Six years ago, when Jason Reitman set out to write a dramatic comedy about a “corporate downsizer” who flies around the country and fires employees, the economy was booming and jobs were plentiful. By the time the young director, known for his 2007 hit “Juno,” got around to making “Up in the Air,” the world had drastically changed.
The great recession hit, unemployment soared to nearly 10% and adult audiences had largely forsaken films with weighty topics, instead favoring escapist fare. Suddenly layoffs, even cast in a humorous light, didn’t seem so funny.
Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” which stars George Clooney as a corporate grim reaper, presents a thorny marketing challenge for Paramount Pictures, the studio that helped finance the picture and is distributing it. The film’s release on Friday comes as the nation grapples with the worst economic downturn in 70 years, and the movie prominently features a theme -- getting thrown out of work because of cutbacks -- that could alienate potential moviegoers too pained to watch on the big screen what they are all too familiar with in real life.
To give “Up in the Air” an air of reality, Reitman incorporated 25 stark documentary-style segments of interviews with non-actors who had lost their jobs. He adopted the technique, he explained, because his original comedic scenes about layoffs “weren’t funny anymore.”
“Up in the Air” is the latest Hollywood film that collides with difficult topics from today’s headlines. And such movies’ track record isn’t encouraging. Disney’s recent comedy “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” about a young woman with a mountain of credit card debt, fell short at the box office. So did films with 9/11-related themes, such as “A Mighty Heart” and “United 93,” as well as those dealing with the Iraq war, such as “Stop Loss” and “In the Valley of Elah.”
Adapted from Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel of the same name, “Up in the Air” stars Clooney as beguiling hatchet man Ryan Bingham, a rootless soul more interested in racking up frequent flier miles than in engaging emotionally with people around him. Although Bingham’s personal soul-searching malaise is the center of the film’s narrative, the sting of job loss is very much in the foreground.
“This movie could either be cathartic or, because it hits so close to home, people may not want to spend two hours with something they’re living with every day,” said Russell Schwartz, a movie marketing consultant and former studio executive. “It’s also a movie that’s being released against the tide, when uplifting stories and light escapism are thriving.”
Furthermore, “Up in the Air” doesn’t fit neatly into a genre -- it combines comedy and drama -- and has a story line that’s not easily distilled into a 30-second TV commercial.
“It’s not an easily marketable movie,” acknowledged executive producer Tom Pollock, whose Montecito Picture Co. co-financed the movie. “It’s got romance, but it’s hardly a romantic comedy. It’s not an R-rated horror movie where audiences know what they’re going to get.”
Those risks were among the reasons the movie’s budget was kept to a relatively modest $25 million, with Clooney forgoing a big chunk of his normal fee in exchange for a bigger cut of the hoped-for profit. Paramount is covering half the production cost and will spend about $40 million to promote the movie, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Although the budget for “Up in the Air” means it can succeed financially without being a box-office juggernaut, Paramount is using a number of marketing and distribution tactics to attract the widest possible audience. The movie will open in only 12 cities, including Los Angeles and New York, and expand gradually until Dec. 25, when it will play wide. Paramount hopes the measured release strategy will let audiences discover the film and encourage others to see it.
“The movie will benefit most from strong reviews and word of mouth,” said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. “The film’s issues are not important to 15-year-olds but have real resonance for adult audiences who are dealing with job loss.”
By screening the movie aggressively and dispatching Reitman on a promotional tour, Paramount hopes to ride the Oscar buzz and critical accolades that “Up in the Air” has been receiving since the film launched this fall at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the film for audiences will be the interview segments featuring people who relate their experiences of being fired.
Reitman initially wrote “Up in the Air” as a satire about corporate downsizing, but as production neared, he said, he felt compelled to alter the story to reflect the reality of the times. While scouting locations in St. Louis and Detroit, he placed help-wanted ads in local newspapers to recruit people to appear in a “documentary about job loss.” The resulting footage, in which people speak candidly about the emotional toll of being laid off, gives the film that dimension.
Clooney, who called Reitman’s choice to use laid-off employees “inspired,” believes the movie will click with filmgoers precisely because it is so topical.
“I have a sense that it’s perfectly timed,” said the actor, noting that when he was growing up in Kentucky, his father, a television news anchor, was continually being fired.
“I can’t imagine the pressure my parents felt when they ran out of money,” Clooney said. “That’s an experience our country is going through again in a big way.”
But the marketing doesn’t dwell on the pain of layoffs. The theatrical trailer includes only a few quick glimpses of job-loss scenes. And the teaser trailer and two clips on the movie’s website include no references to unemployment whatsoever.
Instead, in selling the movie, Paramount is emphasizing Bingham’s journey of self-discovery, his existential isolation as a corporate consultant who lives out of his suitcase and off an expense account.
“At its heart, the movie is about making human connections,” said Josh Greenstein, Paramount’s co-president of marketing. “That’s so relevant in the world we live in today, where, with Twitter and e-mail, people communicate without being face-to-face.”
To make that point, the poster for the movie features Clooney standing at an airport terminal staring out the window, with the tag line: “The story of a man ready to make a connection.”
The movie’s somewhat intangible subject of emotional displacement even prompted Paramount to buyone-minute TV spots over the Thanksgiving weekend to outline the story, twice the length of typical commercials that kick off a campaign.
“We wanted to give audiences a chance to understand the complex characters and story lines,” Greenstein said. “We are not trying to cheat the audience and sell this film as a broad comedy, a romance or some other easily definable genre, because it does not fit neatly into a single category.”
Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.