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Rules of ‘Evidence’ — Pundits Cast Marketing As Central in Film’s Flop By Kathy Tyre

The reviewers certainly weren’t kind to Body of Evidence, but MGM’s failure to market the erotic Madonna thriller properly is g

The film, which cost an estimated $20 million to produce, opened three weeks ago to a $7.5-million box office, believed to be among the 10 lowest opening weekend grosses for pictures playing on 1,900 or more screens. By its second weekend, domestic grosses were off 59% and down to $3 million, for a total box office take of $11.5 million.
Sources close to MGM said the studio’s marketing team failed to read early signs of just how difficult it would be to market the controversial singing and dancing diva to a broad audience.
‘Old movie logic says, ‘Get Madonna’,’ said one MGM source. ‘ ‘If she can fill these stadiums, sell 80 million records, why we’ll just put her in a movie and it’ll be gravy.’ It’s not that easy. That transition from musical powerhouse to movie powerhouse has traditionally been a very tough one.’
Body of Evidence co-executive producer Stephen Deutsch, who spoke on behalf of MGM marketing executives, said the studio didn’t err in its marketing, but it may have underestimated the power of the press. One of the overriding roadblocks to the film’s success, according to Deutsch, was that there was a ‘tremendous media vendetta against Madonna.’
‘Because it was Madonna, the whole town was lying in wait,’ agreed another source. Once the film opened, ‘they pounced on it and beat it to a pulp.’
In the face of that, Deutsch said, ‘I think the guys at MGM did an extraordinary job to get the movie open as well as they did.’
Other marketing pundits disagreed. MGM chose to make Madonna the centerpiece of its ad campaign, but didn’t go far enough in exploiting the eroticism of the actress and the film, several experts said. The original TV and print campaigns were heavy on copy that teased the audience with Madonna’s name, coupled with seemingly juicy but vague words like ‘Beware.’
As the film opened, the studio ran newspaper ads with favorable excerpts from critics’ reviews that touted the sex and suspense of the film. A radio campaign, meanwhile, answered the objections for movie-goers who might not have been attracted by Madonna by using interviews with viewers who spoke about the star’s performance in the movie.
What MGM should have done, marketing experts said, was either to construct a campaign that was as outrageous as Madonna’s stage persona, or to play up the storyline of the film, about a woman charged with literally killing her husband with bizarre sex.
To accomplish the latter, ‘You needed to do a campaign over a long period of time in print, selling with copy and image the quality of the product,’ said a source close to MGM’s marketing process. ‘There was ample opportunity to tease that movie, to lay a groundwork that would convince the media and the industry that it was really worth something.’
Studio biggies apparently couldn’t agree on which route to take. ‘They could have admitted to themselves that the reviews were going to be negative and just tried to sell the eroticism of the piece; to go for the people who have a curiosity, the Sharon Stone crowd,’ said one creative source familiar with the studio.
MGM had originally seen potential for Madonna as movie star based on reactions to her film Truth or Dare, said one MGM source. ‘At the outset, there was a feeling that her celebrity would translate to this kind of a role (in Body of Evidence) and would round the edges on the research problem.’
Research showed that the demographics of the Madonna audience are far from that needed for a major feature film. ‘From a movie marketing standpoint, the project came with built-in problems,’ said a source involved with the research. ‘It was a fairly narrow, young, female and also homosexual following.’
The timing of the release was another problem. Madonna wanted the film to follow the release of her book and record, according to sources involved in the marketing of the film. At the time, it made sense to MGM to wait until the media hoopla over those releases died down, so as not to overload the public.
As it turned out, the public may have already had too much of Madonna. ‘It was like launching a new hamburger after everybody had just eaten a half dozen,’ the source said.
Producer Deutsch agreed that timing added to the problem. ‘There was in the public’s mind, a certain backlash against the book.’
Madonna and MGM agreed on a January release date, which made sense for a movie that needed a media blitz, since media prices are at their lowest at that time of the year.
But MGM never really launched a blitz, insiders said. ‘You have to buy every cable outlet on the hour, you have to buy fringe and late-night on the hour and you have to pepper the airwaves. MGM chose not to do that.’
Instead, they bought TV time during NFL football, primetime and news, where their audience wasn’t.
Several sources said the media buying mistakes weren’t the fault of former MGM agency Wells Rich Greene/BDDP, L.A. Too many chiefs directed the production. ‘The committee on these movies gets bigger and bigger,’ one source said. ‘It’s not only MGM, but the bank (Credit Lyonais, which owns MGM,) and Dino Di Laurentiis, Madonna, everybody putting their two cents in.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)