Why was Fox’s ‘Knight and Day’ a flop? An­swer isn’t as clear as day

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES & LIFE - By Pa­trick Gold­stein

When it comes to sur­viv­ing the nasty world of Washington pol­i­tics, peo­ple have of­ten said that if you want a friend, get a dog. The same goes in Hollywood, es­pe­cially when your movie has crashed and burned at the box of­fice.

So it’s no sur­prise that all of the in­dus­try buzz over the last week has fo­cused on the rocky open­ing for “Knight and Day,” the sup­posed sure-thing ro­man­tic ac­tion com­edy that did a belly flop at the box of­fice, barely top­ping $20 mil­lion for the three-day week­end (giv­ing it $27.8 mil­lion in five days of re­lease).

De­spite hav­ing Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in star­ring roles and a wall-towall mar­ket­ing blitz of TV ads from 20th Cen­tury Fox, the movie sim­ply didn’t find an au­di­ence, fin­ish­ing a dis­tant third to “Toy Story 3” and Adam San­dler’s “Grown Ups.” In Hollywood, when a movie fails to open, the blame game be­gins in earnest. Many in the me­dia thought the prob­lem started with Cruise, who did tons of press for the film but couldn’t pull movie­go­ers into the mul­ti­plexes. Many in the in­dus­try, in­clud­ing sev­eral peo­ple close to the film, were pri­vately point­ing fin­gers at Tom Roth­man, the Fox co-chair­man who picked the movie’s ti­tle and mi­cro­man­aged its mar­ket­ing cam­paign.

Also com­ing un­der fire was Tony Sella — Fox’s co-pres­i­dent of mar­ket­ing, who is viewed as one of the best in the busi­ness — for hav­ing done a poor job of po­si­tion­ing the $117-mil­lion film, the stu­dio’s third con­sec­u­tive dud of the sum­mer, af­ter “Marmaduke” and “The A-Team.” Sella’s crit­ics say that au­di­ences were con­fused by the stu­dio’s ini­tial trailer for the film, which ran on the front of “Avatar,” the phe­nom­e­nally suc­cess­ful James Cameron film that dom­i­nated the box of­fice this year. When track­ing about au­di­ence in­ter­est in “Knight and Day” be­came avail­able sev­eral weeks ago, the num­bers were sur­pris­ingly low. De­spite fran­tic ef­forts by Fox to re­con­fig­ure the film’s mar­ket­ing mes­sage, the num­bers never re­cov­ered.

Those close to the film, who de­clined to go on the record in fear that their crit­i­cisms could com­pro­mise their re­la­tion­ships with the stu­dio, con­tend that the movie’s ti­tle was off-putting to younger movie­go­ers, say­ing it evoked wheezy, 1980s-era ac­tion films like “Tango and Cash.” They were also sur­prised to see Fox run­ning posters and out­door ad­ver­tis­ing that didn’t have any im­ages of Cruise and Diaz, opt­ing in­stead of sil­hou­ettestyle cutouts of the ac­tors — if you’re go­ing to pay mul­ti­ple mil­lions to movie stars, why not get your money’s worth from us­ing a sexy photo of their im­ages in the cam­paign? Af­ter all, for all of the in­side-the-in­dus­try back­stab­bing of Cruise af­ter his out­bursts of off-putting be­hav­ior, the ac­tor suc­cess­fully opened 2008’s “Valkyrie,” a Nazi-era World War II movie that rep­re­sented a far more ques­tion­able com­mer­cial genre than an ac­tion thriller like “Knight and Day.”

In a rare in­ter­view early this week, Sella, who is painfully me­dia shy but a de­light­ful racon­teur when he’s far away from a tape recorder, took full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the film’s poor show­ing. He was es­pe­cially vo­cal — and un­usu­ally can­did — when it came to the is­sue of the Cruise Fac­tor.

“Blame me; don’t blame Tom Cruise,” he said. “We did lots of fo­cus groups for this film, and no one ever said there was a star prob­lem. Never. Tom Cruise was not the is­sue. I take full re­spon­si­bil­ity.” He laughed. “And if the movie ends up go­ing to $100 mil­lion, I want full re­spon­si­bil­ity, too.”

Sella con­tends that the sil­hou­ette-style rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the film’s stars weren’t meant to hide the ac­tors from view. “I was do­ing an homage to (fa­bled ti­tle de­signer) Saul Bass,” he ex­plained. “It was a way for us to sig­nal that this was a dif­fer­ent, adult kind of movie. The whole cam­paign was de­signed to evoke a film like ‘North by North­west.’ It wasn’t in any way us try­ing to hide any­one, sim­ply to make the film look unique …”

Sella ac­knowl­edged that the film’s ini­tial trailer didn’t get its mes­sage across prop­erly. But he in­sists that Fox wasn’t asleep at the switch when the lousy track­ing num­bers be­gan show­ing up, as some crit­ics have con­tended.

“We knew there was an au­di­ence dis­con­nect, and we re­acted and tried to ad­just the spots ac­cord­ingly,” he said. “You didn’t have to be a rocket sci­en­tist to know that when you got your trailer out in front of the biggest movie of all time and you still didn’t have the track­ing num­bers you should have, it wasn’t an aware­ness prob­lem. It was a prob­lem with our mes­sage.”

Sella found him­self in a clas­sic mar­keter’s quandary. He’d been run­ning an off­beat cam­paign to make the film feel unique. But once the au­di­ence reg­is­tered its con­fu­sion with his cam­paign, he found him­self sim­pli­fy­ing the mes­sage, which cre­ated a new set of prob­lems. “Once we de­cided to change the mes­sage to be as lit­eral as we could be — to help movie­go­ers un­der­stand the film — then peo­ple started to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that movie be­fore. It’s ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ or it’s ‘True Lies.’ And that was ex­actly what we’d tried not to do, to make the movie feel like some­thing you’d seen be­fore.”

One of the biggest prob­lems with “Knight and Day” was that it ap­pealed largely to an older au­di­ence, ei­ther be­cause younger movie­go­ers have lit­tle in­ter­est in a so­phis­ti­cated “North by North­west”-style thriller or be­cause Cruise and Diaz have even less of a fol­low­ing among younger movie­go­ers than any­one had imag­ined. Ac­cord­ing to re­port­ing by Ben Fritz, movie­go­ers younger than 25 made up 44 per­cent of the film’s open­ing week­end au­di­ence, a fig­ure that doesn’t bode well for the film, be­cause even fewer younger movie­go­ers will be avail­able since the new “Twi­light” film opened Wed­nes­day.

In the sum­mer, adult movie­go­ers rarely drive the box of­fice, es­pe­cially when your film skews as old as “Knight and Day” did and re­ceives de­cid­edly mixed re­views. “It’s a grown-up film,” says Sella. “That was the whole the­ory be­hind sell­ing the film, that it was a cool, adult movie, hence the poster and the graph­ics be­hind it. We wouldn’t have called it ‘Knight and Day’ if we weren’t go­ing for an adult au­di­ence. I guess that if I’m guilty of any­thing, it’s that I al­ways be­lieved an adult movie could work, even in the sum­mer.”

But why didn’t the young movie­go­ers come, too? Sella falls silent. “Hon­estly, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve still got to try and fig­ure that out.” He dis­missed com­plaints about the film’s ti­tle, ar­gu­ing that ti­tles, good or bad, are over­rated. “If there are three words that you should never put in any ti­tle, it’s ‘Dead Po­ets So­ci­ety,’ and yet that film was a huge suc­cess. Ti­tles re­ally don’t hurt movies, and for that mat­ter, I don’t know what else we could have called it. What we were up against was big­ger than that.”

Frankly, no one knows for sure what kept movie­go­ers away from “Knight and Day.” Even if the film had a lousy ti­tle and a ques­tion­able re­lease date, it’s easy to name dozens of films that have tri­umphed over those fac­tors, just as it’s easy to name dozens more films that had un­be­liev­ably en­tic­ing ti­tles and a per­fect re­lease date — and still went down in flames.

It’s why Hollywood loves to play the blame game. In a busi­ness where there are no in­fal­li­ble film­mak­ers, where au­di­ences are per­pet­u­ally fickle, blow­ing hot and cold over ev­ery fresh new ac­tor or hot new trend, the only con­stant is that our movies are our most enig­matic con­sumer prod­uct of all, their ap­peal a per­pet­ual mys­tery. All we know is that some­thing was missing from the witches’ brew rep­re­sented by “Knight and Day,” some­thing that even a savvy mar­keter like Sella is still hav­ing trou­ble fig­ur­ing out.

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