Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How "Stardust" Went Bust

I've been pretty hard on this year's movie marketing campaigns, but thankfully few of the bad ones seem to have damaged the fortunes of the films they promoted. "X-Men: First Class" came through with decent returns, good enough that there are rumors of a sequel on the horizon. "War Horse" lured in families and older audiences over Christmas, posting better numbers than expected. "Hugo" is still struggling, but the continued critical support as we move through awards season is likely to give it a boost. None of these films will slip through the cracks and be forgotten.

This wasn't the case four years ago with "Stardust," which was a film I had big hopes for and was highly anticipating back in 2007. It suffered one of the worst marketing campaigns that I've ever seen, and even after so much time, I still find myself cringing at the thought of it. Now honestly, "Stardust" wasn't a great movie. And it was one of those odd ducks that wasn't easy to pigeonhole into one easily-defined category, so it presented a marketing challenge. However, it was a perfectly fun, sweet little fantasy-romance-comedy in the same vein as "The Princess Bride." Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Peter O'Toole added some star power in supporting roles, and it looked like perfect counter programming against a glut of heavier summer action films. But its audience didn't find it. "Stardust" opened fourth at the box office against "Rush Hour 3" in the middle of August and only made back about half of its budget, even though it was one of the only female-friendly offerings available.

How did "Stardust" fail to connect? Well, for starters somebody made the decision that it should be sold as an action movie, to young men. They weren't willing to sell it as straight fantasy, because despite the success of "Lord of the Rings," straight fantasy films never really did come back in vogue with the exception of children's films. "Stardust" is not a children's film. It's rated PG-13 and there's some morbid humor and violence and mild sexuality that aren't family friendly. I don't think there was anything especially objectionable about the content compared to your average action movie, but the whole tone of "Stardust" was considerably more adult and sophisticated than the "Narnia" and "Harry Potter" installments of the time. There was no way to disguise it as a harmless kiddie fairy-tale film you could park the kids at for ninety minutes, and I'm glad they didn't try.

However, selling it as an action-adventure film like one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" blockbusters, was also a mistake. A major problem of the campaign was that people were confused about what the movie was about. The billboards and print ads were terrible, so generic that I suspected some people might have thought they were advertisements for a new Stardust casino. The trailers and commercials were better, but still a blur of random action scenes without much context. So people mostly understood that it had fantasy and action and a little bit of horror, but nobody knew it was a romance and a comedy too. This was on purpose, because the marketers were targeting the young male quadrant of the audience, and the prevailing wisdom is that romance is anathema to them.

The trouble is that the romance is central to the whole film, and it's tough to describe what it's about without at least mentioning that the lead is on a quest to retrieve a fallen star as an engagement present for his lady love. The star turns out to be a pretty girl, played by Claire Danes, so our hero ends up falling for her instead. Hijinks ensue. I remember some of the actors making the rounds on late night talk shows, being asked to describe the movie, and every single one of them avoided calling "Stardust" a romance or a romantic comedy. Instead it was all action, action, action being talked up - there certainly is plenty of action in the movie, but it's really not the point. The actors ended up sounding evasive, the film sounded difficult, and I think everyone came away still confused.

And in the end the approach backfired. The older audience and the female audience that come out for romances didn't come out for "Stardust." The ads made the film look like an action movie, but not a particularly good action movie, so young males stayed away too. Of course nobody tried to target the young female crowd, because this was still a year before "Twilight," and everyone thought that a supernatural romance couldn't possibly make as much money as something with a lot of fighting and running and explosions. If "Stardust" were released now, with "Twilight" and "Alice in Wonderland" behind us, and lots of fairy-tale adventure films coming next year, I think it would fare much, much better.

But for now, "Stardust" has to settle for being a sort-of cult-classic, still too recent to have much nostalgic value, and still too obscure to have much cachet. But if you go back and look at it today, there's Mark Strong in one of his best villain roles, and Ricky Gervais putting in a good bit part, and Claire Danes never looked more lovely astride a unicorn. I know so many people who'd eat this stuff up. I expect that "Stardust" will be rediscovered eventually, but it's a shame it didn't really get a chance to connect with its intended audience from the beginning.

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