LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- At Warner Bros. Pictures' marketing suites, a wild rumpus is about to start.
A year late and millions of dollars over budget, Spike Jonze will deliver his big-screen adaptation of "Where the Wild Things Are" to studio executives later this month. But the marketing department is flummoxed: While the film's new trailer is drawing plaudits from many online fans, the movie's darker-than-expected, adult tone (and bloated budget) has many at Warner Bros. privately worried about its appeal to children and parents.
"It doesn't look like a family movie," said the head of creative advertising at a rival studio familiar with Warner's angst. "Are they going for the cineastes or are they going to convince kids to go? It's the most interesting marketing problem in town right now."
In an interview with Advertising Age, "Wild Things" producer Gary Goetzman said, "Spike has made a film that crosses all demographics." But that might just be the problem.
In Mr. Jonze's "Wild Things," 9-year-old Max accidentally witnesses his single mom canoodling with her new boyfriend on the living-room sofa. It's a poignant scene, but also the sort of stark departure from the source material that might make some parents reluctant to bring to theaters the 4- to 8-year-olds Maurice Sendak's book has been entertaining since 1964.
'It respects the original'
Andrew Percival, senior VP at Mojo, one of the Los Angeles trailer houses that helped cut the "Wild Things" trailer and design its posters, said, "The film has taken these themes in the book to a very real place. For that, I do applaud it. There is an originality to this film -- it doesn't speak down to kids; it speaks with them."
"Wild Things" animation supervisor Daniel Jeannette also dismissed the idea that the film is too dark or mature for kid audiences.
"The book, too, was received as too dark for children at the time [it was published]," Mr. Jeannette said. "So in a sense, the film might not follow the track of the four-quadrant children's film. But it doesn't exclude anyone; it appeals to children of all ages, including adults. It respects the original material." The book has sold more than 10 million copies.
How does a costly motion picture intended to be a broadly accessible, kid-friendly family film turn out not to be so? And how does a studio market such a surprise?
Marketing executives at Warner Bros. wrestling with that issue declined to be interviewed by Advertising Age. Nevertheless, the studio appears to be facing at least one of two equally scary realities.
The first is that it may simply have lost control of the creators. Mr. Jonze, the director of quirky, sophisticated adult films such as "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," was hardly a "safe" choice for a kids' movie. The "Wild Things" script comes from the Gen X literary icon Dave Eggers, author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." Neither man screams "Bambi."
About all the studio and the filmmakers agree on is that their discussions about the tone of the film, which has been shooting since April 2006, have been contentious. Mr. Jonze, in a recent interview with fan site Ain't It Cool News, said he had "freaked the studio out" because his movie "wasn't a studio film for kids, or it wasn't a traditional film about kids."
It's unclear if that was possible because Mr. Jonze wangled what's known in Hollywood parlance as "final cut," a contractual concession that gives the director final approval of what goes into a film. Whoever wins final cut effectively determines what sort of film will be made and to whom it can be marketed. Production insiders said Mr. Jonze has final cut on the picture; studio insiders said he does not.
Not Warner's kind of movie
The second, unavoidable reality is that regardless of who had creative control, Warner Bros. no longer has the dedicated infrastructure or expertise to market sophisticated, adult movies.
It shut down both its Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse labels in May 2008 but greenlighted "Wild Things" back in 2006. In other words, while Warner Bros. suits may never have expected to get a traditional kid-friendly picture along the lines of a "Harry Potter" when they hired Mr. Jonze, they also had no idea the marketing division best-suited to sell "Wild Things" would be extinct two years later.
Indeed, with its realistic view of childhood fears and confusions, "Where the Wild Things Are" appears to be precisely the kind of tricky-to-market, sophisticated movie Warner Bros. has decided it is not interested in releasing: Last year, for example, the studio dropped Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" just as it was coming to market. Fox Searchlight scooped it up, taking home both the best-picture Oscar and $141 million in domestic grosses.
Meanwhile, despite Mr. Goetzman's insistence that "everyone is going to go see this picture," it doesn't appear the studio thinks many kids will be coming: "Wild Things" will make its debut on Oct. 16, and, according to the head of marketing and distribution at a rival studio, "when you don't have a single kids' holiday nearby, that's not fertile ground for family pictures."
Indeed, only three films released in October have ever opened at more than $40 million: "Scary Movie 3," in 2003; "Shark's Tale," in 2004; and "High School Musical 3," in 2008. "Wild Things" will need to open well above those lofty October numbers to justify its $100 million-plus production and marketing budget. If it doesn't, the question will go from whether "Wild Things" can be profitable to how wildly unprofitable it will be.