Entertainment A-List 2009

Entertainment A-List No. 1: Universal Pictures

Dismissing Distribution Dogma Leads Universal to its Best Year

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Imagine having to launch 20 new products a year, every two weeks or so, with no brand equity to help sell them, and with tens of millions of dollars in marketing on the line.

Welcome to Adam Fogelson's life.

UNIVERSAL: Adam Fogelson among his movie merchandise.
UNIVERSAL: Adam Fogelson among his movie merchandise. Credit: Robert Benson
Happily for Universal Pictures, since Mr. Fogelson, 41, took over as head of marketing and distribution in 2007, the studio has enjoyed back-to-back record-breaking years at the domestic box office, with last year being the best in the studio's history.

What's unique about Mr. Fogelson's track record, however, is that Universal lacks the spandex-clad superhero franchises that reliably deliver big audiences and grosses year in and out. What Mr. Fogelson did have was an eclectic slate of movies, and an equally diverse approach to marketing many of them into profitability.

Mr. Fogelson's success in selling Universal's diverse films comes as much from his marketing prowess as his willingness to barbeque the sacred cows of distribution. Just this past month, Mr. Fogelson shattered April box-office records by releasing "Fast & Furious," initially slated for June, during spring break. It was the kind of nervy gamble that would pay off handsomely: As the fourth iteration of what many assumed was a moribund "Fast and Furious" street-racing franchise, no one expected much from the film.

But with the original cast back and a tagline of "new model, original parts," Universal had its opening weekend largely to itself. Freed from heavy summer traffic that can limit opening weekend performance, the $85 million "Fast" did furious business, taking in a breath-taking $71 million in a single haul and $151 million in domestic gross by mid-May. To put that in context, that opening's just a million less than what J.J. Abrams' far more costly -- and more-heavily marketed -- "Star Trek" would make in its debut.

Here's another example of scheduling smarts. Hollywood musicals have been hit or miss lately, but "Mamma Mia!" managed $600 million worldwide even with a cast whose fan base increasingly watches its movies via Netflix, not at the multiplex. How? By smartly offering it as counter-programming to "The Dark Knight," which opened on the same weekend and which most studios had scurried away from.

Worldwide gross:
Worldwide gross:
Worldwide gross:
Worldwide gross:
Mr. Fogelson, who spoke to Ad Age in his glass-walled corner office overlooking the flight path of Burbank Airport, joined Universal in 1998 as VP-creative advertising, rising to exec VP-creative advertising four years later.

Distribution decisions
As you'd guess from his background, Mr. Fogelson's success doesn't come solely from distribution decisions. There were also some creative coups. Ennui is rarely a marketing slam-dunk, but "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" -- "whose lead character mopes his way through most of the movie," deadpanned Mr. Fogelson -- managed to gross $105 million worldwide, largely on the strength of its unorthodox, graffiti-style outdoor campaign. "It gave the lead character an active role in the campaign," said Mr. Fogelson. "His saying, 'Fuck you, Sarah Marshall!' [on buses and billboards] was way more active than anything he did in the movie."

And by hyping the $9 million home-invasion thriller "The Strangers" as "inspired by true events," Mr. Fogelson helped it gross nine times its budget.

While Universal still isn't known for its superhero franchises, the two they do own have been helped by Mr. Fogelson's marketing touch. "The Incredible Hulk" and "Hellboy" were properties that were "previously thought of as unsellable."

Sony and Revolution had given up on 'Hellboy" for a variety of reasons, he said, with the scary-looking cigar-huffing, Nazi-spawned paranormal crime-fighter being the main reason. Impressed by the global response to the similarly dark "Pan's Labyrinth," Mr. Fogelson's team shot promotional videos of Hellboy casually interacting with a wide variety of NBC Universal TV characters.

"To make a character with horns and a tail called 'Hellboy' accessible to the mainstream was a brave and incredibly successful decision," said Mr. Fogelson.

Well, maybe not "incredibly," but, at the least, a modest success: While "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army" cost $85 million to make and grossed only $160 million worldwide, it still out-grossed the original by some $60 million.

Mr. Fogelson is popular in marketing circles outside Hollywood not just for his ability to open movies, but for his ability to benefit his marketing partners, too. Last summer's promotional partnership with Papa John's for "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," was an exception to that. It yielded millions of dollars in free promotion for the film, which grossed $401 million worldwide, but also substantially benefitted the nation's third-largest pizza chain.

Jim Ensign, VP-marketing for Papa John's, confirmed that during the "Mummy" promotion, quarterly sales rose by 1.7%, and that "the leading contributor" was Universal.