president of pictures at TSG, says he was hired last year to challenge “the typical, the traditional, the rote” in movie marketing. This is his first attempt at promoting a film in this unconventional fashion.
“We don’t want [this campaign] to be different for different’s sake,” says Speaker, adding that because of their modest budgets, indies cannot be mass-marketed in the traditional, cash-heavy way of studio powerhouses. TSG production budgets range from $3-5 million per film. Conversely, Universal spent nearly $1 million in three months to promote Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts.
“We wanted to say this movie is not business as usual,” Freeman says. “The entertainment level and unexpected nature of the trailer suggest there’s something new and fresh here.”
And the trailer placement couldn’t be more golden. Blair Witch has been hyped as the most terrifying movie since The Exorcist, and it’s attracting what Karen Evans, director of account planning at Cliff Freeman, calls “the inner circle” of the indie market. “Word of mouth is so critical in the movie business,” she notes.
Agency research showed that The Minus Man needed to be targeted at an urban-dwelling, culturally ravenous, college-educated group that is turned off by pat endings.
Charles Rosen, director of the film group at Cliff Freeman, adds, “The [indie] audience must feel they are discovering this film for the larger audience. You don’t do this through a 30-second spot during Seinfeld or a full-color ad in The New York Times.”
One of the moviegoers seeing Blair Witch in its first weekend, Denise Vandervorst, 25, was intrigued by The Minus Man trailer. “I liked the camera angles and thought the art direction was really good,” she says. “I would go see the film.” When told the spot contains no scenes from the movie, she quizzically responds, “[But] that’s what most previews are about.”
Dennis Rice, president of marketing at Disney subsidiary Miramax Films in New York, says showcasing a feature’s stars is key to cutting a trailer. Although he hasn’t seen The Minus Man spot, he says, “I’m not a big believer in trying to make the audience work to figure out what the film is about. You better be clear of your target audience with something like this.”
Starting six weeks before the film’s debut, the ad campaign is designed to build momentum through the trailer, movie posters, a Web site, “go” cards placed at gyms and dance clubs and TV spots. (In late August, a 30-second version will run in local markets and nationally on Comedy Central, MTV and VH1.) The strategy grew out of focus groups, says Taras Wayner, senior art director at Cliff Freeman.
Agency research found that while some audience members initially disliked the film, citing its languid pace, they changed their opinions after discussing its intricacies.
Unlike the trailer, the dark, cryptic poster ads belie the film’s offbeat humor. One shows a swamp with the warning: “Don’t see it alone. Unless you like talking to yourself.” Another shows a swirling ripple and declares: “It doesn’t end when it ends.” The tagline: “Conversation usually follows.”
Whether audiences will “get” the message of The Minus Man campaign may not matter. Vandervorst plans to see the movie even after learning the trailer doesn’t resemble the film.
Rice salutes Cliff Freeman’s unorthodox approach to the project but points to the possible box-office consequences. “If one out of 10 crazy ideas works, it’s probably worth it,” he says. “But if you’re off the mark, there’s no time for recovery.”