'G.I. Joe' Needs More Than Middle America

Paramount's Marketing Play Might Have Lead to Great Opening Box Office but Will It Help build a Brand?

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A woman stands near a poster for 'G.I. Joe' at a theater in Beijing, China.
A woman stands near a poster for 'G.I. Joe' at a theater in Beijing, China. Credit: AP

Chances are if you live on the coasts -- presumably meaning in New York or Los Angeles -- you didn't see "G.I. Joe" and didn't contribute to the almost $55 million domestic box office because the movie wasn't marketed to you. Really. Didn't you know that?

In case you've missed the latest movie-critic-vs.-movie-studio dustup, Paramount decided seemingly at the last minute to keep critics away from screening "G.I. Joe" in advance. Most know this is code for "Our movie is going to get roasted, so we're going to keep the bad reviews away from moviegoers." But in a brilliant move, Paramount acted as if this was part of the marketing play all along -- that while scorning critics, the studio was going to go straight to those "who are normally not the first priority. But we're making them a priority," Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore said in the fantastic Los Angeles Times story by Claudia Eller and Ben Fritz last week that set off the handwringing. (You know there's handwringing when NPR gets in on the conversation.)

In this case, those who are normally not a priority appear to have been, well, everyone else, including military personnel, the original Joes. As the Times put it, "The subtext is none too subtle: Critics are likely to roast the film, and fanboys of the original toy line and comic book may be indifferent, but if you're a flag-waving, Nascar-loving American, it's practically your patriotic duty to see this movie."

But because this is a big, blockbuster production with a $175 million production budget -- not to mention an equally blockbuster marketing outlay -- the studio needs the overseas market to help recoup its expenses, so Paramount's ads outside the U.S. downplayed the flag waving and played up the movie's more international themes -- that Joe is not a Yank but a team of internationals. It apparently worked: In addition to the movie's U.S. haul, which the Times' Fritz called, "G.I. Joe" hauled in another $44 million overseas.

Everyone's still blogging and talking about the strategy, and the critics are finally having their say in no uncertain terms, maybe because they feel they were marginalized in such a showy way. And the attention is not likely to go away, especially as all those handwringing critics will be checking to see if business drops off precipitously this weekend.

But was this the real strategy? (For a thorough look at the movie's overall marketing play, I suggest Chris Thilke's Movie Marketing Madness.) It was successful -- though at a reported $150 million in marketing, what's the return on investment have to look like? It's not as if "G.I. Joe" was invisible from the streets of Manhattan or Los Angeles. Paramount bought a $3 million Super Bowl spot to break the campaign (what, blue staters don't watch football?), and all manner of media has been in play since the start of the blockbuster season, in addition to all this targeted "heartland" outlay.

You have to give Paramount its due: The pressure was on for the studio to attract a new generation of "Star Trek" fans and at least equal the financial success of 2007's "Transformers" with this summer's sequel, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." The marketing department did a fantastic job with "Trek," and regardless of what Michael Bay said, it did the best it could with "Transformers 2." So hats off for some savvy marketing and for essentially owning the summer.

Yet all the chatter surrounding "G.I. Joe" this week has been fascinating to eavesdrop on from a marketing angle for all the questions it raises: Did Paramount pick August because it knew the movie was weak, or was it looking to own each month ("Star Trek was released in May, "Transformers" in July)? Did it fear backlash from a dual marketing strategy, especially in a digital age in which what happens in Europe doesn't stay in Europe? And what does it do to keep flogging the film, especially now that apparently word-of-mouth has begotten parody?

Looking beyond the second and third weeks, the interesting thing will be to see how Paramount deals with a sequel (assuming there is one). Will an end run around the press work again? Or will audiences be more inclined to believe the critics next time around -- especially audiences that felt uninvited to the party in the first place?

Then there's the bipolar marketing. Yes, U.S. brands sold overseas don't often fly the flag either, so Paramount's decision isn't a foreign concept in marketing circles. Jingoism at home and internationalism abroad can work for automakers. But a car is a car. Paramount may have promised American audiences a "real American hero" (or something along those lines), but did Joe Nascar feel the movie lived up to expectations? And the same with Francois Cheeseeater: Despite the promised international team, did he perhaps feel this paramilitary unit on display was a little too American in attitude and tactics?

Paramount seems to have pulled off the balancing act this time. Will it be able to do it again without getting called out by either side? The second time around, the studio might have to sit down and ask itself the most basic marketing question of all: What does the "G.I. Joe" brand stand for? I'm not sure that will be easy to answer.

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