Lionsgate Tries Bipartisan Approach to 'W' Marketing

Outdoor Campaign Set for Both Conventions

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LOS ANGELES ( -- In marketing Oliver Stone's forthcoming film "W.," Lionsgate has elected to not "misunderestimate" the importance of appealing to both Democrats and Republicans.
To craft images with the right mix of irreverent and iconic for the outdoor campaign, Lionsgate turned to Hollywood entertainment marketing agency Crew Creative.
To craft images with the right mix of irreverent and iconic for the outdoor campaign, Lionsgate turned to Hollywood entertainment marketing agency Crew Creative.

And so, to build buzz for "W.," Hollywood's largest independent studio will be targeting the Democratic National Convention in Denver next week and the Republican National Convention in St. Paul* with a double-barrel blast of outdoor advertising campaigns prior to the film's Oct. 17 opening.

"We're using Denver as an early opportunity to get on everyone's radar quickly," said Tim Palen, co-president of marketing at Lionsgate. "There's a lot of people coming to the city; it's a local buy with national impact."

Tricky subject
What kind of impact, of course, will be critical to its success. To craft images with the right mix of irreverent and iconic for the outdoor campaign, Lionsgate turned to Crew Creative, the Hollywood entertainment marketing agency best known for its landmark print campaign on Universal's "40 Year Old Virgin" and which more recently worked on the print campaign for Warner Bros.' "Dark Knight."

The ad agency's marketing methodology for such a prickly protagonist wasn't discernible; a spokeswoman for Crew Creative declined to comment on its efforts to market "W." and instead referred all inquiries to Lionsgate's marketing chiefs.

Surprisingly, for such a polarizing filmmaker and lightning-rod subject, the outdoor campaign heralding "W." has been designed to pique the appetite of even the most partisan palates without alienating the other half of the movie's potential audience.

Mr. Palen, for his part, would say only that "by design, it's not intended to be inflammatory. None of the imagery is partisan -- though I'm constantly amazed as to what can be considered inflammatory."

Indeed, to even say the name "Dubya" aloud is to both invite invective and elicit emotional ambivalence just about anywhere these days: The most recent CBS News poll puts the president's approval rating at a record low of 25%, even as the country is evenly split on whether to make his successor a Democrat or a Republican.

Hot potato
That Mr. Stone's film was made at all is something of a minor miracle: Major Hollywood studios declined to finance the project. The actor playing George W. Bush, Josh Brolin, passed on the project twice, fearing it would be a far-left hammering rather than a drama. He agreed only after reading the tightly controlled script and being persuaded by Mr. Stone it wouldn't be a polemic.

In the end, "W." would be financed by former Artisan Entertainment President-CEO Bill Block. As a talent agent, Mr. Block once repped stars such as Milla Jovovich and Kevin Sorbo, but he now spends his days bankrolling indie movies with his company, QED International.

Created outside the studio system, "W." has what could charitably be called a modest budget for both its production ($30 million) and its marketing (insiders say between $28 million and $32 million). That's well below the industry average for production, but a bit more than the average cost of marketing a specialty feature. A March Motion Pictures Association of America report on the major studios' specialized film divisions put the average cost of a specialty picture at $74.9 million to produce and release last year. Production costs averaged $49.2 million, while the average cost of advertising was $25.7 million.

Mr. Block insisted the film's marketing -- which includes the tagline "A life misunderestimated" -- reflects the script's apolitical narrative, one focused on the dynamics of a family dynasty, rather than a political history.

"It's the story of the outsider brother, whose father favors his other brother," Mr. Block said in an interview with Ad Age. "Then, when the father is attacked, [the son] joins the family business to avenge his father. It has the same familial epic themes [as 'The Godfather.']."

PR challenge
Of course, getting posters to stay on message is one thing; getting a movie's cast to do so is another. Richard Dreyfuss, who plays veep Dick Cheney in "W.," infamously called for Mr. Bush's impeachment at the National Press Club in 2006. James Cromwell, who plays George H.W. Bush, is also a well-known liberal activist.

In an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Cromwell said that while he hasn't been invited to speak at the DNC, he was considering making the trip anyway -- to attend an event Lionsgate would probably prefer he not go to.

"Ralph Nader is going to have a counter-demonstration [at the DNC], which does appeal to me and which I'd probably go to," said Mr. Cromwell.

He added, "I don't know how much I'll be allowed to say. Oliver was a little leery; he knows my politics. I wouldn't go out there and say, 'George Bush is a horse's ass' or 'We're sliding into fascism!' because that serves no purpose. But will I go there and say that politics is not behaving as the Framers intended, that we've lost our moral compass? Absolutely."

In the meantime, PR chiefs at Lionsgate are reserving judgment on what they'll ask the cast of "W." to say (or not say).

Focusing on fun
Said Sarah Greenberg, co-president of marketing at Lionsgate, "Our intent first and foremost is to position the movie as entertainment ... smart, relevant, but also entertaining."

Adds Mr. Palen: "Being controversial is easy -- and that wasn't the intent with our creative or our buy. The real purpose of this outdoor [campaign] is to invite everybody to see this movie."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Republican National Convention was being held in Minneapolis.
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