How a Handmade Push Helped 'Wild Things' Tame Box Office

Despite Tensions With Warner, Director Spike Jonze Connected Children's Story With Adult Audiences

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NEW YORK ( -- Much of the buzz you're hearing now that "Where the Wild Things Are" has finally opened is about making sense of what the movie's No. 1 position atop the box office means. By most standards, a haul of $32.5 million is the mark of a solid performer, but there's a feeling that the PG-rated movie would have done even better had it lured more of a family crowd, which, one would think, would be a natural for a movie based on a beloved children's book.

If you're in need of furry nightwear, try a $610 one-piece 'Max' wolf suit.
If you're in need of furry nightwear, try a $610 one-piece 'Max' wolf suit.
But the marketing behind the Warner Bros. film had been a highly anticipated affair since the spring, as the studio and the movie's director, the critical darling Spike Jonze, seemed at loggerheads as to what type of movie he was delivering, a family-friendly flick suited for Saturday matinees or an art-house adult project.

The next couple of weeks will tell us what type of film Warner has on its hands, but one thing is clear: The marketing did hue to the vision of the movie's director, who, while not a household name, is enough of a draw to tap into a large, enthusiastic, ready-made audience, which invariably includes a heaping dose of aging hipster Gen X-ers, cool kids and people whom brands often call "influencers" that helped propel the movie to the No. 1 spot.

With involvement and influence on a number of key projects, such as limited-edition products and partnerships with outlets such as Urban Outfitters and Vice magazine, Mr. Jonze was able to build a groundswell of enthusiasm for his film that would later complement and buoy a big-budget studio effort.

Last spring, about the same time some studio executives were calling "Where The Wild Things Are" "the most interesting marketing problem in town right now," Mr. Jonze launched a simple blog. With its hand-sewn header and earnest outlook, We Love You So was quickly embraced by a large swath of culture, art and design blogs that kept talking about it over the next six months. The stated goal of the site, featuring posts by Mr. Jonze and a small cast of regulars, was "to help shed some light on many of the small influences that have converged to make this massive project a reality." The content featured the usual behind-the-scenes tidbits from the film, as well as anything else -- from artists and past films to vintage cartoons, music and clothing -- the creators felt shared a similar sensibility with the film. The effort was far from the tech-heavy, ARG-type movie campaigns that have been in vogue of late, which are created to appeal to the ComiCon crowd. Mr. Jonze's simple web project felt downright quaint by comparison, something fans would expect from a low-budget indie film, not a studio-backed, $80 million-plus production.

Girl Skateboards
Girl Skateboards
"It was really important for Spike to have the [marketing] materials be really unique and not canned or coming from a generic place," said artist and designer Geoff McFetridge, who designed the film's titles and teamed with Mr. Jonze more than a year ago to create a massive stylebook for potential licensees to adhere to. "He just wanted the marketing to reflect his sensibilities and those of the film. His mantra was that 'this is a handmade film, make everything feel handmade.' Things that are handmade are made with love, they're made with care, they're made by groups of individuals. That simple message, to take all the pretense out of it, says a lot and points things in a very specific direction."

Mr. McFetridge, an accomplished fine artist who runs Los Angeles-based Champion Graphics, said Mr. Jonze was involved in every aspect of the design process when it came to the movie materials, from the font of the opening titles to the box for a special edition DVD gift set. "A lot of directors do their job, but that's what it is," Mr. McFetridge said. "This is his life. I can call him about any of the marketing stuff, and he lives close to my studio, so he'll jump on his scooter and come down to check things out and talk about it, even late at night."

Limited edition 'Wild Things' Lakai Shoes
Limited edition 'Wild Things' Lakai Shoes
Also back in the spring, Mr. Jonze showed a few of his friends at Girl Skateboards, a company he co-founded in 1993, some never-before-seen photos of the onscreen Wild Things. A few found their way onto the Girl website and, while garnering an outpouring of online hoopla, didn't exactly make the studio smile. But that sort of under-the-radar buzz added to the early excitement for the film. Girl Skateboards and sibling brand Lakai Shoes then released a line of limited-edition "Wild Things" products -- shoes, boards, T-shirts -- that got snapped up so quickly the companies needed a second run of products in production before the film was in theaters.

"Skaters have a lot of respect for Spike, obviously going back to the skate videos he's been involved with over the years," said Girl Co-founder Megan Baltimore. "The monsters look so beautiful on the boards, there have been so many people who've bought them just to hang up on the wall."

Just prior to its release, the film also enjoyed all the usual marketing support a studio adaptation of a seminal children's book is supposed to get, but those efforts bore the stamp of Mr. Jonze's influence as well. The director worked closely with Warner Bros. to ensure even the more time-honored elements of the studio campaign kept in spirit with the film.

Furry nightwear
Traditional fare such as Barnes & Noble book tie-ins, plush toys and other knick-knacks were complemented by events such as cast readings of the book at the New York Public Library, art gallery shows of author Maurice Sendak's work and a film retrospective of Mr. Jonze's work at MoMA.

'Where the Wild Things Are' Space 15 Twenty pop-up store
'Where the Wild Things Are' Space 15 Twenty pop-up store Credit: Bobby Solomon/
Alongside the mainstream ad rollout, the indie-style efforts continued. A "Wild Things" pop-up store appeared in Los Angeles' Space 15 Twenty, an experimental retail environment owned and operated by Urban Outfitters, garnering jaw-dropping reactions from design blog commenters. The space featured artfully made trees, child-like fortresses, books, clothing, accessories and artwork. Another not-so-obvious tie-in was fashion specialty brand Opening Ceremony's line of film-inspired products, which run the gamut from $50 T-shirts to a $290 brass ring to, if you're really in need of furry nightwear, a $610 one-piece "Max" wolf suit. Not exactly Happy Meal territory there.

Vice magazine created a special insert featuring art inspired by the film, and its online video site VBS featured mini-docs on a variety of the film's artists. "From a creative standpoint, it was one of the very rare big-budget Hollywood films that we could tell stories about," said VBS's co-founder and creative director, Eddy Moretti. "It was also a good fit, demographically, because it's a kids' film that maybe isn't quite a kids' film. The people that respond to this book were kids decades ago and are now in the middle of our readership demographic, so we knew it was something that would resonate with our readers. It's a story that makes sense to the people we know best."

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