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Archive for April 5th, 2007

Maximum sales, circus maximus

Posted by metaphorical on 5 April 2007

What do the movies “Rhinestone” and “Turk 182” have in common with “A Christmas Story”? Not much. They were all directed by Bob Clark, who died in a car accident yesterday. Other than that, not much. The one became a classic while the other two bombed.

Yet the two that bombed, Rhinestone and Turk 182, are of a movie category I call Surprisingly Not Bad.

SNB movies are ones that turn out to be watchable, at least for “free” (broadcast or cable), but are passed over by the vast majority of people for one reason or other, almost always having to do with some impression formed in a single moment. “Rhinestone” never got past the improbability of pairing Dolly Parton and Silvester Stallone in a buddy-movie/romantic comedy, an (accurate) perception that was probably formed by taking one look at the movie’s poster:


(and even more so, the album cover:)


Turk 182 was a highly forgettable drama-farce staring Timothy Hutton as a graffiti-painting prank-playing younger brother of a fireman who was unfairly deprived of disability benefits after saving the life of a little girl in a fire. Check out it’s mixed-signals cover:


It’s hard to imagine who this movie was trying to appeal to—middle America, which by and large was happy to let the other 12,780 buildings in the city burn down, or New Yorkers who couldn’t associate the pretty-boy goody-two-shoes star of Ordinary People and Taps with a logo obviously designed to remind us of one of New York’s most daring and best-known graffiti artists.


A Christmas Story, on the other hand, has become a major holiday classic, which it was almost guaranteed to do. Any movie script that successfully weaves together bits and pieces from a dozen or so radio monologues from the greatest monologist ever, Jean Shepherd, was going to work. Clark’s main virtue as director was to not get in the way of the story.

But as the NY Times noted in its obituary of Clark today, A Christmas Story became a classic on television.

A bully named Scut Farkus, a leg lamp, a freezing-flagpole mishap and some four-letter defiance helped the movie become a seasonal fixture with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” Each holiday season, the TBS cable network runs a marathon that starts on Christmas Eve: in 24 hours the film is shown a dozen times in a row.

In the movies, it didn’t do nearly as well, and I have to wonder if it wasn’t because of the movie poster.


According to the rather amazing site Box Office Mojo, it ranked 39th in grosses among movies released in 1983 at $19,294,144. (Just slight below a confusing group of movies ranked in the low 30s and grossing about $21 million that includes the classic, The Right Stuff (#33) sandwiched between the execrable Cujo (#34) and Class (#32).Perhaps box offices grosses don’t tell us as much as I thought.)

We judge these movies, initially, in a heartbeat—a movie poster, a commercial on tv, a promo in the theatre while still settling into our seats to see something else entirely. We turn to the person we’re with and nod, or smile, or grimace, a silent thumbs-up or thumb-down that represents the only take-away. “Oh, I saw a preview for that,” we say, a week later, at the luncheon table at work. “It looked pretty good/pretty stupid.”

And that’s with a promotional budget in the millions. On Tuesday, the Times reported on an increasing phenomenon: the pre-publication book tour, in which an author travels to meet bookstore managers and employees before the book is published.

The article leads with a description of a first-time author, Steven Hall, being sent out by his publisher, Canongate U.S., an imprint of the venerable Grove Press (nowadays, Grove/Atlantic), which is putting its full weight behind the book (which is titled “The Raw Shark Texts.”) What counts as full weight here?

It goes on sale in the United States today, and the publisher has already printed 100,000 copies, a huge run for a relatively small independent publisher. Canongate has vowed to spend $150,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the book.

The pre-publication tour is described as

a ritual an increasing number of authors are enduring so that their books can have a fighting chance in an industry that issues, by some estimates, more than 175,000 titles a year.

Movie promotional budgets today often represent about half the total up-front costs a studio spends. If the movie’s total budget is $60 million, $30 million might be spent to create our one-second thumbs-up. When you compare that to a $150,000 book promotion to break out of a pack of 174,999 other books, it’s a more-than-minor miracle that any book ever captures our attention and dollars.

I happened to have found out that Rhinestone was SNB when I was cruising through the cable dial one night. I like Stallone, for all his faults, and I really like Dolly Parton, both as an actress and a singer, and I was bored enough with nothing else to do to give the movie a full five-minute trial.

Susan Cheever, who was my workshop instructor the first semester of my M.F.A. writing program, told us to picture our potential reader in the following way. This isn’t a profile of the reader, it should be said, just our challenge as writers.

She’s a soccer mom who double-parks the mini-van to run inside a 7-11 to get some soda for the kids, who are still waiting in the car. While on line to pay, the cover of your book grabs her eye. She opens it and reads the first sentence. Is it good enough to get her to read the second one? If you can get her to read the whole first paragraph, she’ll probably buy the book.

That’s life in the thumbs-up, thumbs-down Media Maximus.

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