Name this movie: During a time of war, a military officer must find the courage and determination to beat insurmountable odds, leading him to risk his life in his quest to serve his country with honor.If you answered We Were Soldiers, you're right. Ditto if you said Windtalkers, Enemy at the Gates, or even Behind Enemy Lines.
In a season that has witnessed the release of more than half-dozen war-themed flicks, carving out individual identities for films that often share plot elements has become a battle for studio marketers. While film execs are quick to point out the unique merits of their own projects, audiences have been less discriminating. The sheer number of similar films combined with uncertainty over consumer tastes post-September 11 have left promotions pros struggling to get past the image of pitching just another flag-waving shoot-'em-up drama. But as the number of releases mounts, the box-office casualties are stacking up.
There have been a few victories - like Black Hawk Down, with four Oscar nominations and box office revenue exceeding $100 million. Others have come and gone - think Captain Corelli's Mandolin. And the parade isn't over yet. At least two more military movies are slated for release in the coming months, and more are in production.
Differentiating between plots
The questions on marketers minds now are how are audiences deciding which bullet-riddled epic to indulge in, and how can studio promoters win the fight to make theirs the must-see movie?
Despite their frequency in private discussions, many studio promoters refuse to admit these questions exist.
"Why does everybody lump together movies with different casts, different stories, and different takes on the material?
This question was posed by MGM marketing head Bob Levine in response to a question by Variety publisher Charlie Koones on war movies at a recent panel discussion at trade show ShoWest. "We don't say all comedies are the same, that all dramas are the same. We're putting it in the public's mind that these are fungible goods."
That testy answer may speak volumes about the frustration many marketers are feeling this season.
"It's the same with asteroid movies or anything else they do in bunches - they're afraid of seeming not original,
says Variety editor Dade Hayes of the studios' dilemma. "To know that they are part of this trend makes them uncomfortable."
But it is exactly the plot predictability that studios are trying to downplay that seems to appeal to audiences right now. Films marketed with a clear-cut, us-versus-them theme are holding their own at the box office, while more complex endeavors quickly sink into video release.
"Audiences want to see Americans kill evil foreigners,
sums up Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles. "They want to see something where America gets the job done."
MGM's Hart's War and DreamWorks' The Last Castle are good examples of the trouble with plot complexity. "Nobody found it,
points out Knowles about Hart's War, which lasted only a few weeks in theaters. Critics of the marketing campaign say that in their attempt to highlight the picture's unique plot about a military court martial with racial overtones in a prisoner of war camp, MGM confused potential audiences. One publicist familiar with the project laments that viewers didn't know what the film was really about, even after seeing the trailer. The Last Castle, with Robert Redford starring as a disgraced general mobilizing soldiers in a military prison run by a tyrannical warden, played by James Gandolfini, also may have suffered from a complicated theme - the film only made about $18 million domestically after debuting only a few weeks after the terrorist attacks.
A proven plan for success
On the other end of the marketing spectrum is what Knowles describes as the "monkey-see-monkey-do advertising technique,
where war movies are promoted solely on the basis of their best bullet-pumping footage or star power - a tried-and-true strategy that studios have used for years.
Despite the controversy of the actual events that inspired the story, Revolution/Sony's Black Hawk Down billed itself as little more than a gritty battlefield expose, with promotional footage highlighting its endless battle scenes. Its unexpected popularity perhaps proved that it's that kind of simplicity that audiences are craving - a right-versus-wrong morality tale in which the US is right. But if the Jerry Bruckheimer/Ridley Scott project had a drawback for marketers, it was the lack of recognizable characters.
"There is a tendency to think the war is so dramatic and provides such a heightened arena that you don't have to craft careful characters," claims Hayes. That may have left marketers with a screen full of "blank bodies going to the grinder of the war machine,
After Black Hawk Down, the biggest war movie success of the season is Paramount's Mel Gibson vehicle We Were Soldiers. Again, audiences were clear with what they were getting: Heartthrob Gibson reminding us why we're proud to be Americans.
"From a marketing point of view, a big-name star is always a good thing,
says Knowles. But he quickly points out that audiences need more than just a celebrity. "Bruce Willis is as big a star as Mel Gibson. The difference is they showed Bruce Willis talking and Mel Gibson commanding helicopters,
he says about the trailers of Hart's War and We Were Soldiers. "Helicopters are cool."
Along with how to bill their films, Hollywood's big debate has also been when to hand them over to the public. Post-September 11, studios engaged in a flurry of scheduling changes, some pushing war releases up, others deciding to postpone for months. MGM bumped its Nicolas Cage WWII entry, Windtalkers, until spring. Revolution's Black Hawk Down and Fox's Behind Enemy Lines - which did well with two test audiences in October - moved their release dates up to pre-Christmas slots. We Were Soldiers, originally scheduled as a summer release, opened in March.
The logic for choosing an opening day ran two ways. One camp argued that audiences didn't want harsh fare that seemed to mirror reality too closely.
Others maintained that a surge in patriotism combined with a quicker emotional recovery outside of New York than originally expected left audiences ready for heroic tales of sacrifice and redemption - a phenomenon Village Voice critic J. Hoberman calls "the new bellicosity."
"The mood of the country, that's sort of the X factor right now,
One sentiment studio marketers can agree on is that patriotism remains the safe play. Virtually all of the current spate of war films has reached out to the government and military for a PR boost, or aimed their pitches at audiences' pride in Old Glory. Behind Enemy Lines screened aboard a naval aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea over Thanksgiving weekend to thank some of the 5,000 crewmembers who served as extras. An earlier screening was held at a San Diego military base. A We Were Soldiers White House screening was held for President Bush, attended by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as the real Lt.
Col. Hal Moore, who Gibson played in the film. And in the soon-to-be-released Windtalkers, in which Cage plays a soldier who risks his life to protect one of the few Navajo men versed in a secret code based on Native American language, MGM revamped its marketing materials to highlight the "cause and country
theme over the stylized action of director John Woo that was the original promotions angle, says Hayes. MGM also hosted a reception complete with a VNR to honor 29 Navajo code talkers who were recently awarded Congressional gold medals.
So while the flags hanging out of car windows are getting a bit tattered, don't expect Hollywood to fold up its own stars and stripes anytime soon.
While audience interest in military tales may go up and down, studios remain loyal. Disney head Michael Eisner recently told the press that his company is working on a film about the Alamo that seeks to "capture the post-September-11 surge in patriotism
- a theme set to continue for some time.
THE SCREEN SOLDIER'S RETURN TO HERO STATUS
War movies haven't always tapped into US patriotism. Before the recent slew of flag-waving flicks, Hollywood seemed more inclined to bash the government than place it on a pedestal.
From the '70s to the '90s, many films questioned military motives, portrayed soldiers as fiends, and generally posited war as a great evil. 1978's The Deer Hunter just may have set the tone for others to follow: Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Oscar-winner Platoon, and even Tom Cruise's Born On The Fourth of July all gave audiences reason to stop and think on the wisdom of bombing our enemies to oblivion. Add in films from Apocalypse Now to Hamburger Hill and George Clooney's Three Kings, and the pattern seems clear.
But Tom Brokaw may have tipped the scales to Old Glory's favor with his book, The Greatest Generation, celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Combined with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a new wave of flag waving was born. Who didn't want to hear Grandpa's stories after seeing Tom Hanks' heroics?
That renewed interest in a fading generation helped green-light the current spate of pro-military war films that focus on honor, integrity, and courage under fire - made all the more timely by the unpredictable events of September 11. Not since the '50s and '60s, when movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai presented soldiers as heroes, have US moviegoers seen such a marriage of government and Hollywood ideals.
But don't presume the White House is up late writing screenplays: While presidential envoy Karl Rove has made contact in Hollywood, finding a studio exec willing to admit to Dubya's influence is a mission impossible.