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By Chris Thilk | December 1, 2004

Exploiting the human mind’s natural penchant for sex in order to sell is nothing new. We are, as a species, hard-wired to respond positively to any message that presents a member of the opposite sex (or same sex for that matter) as a potential mate. Sexual attractiveness and its inherent assumption – that the person in question is virile/fertile – has been the key to everything from selling a pair of jeans to selecting members of the population to bring into the mineshaft in the event of atomic war.

But what about intimacy, the yin to the yang of sexuality? Can emotional connections be as powerful a motivator as physical couplings? Many movies use the promise of a “steamy” scene, usually involving two impossibly photogenic people, as a hook to bring people into the theater. Very few, though, use the concept of an actual relationship as a marketing tool. When they do, it often is in a comedic way (think of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan sap-fest “You’ve Got Mail” as an example). To the short list who take a serious look at relationships add “Closer”.

The central theme presented in all the marketing materials for this new Mike Nichols movie is one of love, lust, intimacy and the quest for understanding as well as the consequences that result from each goal.

The trailers and TV spots all feature Jude Law (in his 72nd movie of the last six months) seeming to fall in love with Julia Roberts as she takes his picture. In one subsequent scene, Clive Owen, playing Roberts’ husband, threatens to kill someone – presumably Law, though the addressee is never shown – if he ever approaches Owens’ wife again. Law and Roberts have made a connection that is assumed to be on such a deep and basic level of intimacy that it quite simply cannot be ignored.

The inclusion of Owens’ threat is what really, in my opinion, sets the promotional tools apart from the rest of the pack and puts it leaps and bounds ahead of any romantic comedy (I’m talking to you Bridget Jones). The decision of Roberts and Law to explore a relationship despite current attachments and other stumbling blocks shows there are consequences to actions, a concept rarely seen on screen. It’s much more digestible for the movie-going public if everyone winds up accepted and loved with nary a trace of suspicion or resentment resulting from someone’s irresponsible or “free-spirited” actions. We’re never shown the repercussions in “Serendipity” of John Cusack and Kate Beckinsdale choosing each other and leaving their respective fiancées.

The mere fact that the folks behind the campaign for “Closer” would have the nerve to show us the aftershocks of a decision and not choose to present a 90-second montage of the couple bounding happily in each others arms is noteworthy. Also worth mentioning is the fact that, assuming there is some on-screen sex, footage from it was not used in the trailers or ads. Impressive restraint.

There was one story bit that had come out that promised to play the sex card: Natalie Portman’s role as a stripper (a role which now holds the record for largest simultaneous wish fulfillment among men 18-40). Nichols reportedly shot a scene or scenes of Portman going full frontal with the nudity, an aspect of the movie that seemed to be the angle most press coverage of the movie was playing up.

Then, about a month before opening day, press reports began to circulate saying Nichols had cut the nude footage (a story which now holds the record for generating the largest collective gasp of “Dammit!” among men 18-40). Some stories attributed this to Nichols paternal feelings for the young actress and his not wanting to exploit her. Others said Portman asked the director to cut the scenes and Nichols complied. Both angles used the same or similar quotes to back up their take on the story so I’m not sure just where the truth may be.

The point is that making the development in post-production editing public serves the purpose of keeping interest in the movie alive. It does that by bringing the sexual nature of the movie to the forefront, but through the backdoor. It’s not part of the straight-forward marketing campaign (although brief shots from scenes in a strip club do pop up in the trailer) but as part of a more public-relations focused effort. What they are really doing is emphasizing the sexual nature of the movie while looking like they are de-emphasizing the sexual nature of the movie. It’s an effective play since people may still be drawn to the movie to see what footage survived the cutting room.

So the question still remains (for those of you still reading) of whether the campaign, being waged not only with paid advertisements but also through the obliging sex-starved press, will be successful. Julia Roberts is getting older and Jude Law has not achieved the kind of breakout stardom his agents have obviously hoped for by signing him on to every picture available (rumor has it he was even up for the lead in Fat Albert). Natalie Portman hasn’t played the same game Lindsey Lohan and her ilk have and I doubt more than 200 people in the country could pick Clive Owen out of a lineup.

What you have is a movie that seems to be made by mature adults for mature adults. It’s not by Spielberg or another A-list director. While I applaud the marketing group for not grasping for the lowest common denominator, I have a fear that this play will be the movie’s undoing. It will have to generate great word of mouth to break through the white noise in the lives of adults and, specifically parents. They have to be convinced it’s worth the trouble and expense of a night out involving babysitters and such.

I hope it’s able to achieve success since it appears to be a genuine alternative for those who have steadfastly avoided “Alexander” and the other crap-fests invading local googleplexes.

As moviemaking costs increase, the pressure to successfully market those movies becomes greater. In an attempt to show how marketers are trying to put the most hinders in the theater seats, Chris Thilk breaks down why some movie campaigns work and some don’t. The posters for “The Rocketeer” and “Unforgiven” remain two of his all-time favorites. For Chris’ ongoing movie journal and other various musings, visit his Movie Marketing Madness blog.

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