Film Ads: Would They Lie to You?

Times Staff Writer

You’ve seen the TV ads for that new movie, you think it looks pretty good, and maybe you’ve decided to buy a ticket.

But is the movie really about what you think it’s about--based on the studio ad campaign running on TV, in movie theaters, on billboards and in newspapers? Let’s take a look:

“Twins” is a running gag about two brothers so identical “even their mother can’t tell them apart.” Right?


Wrong. Everyone can tell them apart.

“Rain Man” is a downbeat, down-home tear-jerker?

Not really. It’s also got fast cars, comic relief and some high living in Las Vegas--even if Dustin Hoffman does play an autistic savant.

“The Good Mother” is a photo copy of “Kramer vs. Kramer”?

Hardly. It’s a frank look at family sexuality.

“Mystic Pizza” is yet another frothy teen-age funfest?

Not at all. It’s a sensitive coming-of-age film.

Which all goes to show how vital these ad campaigns are in shaping the public’s attitude about a movie. Most feature-film marketing executives agree that studio-paid advertising is the primary instrument to introduce new movies to the public.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, they’re a 10,” says independent Hollywood marketing consultant Gordon Weaver, who since August has been working for United Artists on “Rain Man,” “Child’s Play” and “Betrayed.”

“Good reviews and publicity are a bonus,” Weaver notes, “but the only thing you can count on is what you pay for. And if those paid ads don’t work, then you don’t have anything.”

With most ad campaigns for major movies costing upward of $6 million, the object is to devise the most teasing and tantalizing trailers possible to get people into the theaters. So clever copy lines, slick editing and close-ups of Big Name Actors are used to sell movies right along with Joe Isuzu selling sedans.

Most film ad campaigns can only give a brief, boiled-down outline of a film’s high concept rather than its actual plot. The result, say many experts is that intentionally or not, moviegoers are sometimes misinformed. Only when they’re ensconced in their seats do they realize that the movie they’re expecting to see and the movie on the screen may be two different things.


“The problem that all of us in marketing have,” says Allan Freeman, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at United Artists, “is that we’ve got 30 seconds to express a 90- or 120-minute movie to people, and that’s not the easiest thing in the world.

“You don’t deliberately mislead. But you may choose to emphasize some parts and not others.”

Cautions Weaver: “There’s one thing you can never forget: Never lie to your mother and never lie to an audience.

“Because your mother will spank you, and audiences will never go to your movie.”

Already, many reviewers of “Twins” are expressing surprise, and some also dismay, that Universal’s super-savvy ad campaign doesn’t resemble the movie that was made.

From a marketing standpoint, the industry agrees that the “Twins” campaign has been one of the most audience-grabbing of the season. The studio itself claims that awareness of the film is “up in the 90s.”

But which film? When Danny DeVito, one of the film’s stars, went to a Laker game this month, a bunch of kids came up to him, pointed, and said, “There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

“They obviously picked up on that ad campaign,” beams a Universal spokeswoman.

“I think the ‘Twins’ campaign is excellent,” says Dan Gelfand, vice president of advertising at the Samuel Goldwyn Co. “It’s simply a campaign that gets your attention.”

Adds Weaver: “I want to see ‘Twins,’ and I want to see it based on what they’ve told me in the ads.”

But, privately, some marketing executives wonder how the public will react when the ad campaign doesn’t deliver what it promises. Even director Ivan Reitman has distanced himself from the blitz, telling reporters that the idea came from the ad department and not the movie.

“Twins is a great, great trailer in search of a movie,” scoffs one executive. “Five minutes into watching the movie, I thought, ‘Oh, I can go home now.’ Because the whole gag is revealed in the first five minutes. At least, the whole gag that was in the ad campaign.”

Notes another: “That whole campaign is going to put people in theater seats. But what I question is whether it’s going to put the people in theater seats again . I don’t expect much repeat business.”

Whether audiences feel misled, “all depends upon if the film delivers,” says one expert. “If the movie is still a very good movie, clearly the ad campaign won’t have any negative impact.

“But if the movie isn’t, then people could feel exploited in some way by its marketing. That’s when you see films start out big and then take a sharp drop in box-office business.”

Si Kornblit, Universal executive vice president for marketing, is confident that won’t happen with “Twins.” “I don’t think there are misconceptions with the advertising,” he says. “What we’ve seen at early screenings is that the picture delivers on the twins joke and more. So people will be satisfied because there is more to this movie than just one gag.”

Acknowledging that the premise of the movie is “very high concept,” Kornblit explains that the studio decided to use that in its advertising. “The idea of two such different people being twins is very funny. You can say that, and people laugh. And that was what we played upon in our campaign: that it was a funny concept and it will be a funny movie.”

Like “Twins,” the ad campaign for United Artists’ “Rain Man” opening Dec. 16 concentrates on the box-office draw of its boffo stars, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.

The print ads show Cruise and Hoffman walking down a country road, and the first batch of TV ads that aired showed little more of the story line than that. Still, the overwhelming mood of the early trailers was that the movie could well be a downer since clearly Hoffman was playing a mentally disabled character.

“When I saw the first trailers play in theaters,” says one expert from another studio, “the audience didn’t pay attention. But then Tom Cruise comes on and the girls start screaming. They don’t care what the movie’s about as long as he’s in there.”

Even Alan Freeman, the chief marketer for “Rain Man,” acknowledges with a laugh that his son, an undergraduate at Yale, couldn’t tell what the movie was about by looking at the ads.

“It was intentional,” says Freeman. “We’re not trying to confuse anybody and not trying to mislead anybody. But to tell you the whole story in the ads takes away the actual charm of making it unfold before you in the theaters.”

But some observers suggest that “Rain Man’s” recent TV ads are also a mystery: set to music, they show images of Las Vegas, sports cars and designer suits that flash across the screen as fast as an MTV video.

“Not telling the audience what a movie is about is just arrogance,” warns one expert. “And you never want to be arrogant about a film or people won’t want to see it.”

By all accounts, the marketing of “The Good Mother” was a challenge, to say the least. Here was a complex, sophisticated movie about a complex, sophisticated subject--a mother’s battle to keep custody of her young daughter.

The first ad campaign focused on just that. And experts say it left people with the idea that the movie was just a role-reversed carbon of “Kramer Vs. Kramer” when it was actually a film about family sexuality.

A Disney spokeswoman would not comment on the ad campaign, saying, “We don’t discuss the marketing of movies.” However, she acknowledges there were two sets of TV ads.

“The problem with ‘The Good Mother’ was that Disney was afraid to tell people what it was about,” says a marketing expert for another studio. “They didn’t know how to speak plainly about it.”

Once the movie opened to lackluster business, a second batch of clearer TV spots were released. But, still, audiences stayed away. One reason, experts say, is that the message of the ads was still fuzzy, which is exactly what several reviewers complained about the movie in general. “Even if the movie doesn’t take a point of view,” one expert notes, “you have to take a point of view in your ads.”

“Mystic Pizza” may have been a movie that succeeded in spite of its ads, not because of them, thanks to a lot of word of mouth.

Several experts believe the early ad campaign didn’t tell viewers strongly enough why the movie was special or why it would appeal to adults. After all, with a name like “Mystic Pizza,” it could have been a set-inside-the-mall orgy about some New Age teen crystal-huggers.

Dan Gelfand, vice president of advertising for the Samuel Goldwyn Co., notes that the early TV ads were “copy heavy to set up the idea that it’s not a stupid teen-age picture and that it has some substance to it.”

Then the studio came out with testimonial spots after the movie opened to show that “old people like it, too,” says Gelfand.

“We had a lot of debate about whether testimonials were being overused. Do people pay attention? But in the end they work if the picture delivers on that level. The public will say, ‘Oh, that’s just hype’ unless they know it’s the truth. You can’t fool the audience.”

Or can you? Ask Joe Isuzu.