Will Christian Bale's Brand Rep Be a Bane of the Box Office?

The Star of 'Terminator Salvation' and 'Public Enemies' Polls Low With Audiences After Recent PR Debacles

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- "You and me, we've been at war since before either of us existed," declares Christian Bale in the coming film "Terminator Salvation" from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Christian Bale stars in 'Terminator Salvation.'
Christian Bale stars in 'Terminator Salvation.' Credit: Warner Bros.
Mr. Bale is addressing a cyborg that thinks it's actually human, but he could just as easily have been referring to the age-old battle between celebs and the entertainment journalists waiting to pounce on their latest missteps. Very soon, two Hollywood film studios will find out if Mr. Bale's persona is still as radioactive as the band of nuclear-holocaust survivors led by the character he plays, John Connor. Warner will release "Terminator Salvation" on May 21, while Universal Pictures' John Dillinger biopic "Public Enemies" from director Michael Mann hits theaters in July.

The films star the Welsh-born actor, who has suffered back-to-back PR debacles in the last nine months: Last July, Mr. Bale was arrested in London for allegedly assaulting his mother. This past February, audio of a four-minute profanity-soaked tirade surfaced online with Mr. Bale screaming at his "Terminator" cinematographer, Shane Hurlbut, and threatening to quit the film if he were not fired immediately should he be distracted by him again.

Pop-culture parody
The assault allegations were later dismissed for lack of evidence, and Mr. Hurlbut was not fired. Mr. Bale apologized on the KROQ radio show "Kevin and Bean" for what he deemed his "inexcusable" behavior on the set. But the actor's outburst was already pop-culture fodder: Shows like "The Family Guy" and "The Colbert Report" parodied the outburst, and a DJ remixed it into a catchy techno hit streamed 3.2 million times on YouTube.

While a blockbuster such as "Terminator Salvation" could probably market itself on its immense brand-name recognition alone -- the franchise, which also has a TV element on Fox, has proved to be almost as indestructible as those cyborgs sent to kill John Connor -- confidential E-Score Celebrity tracking data obtained by Ad Age from other people show that Mr. Bale's public image may be of little help to the PR and marketing of the actioner.

Ten days after the Hurlbut audio scandal, an E-Score Marketing poll on Mr. Bale's image showed the actor had a total awareness of only 47%, with 51% of respondents able to recognize his name and 42% able to recognize his face (that might be because Mr. Bale's biggest role to date in the blockbusters "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight" obscured his face behind a dark cowl). Moreover, a third of those surveyed described him as "aggressive"; one in five said they had at least some "dislike" for Mr. Bale, describing him as "mean" and "rude."

One head of marketing at a rival studio said of Mr. Bale's negative PR: "It doesn't hurt as much as it would if he were playing a romantic lead, but it's still disruptive."

Not known for romantic roles
But Mr. Bale is not known for playing romantic leads. The actor, who helped transform the Batman franchise at Warner Bros. from pop art to neo-Gothic opera, has headlined dark, critically loved movies such as "American Psycho," "The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn." And while the aforementioned Batman movies became box-office bonanzas, Mr. Bale is not ordinarily associated with summer tentpoles, unlike, say, his co-star in 2006's "The Presitige," Hugh Jackman.

The Aussie actor, best known for playing the long-clawed mutant Logan in Fox's money-making "X-Men" franchise, has had a string of romantic roles opposite Ashley Judd, Meg Ryan and Nicole Kidman, not to mention being named People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." And he sang and danced his way into U.S. living rooms as the host of the Academy Awards. But even Mr. Jackman has had problems being picked out in a crowd: Only 42% of those surveyed by E-Score last December could recognize the actor by his face alone, despite Mr. Jackman's star turn in Fox's heavily promoted romantic drama "Australia" that month. But tomorrow, Mr. Jackman is to open "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" to an expected $100 million weekend box office.

So while brand "Terminator" may not take any hits, what do E-Score data mean for brand Bale? It might all boil down to the core of any brand's basic attributes: trust and appeal.

The most recent celebrity attributes report conducted by Davie Brown Entertainment between February and April and shared with Ad Age by the firm shows that Mr. Bale ranks higher than Mr. Jackman on the Davie Brown Index, designed to give marketers a way to quantify how celebrities' attributes influence consumers' brand affinity and purchase intent: Overall, Mr. Bale scores a 68.66 on a 100-point scale, two points higher than Mr. Jackman's 66.81. (E-Score's celebrity awareness data is similarly even for Messrs. Jackman and Bale.)

But a closer look at the Davie Brown data shows Mr. Jackman rates far higher in "appeal" than Mr. Bale: 82.44 vs. 74.55. Mr. Bale is also less-trusted, scoring only 57.41, compared with Mr. Jackman's 66.21, and, as a result, is also considered to be a less effective spokesman for a product, scoring just 60 compared with Mr. Jackman's 67.74.

Ultimately it remains to be seen if the films these stars are paid lavishly to open will find their brands tarnished.

No changes planned for film publicity
Universal, Warner's and Mr. Bale's own spokeswoman declined to comment. But privately, studio and PR executives familiar with Mr. Bale's publicity strategy said the star and his team feel the issue of his outburst has been dealt with, and that no changes will be made to the publicity plan for either of his summer films.

But others question the wisdom of that steady-on approach.

Mike Sitrick, the dean of crisis PR (and who also represents Halcyon, the producers of the new "Terminator" film), said the degree to which any celebrity bounces back from bad PR depends on how much he or she departed from "living up to expectations."

"When Miley Cyrus posed in clothes that seemed controversial, it was inconsistent with Miley's image," said Mr. Sitrick. "If it had been Madonna or Britney Spears, you wouldn't have batted an eyelash. But was inconsistent with who she was perceived to be." (But the singer-actress seems to have overcome any image problems: Ms. Cyrus starred in "Hannah Montana: The Movie," which opened April 10 to a robust $32.3 million at the box office).

Mr. Bale's problem, said Allan Mayer, a principal in 42 West, an entertainment-PR firm, is that he lacked a significant public persona prior to his arrest and outburst, and so there is a greater danger that a given scandal will come to define him instead.

"The goal should not be just to have him say, 'I'm not a violent person' or 'I'm not an asshole,'" said Mr. Mayer, "but to give him an image, to give you additional information about who he really is. The only thing the public knows about this guy is that he has short hair and a great face."

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