As Hollywood goes into a critical movie season, it's readying its largest and most ambitiously complex crop of World War II-themed films ever -- half a dozen between now and year's end -- at a time when economically beleaguered audiences are seeking escapist fare at the box office.
'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas': Release date Nov. 14, 2008, expanded nationally Nov. 27
'The Reader': Release date Jan. 9, 2009
And then there's ...
Contrast those with the following coming films:
This Thanksgiving, Miramax Films will expand "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" to 600 screens. Based on John Boyne's tear-jerking bestseller, it depicts a forbidden friendship between the young son of the commandant at Auschwitz and a little Jewish boy on the other side of the death camp's fence.
On Dec. 12, the Weinstein Co. will open "The Reader," starring Kate Winslet as a former concentration-camp guard on trial for war crimes, in limited release.
On Dec. 26, United Artists will finally give "Valkyrie," the long-delayed Tom Cruise film about several German officers' failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the midst of World War II, a wide release, just as "The Reader" expands.
And on New Year's Eve, Paramount Vantage will unspool "Defiance," with James Bond star Daniel Craig playing a Jewish escapee from Nazi-occupied Poland who helps lead a guerrilla war out of the Belarussian forest.
Simultaneously, ThinkFilm will release "Good," a drama starring Viggo Mortensen as an apolitical literary professor seduced into joining the Nazi Party after his novel is used to support government propaganda.
"These are not the World War II movies we've seen for the last 60 years, and they're not 'Hogan's Heroes,'" said Michael Vollman, worldwide president of marketing at United Artists. "They're a more-nuanced, 'gray' version [of events]."
That fact alone might complicate their marketing, but the depressing state of the economy and an alarmingly low level of understanding of the Holocaust among American youth point to a tough road for such serious fare.
Almost a quarter (23%) of American high-school seniors failed to correctly identify Adolf Hitler as Germany's chancellor during World War II, according to a January study conducted by nonpartisan education research and advocacy organization Common Core.
Moreover, Americans are dispirited and worried. Consumer confidence and spending have plunged to their lowest levels since 2001, and unemployment has hit 6.5%, a 14-year high.
What to do? Market the films less like historical epics. A.O. Scott observed in The New York Times last week that "for American audiences, a Holocaust movie is now more or less equivalent to a Western or a combat picture or a sword-and-sandals epic -- part of a genre that has less to do with history than with the perceived expectations of moviegoers."
Accordingly, many of the studios producing the latest Holocaust films have tried to rejigger those rote expectations. "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" has been recast as more of a family/relationship film. And in recent weeks "Valkyrie," plagued by production snafus and release-date swaps, has been repositioned as a thriller, not a war movie.
After publicity photos of Mr. Cruise in an eye patch surfaced online earlier this year, they were met with widespread derision amongst bloggers and in the media. "It got identified as 'the Tom Cruise eye-patch movie,'" said Terry Press, the former head of marketing at DreamWorks Pictures who was brought in by former Paramount marketing capo Michael Vollman to right the ship. Mr. Vollman joined United Artists in July and promptly moved the film's release back to Dec. 26.
Ms. Press and Mr. Vollman modernized the campaign's look to freshen a decades-old conflict. "[The new campaign] looks modern; it doesn't look period," Ms. Press said. "It has a little retro feel to it but not an old-fashioned experience. And we upped the level of Bryan Singer-ness [in ads]." (Mr. Singer is known for well-regarded thrillers such as "The Usual Suspects" and "Apt Pupil," another movie with a Nazi theme.)
'Valkyrie': Release date Dec. 26, 2008
'Defiance': Release date Jan. 9, 2009
"We used a variety of research companies, as you would with any movie," Mr. Vollman said. "And they told us what we always knew: Tom Cruise is a movie star. And people love Tom Cruise as a character leading a group of people toward solving a problem. People like a true story. People like a conspiracy tale."
Meanwhile, given the effect of the economy on studios' bottom lines, executives at Paramount recently shoved their planned expansion of "Defiance" into January, when marketing budgets reset after the Christmas crush. (Executives at the Weinstein Co. did not return calls seeking comment about their marketing plans for "The Reader.")
For Miramax's "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," which managed to crack the top-10 box-office ranking last weekend, the key to success will be to subvert traditional expectations and position the film as a totally new experience. "When people see a Nazi onscreen, they think, 'OK, I've been there and done that," said Jason Cassidy, exec VP marketing at Miramax Films.
"We took pains to show the commandant as a father," he said. "You get the relationship between him and his son. People have a tendency to automatically put [Holocaust films] in one little box. We wanted to show this could be a family experience."
To reach that counterintuitive family audience, Miramax has made what Mr. Cassidy calls "strategic" TV buys on shows with mom-heavy audiences, such as "Oprah" and NBC's "Today," but also a patchwork quilt of "particularly deep" buys into faith-based media, such as the Christian Broadcasting Network and "The 700 Club" as well as in national and regional Christian newspapers, such as The Tidings and the Denver Catholic Register, and even on websites such as Hollywood Jesus.
But even with Miramax's strategic approach, Mr. Cassidy said the sheer number of Holocaust films is daunting. "I wouldn't want to be last in this lineup."