Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Previews and Coming Distractions

or, The Art of Marketing and the Marketing of Art

Just yesterday, I ran across a "Noview Review" of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. "This is a review of a movie that I haven't seen," says writer Fred Stesney, "because they haven't even released it yet. Really, with all the advance publicity that they do these days, do you really have to see a movie to know if it's any good? I say, no."

I had to laugh, and even agree with his point of view somewhat. I must admit that, in the past, I have once or twice "prewritten" movie reviews based on advance publicity and then almost literally "filled in the blanks" with details from the actual screening.

Stesney's own quasi-informed assessment of the upcoming Narnia film? "The awesome spectacle runs roughshod over any objections to hammy acting, the liberal use of movie clichés, and a lack of suspense as to the outcome. " As to the meaning of the film, Stesney remarks, "If Jesus isn’t your thing, don’t worry. Lewis created the series to be a light-handed way of getting the message to kids, and Disney, needing audiences in blue states, goes easy on the salvation. Non-believers will still get an exciting story where good and evil meet on the battlefield to hack each other to pieces."

Stesney's secular cynicism is not unique. At the Past Watchful Dragons conference at Belmont University in Nashville last week, I presented a Christian-oriented paper in which I mused that "Disney’s massive and unprecedented publicity campaign for this film almost guarantees that the world of Narnia will surprise few of us, though delight us it may."

The publicity machine that the potential Narnia franchise has become was launched in earnest last May when Oren Aviv, president of marketing for Buena Vista Pictures, announced that Disney and Walden Media were planning a massive and "unprecedented worldwide trailer 'roadblock' debut." On May 7th, during ABC TV’s network premiere of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (airing in over 106 million households), the trailer ran simultaneously around the globe to an "estimated 200 million+" viewers with "convergence" of coverage on "TV, online and via mobile phones." And quite an impressive debut it was—and debut only. The campagin has long since kicked into higher gear.

But there are legitimate reasons to be troubled about such a level of hype. This month, I will examine why various parties are concerned about how the movie's promotion is being handled, and conclude with some thoughts about how marketing considerations are likely to affect our experience of the film we finally end up seeing.

Have Disney and Walden Media "Got it Right?"

The phrase is unavoidable. As Motive Marketing head Paul Lauer observed in a recent "Narnia Outreach Training" simulcast, fans of Lewis' fantasy were justifiably excited about early news that a big-budget, live-action adaption of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was going to be produced—and justifiably apprehensive about Hollywood's ability to "get it right." Lauer's pronouncement? "I'm here to tell you: They got it right."

Well, what exactly would we expect Lauer to say? He is, after all, being paid to promote the film. And the various other "authorities" that the producers have lined up—including Douglas Gresham—naturally agree. Their enthusiasm is understandable if predictable, and their motives mostly pure.

But what does the publicity for the film actually convey? In Nashville, I shared a panel with Hugh H. Davis, who teaches English Literature at St. Mary's School in Raleigh, North Carolina. His paper offered the following excellent summation of the publicity's over-emphasis on battle footage.

As Walden Media and Disney prepare the imminent release of their adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the early media machine’s emphasis appears to focus on the novel’s final battle, a conflict between the massed armies of Aslan and the White Witch. Such a climactic struggle befits cinematic fantasy, particularly in the wake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and its epic battles, and all indicators suggest particular attention, if not hype, is being paid to the militaristic clash near the film’s end, despite the fact that this war lasts a mere few pages in Lewis’ text. While this conflict between the White Witch’s minions and Aslan’s supporters has narrative importance, seemingly the more important sequence should be the lion’s sacrifice in place of Edmund.

Advance material from the new film features only a brief glimpse of the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) on the Stone Table, focusing instead on the cataclysmic finale. The moviemakers have prepared a multi-part series going “Behind the Magic of Narnia” with five behind-the-scenes segments introducing viewers to “WETA” (the company designing the creatures and weaponry for the film), “The Director” (Andrew Adamson), “Locations and Sets,” “The Story,” and “Visual Effects.” Throughout each segment, much emphasis is placed on the number of different creatures needed, the challenge of creating two armies of five-thousand characters on one side and fifteen-thousand characters on the other, the difficulty of establishing both armies for both the creature design and visual effects departments, and the trial and ultimate satisfaction of committing an epic battle between good and evil to film. The trailers culminate in a series of shots of the two armies rushing headlong into battle.

The merchandising arm of the film—a modern necessity for all blockbusters—suggests similar early emphasis. While a line of plush toys has been solicited, with stuffed versions of Mr. Beaver, a unicorn, and Aslan, the majority of the collectibles being offered have taken a more violent, or at least action-oriented, focus. Toy shoppers may select from waves of “Battle Scale” two-packs, “Basic Battle Figures,” “Deluxe Battle Figures,” and plain and deluxe “Action Figures.” The emphasis with all of these has been on mythical creatures and presentations of the children in armor as part of the war scene. Even more “high end” items—more expensive merchandise sold to collectors—reveal this emphasis. Besides producing the creatures for the film, Weta are also releasing a line of statues and maquettes. Of the nine items on their website, four—The White Witch, the Minobaur, a Satyr, and General Otmin—are from the side of evil in the epic struggle, and two others—an armored Peter on a unicorn and Oreius, Aslan’s right-hand centaur—represent the forces of good in the same battle. The workshop does offer a maquette of Mr. Tumnus from early in the novel and a set of bookends with Aslan and the White Witch, but the only available merchandise which relates to the sacrifice scene is a statue of the Pevensie girls riding Aslan following his resurrection. Other merchandise and toy searches reveal a similarly disproportionate focus on the creatures of Narnia and their battlefield worlds, with armored and non-armored variations of the Cyclops, Ogres, and Satyrs, as well as a Disney PVC “Battle of Beruna” Playset.

The emphasis on the militaristic side of the novel might be deemed appropriate, given, as Paul Ford points out, the use of battle imagery throughout the text to describe Aslan’s movement, but it is more likely a product of a public relations machine’s efforts to entice an audience accustomed to spectacle and excess.
Davis mercifully spares us the details of the upcoming Narnia-based gaming scenarios, all of which, naturally, focus on battles, weapons and conflict. Even little Lucy gets to kick butt. The Toronto Sun reports that one video game combines "puzzle-solving and exploration with copious amounts of monster slaying." Still, says the game's Christian designer, "It's not like you're getting into a car with a prostitute, sleeping with her and killing her to get the money back." Lucky us. Davis, meanwhile, continues:
The cinema’s tendency to spectacle leads to the creation and inclusion of a glorified battle at the end of the film, but Aslan’s murder at the hands of the White Witch and her hordes—a crucifixion for this supposal’s Christ—is the true “glorious battle” of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Davis is right in observing, from a strictly literary point of view, that the true climax of the story is Aslan's death and resurrection, not the battle that follows. And his summary of Narnia's merchandizing is simultaneously deft, amusing and revealing.

Can the vision of Narnia presented by the trailers, merchandizing and game previews truly be described as "getting it right"? The "experts," presumably, are basing their opinion on something other than what the rest of us have seen.

Davis' summary of the movie's mainstream pre-selling, though, does help delineate four areas of concern: how a story with strong spiritual dimensions is being pitched to a mainstream, largely secular culture (a discussion fully covered by Davis' comments above); the multifaceted and aggressive effort being expended to convince Christian audiences that the movie's producers nonetheless "got it right"; the ideological battle of which these marketing efforts are a part; and what audiences stand to lose as a result.

The Christian Pitch

Toys, games and McDonald's Happy Meals, of course, have long been a part of the marketing options available to Hollywood. Ever since George Lucas pulled a fast one on Fox by retaining the merchandising rights to the Star Wars franchise, consumers and studios alike have been much more aware of mainstream, purely capitalist means of promoting movies. Disney is no exception, naturally. We all remember The Lion King toys, don't we? Dennis Rice, the company's senior vice president of publicity, has been quoted as saying that Disney intends to deploy "a large quiver of arrows" in their marketing campaign for Narnia—and, of course, the militaristic feel of Rice's comment has been adequately depicted in the mainstream pitch.

But Disney has also supported another handful of arrows launched in quite a different direction: that of the Christian church. And this is also nothing new. Hollywood marketing campaigns have been targeting Christian audiences for years. Grace Hill Media, described by Elaine Dutka of The Los Angeles Times as "the industry leader in church-based promotion," has pushed more than eighty films, going back to Bruce Almighty and Gods and Generals in addition to more recent fare such as Cinderella Man and Disney's The Greatest Game Ever Played. Now Grace Hill is on board with Narnia, too.

Yet the full scope of the church-based effort on the Narnia film is astonishing.

In addition to the publicists at Grace Hill, Disney has hired Paul Lauer's Motive Marketing to promote the film. While Grace Hill's efforts are focused mainly on journalists like me, Lauer—who has become the visible point man for public events in the Christian market—has coordinated the efforts of a wide range of religious organizations—in much the same manner as he did for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. In addition to the materials available through Motive's Narnia Resources website, Lauer also works closely with Outreach Inc. and the Mission America Coalition. At Outreach—a company that produces and sells licensed materials such as Narnia-themed bulletin covers, door hangers and mailers—Ron Forseth is quoted by Sandi Dolbee at the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying, "This film is going to be knock-your-socks-off good."

In the UK, The Observer reports on a number of other Christian leaders who are also on board with such gung-ho assessments:
A group called Catholic Outreach has advertised for 150 co-ordinators across the country to help promote the film. It is also organising 'sneak peak' events at which trailers will be shown to church audiences and executives from the film will talk about the project.

Other Christian groups and study centres are getting behind the film too. "We believe that God will speak the gospel of Jesus Christ through this film," said Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Centre at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that the film was an ideal way for a Christian message to be brought to people who would not otherwise go near a church. "Here is yet another tool that many may find to be effective in communicating the message of Jesus to those who may not respond to other presentations," he said.
And according to the Palm Beach Post, the Mission America Coalition has said, "As we begin to realize the potential impact of a blockbuster movie based on this premise, one that would have vast popular appeal in our culture as an epic struggle of good versus evil, but yet retain the 'deeper magic' of bedrock Christian themes such as sacrifice, resurrection and redemption, we quickly came to view the film—as we have viewed the books—as a huge opportunity for communicating the gospel message."

Naturally, scores of Christian organizations who are jazzed about such bullish predictions are piling up their own resources behind promoting the film. George Barna has even pulled together support for group bookings of the film the day before its official release. Notably, long-standing Christian boycotts of Disney films over the company's gay-tolerant business practices have been dropped this year. It's hard to generate good word-of-mouth, after all, for a film you won't let your congregation see. But hard-line stances fall easily when the situation is right, as we saw last year with Christian audiences flocking to the R-rated Passion of the Christ.

But all of this is pretty natural to see from a whole raft of folks who get paid, one way or another, to tell us what to think.

Motive, however, is also paying the Ground Force Network to mobilize and coordinate the activities of scores of volunteers. These young and enthusiastic unpaid promoters are the hands and feet of paid staffers they've often never met. The local GFN "field agent" in my area, for instance, is a student at the University of Washington who juggles a full-time course load while coordinating local customized promotional plans.

The mission of the GFN "campaign" for Narnia is not to proseletyze, however, no matter how militaristic and confrontational the GFN's lingo comes across. The object is to raise awareness of the Narnia film within the Christian community by staffing booths at Christian concerts and conventions, or by supplying interested and influential pastors with information and promotional material—and "ground war leader" Christine Bailey makes it clear that the GFN doesn't speak for Disney, Gresham or Walden Media. Further, Narnia campaign field agents—AKA "Knights of Narnia"—know that they're unpaid promoters, and are more than happy with the promise of vague incentive programs. Heck, just the chance to be an insider in the biggest media event of the season is incentive enough.

My local Knight of Narnia was on hand for the local "Sneak Peek" event I attended last week, which was far more low-key than I expected. It was hosted by a local church and laid out the educational and inspirational objectives of Walden Media. The hosting pastor started out by flipping through some Powerpoint slides presented by Ted Baehr at a regional Sneak Peek in Chicago. Then the various materials available through Walden, Motive and Outreach were described, and the trailers and featurettes available online were screened. The session concluded with a screening of Disney's closely-guarded extended preview footage of the upcoming film, which was indeed pretty stimulating. Whether or not the film ends up being any good, the folks putting together the Narnia trailers and featurettes know what they're doing. As Sneak Peek attendees left, they were laden with more free promotional materials than they could possibly shake a stick at.

Also last week, the Church Communications Network (CCN), an outfit that broadcasts satellite simulcast programs to subscribers, offered the "Narnia Outreach Training Seminar." Featuring talks by Douglas Gresham, Paul Lauer and Walden Media's Michael Flaherty, the seminar was billed as an opportunity for church leaders to learn how to "use this film as an outreach opportunity and invite your community to explore its messages of reconciliation and forgiveness, love and grace... Find out how churches, schools and organizations across the country are using the film." If I were a non-Christian, this is the event that I would be most concerned about. I'd want to know how the Christian community planned to beat me over the head with Narnia in order to convert me.

Well, I'm a Christian pastor myself, and after sitting through both the "Sneak Peek" and the "Outreach Training Seminar," I still don't have any concrete idea of how the church plans to beat anyone over the head with Narnia, much as they might want to. The seminar, in fact, seemed more like an opportunity for Lauer, Flaherty and its host pastors to slap each other on the back and be impressed that they managed to get Steven Curtis Chapman to show up and sing a couple of songs. It was merely a very effective extended cheerleading session: lots of enthusiasm about standing on the sidelines while encouraging others to actually play the game. If I didn't already have a pretty good idea of how to use films in general to connect the gospel with our culture, these events wouldn't have helped me much at all.

So in spite of the Christian community's enthusiasm about using Narnia as a means of evangelism, as far as I can tell the Christian community wants to do something it doesn't really have a clue how to do. This is probably bad news for hopeful pastors, and good news for anxious non-Christians.

Walden Media, by contrast and by mission, has done a much better job of putting together resources for secular teaching programs. And that's natural, since education is Walden's primary focus. They even managed to get The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on Florida State's "Just Read" list of recommended books. They've already also magnificently realized a secondary goal of boosting interest in the Narnia books. Reports the Boston Globe:
Sales of The Chronicles of Narnia have been rising since last spring, when the movie trailer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was released. The box set is No. 2 on the New York Times children's best-seller list.

"We've been happily surprised by how strong sales of 'Narnia' books have been," said Joe Monti, children's buyer for Barnes & Noble. But it's not only Lewis' children's books, Monti said: "It's also his nonfiction. It's surpassed our expectation at every stage."

HarperCollins, the publishing arm of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, is pumping out 170 C.S. Lewis-related book titles—140 related to The Chronicles of Narnia—in more than 60 countries. The number represents a vast variety of editions and companion volumes. ... "We're talking millions of books," said Mary McAveney, director of hard-cover marketing for HarperCollins Children's Books.

HarperCollins and Walden Media have worked closely together on the project, sharing artwork and promotional plans, and coordinating timing.

"The more they are able to get people to read the books," said Cary Granat, chief executive officer of Walden Media, "the bigger the base to grow the film. As more people want to see the film and read the books, it will extend the franchise. It's a cultural phenomenon that needs to be managed at all levels."
The Ideological Battle

And because Narnia has become a cultural phenomenon, being managed in a very high-profile way on many provocative levels, a lot of people are uneasy. Atheist fantasy author Philip Pullman, for instance, has taken the opportunity to declare that the Narnia books are "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice." He told the Observer that "If the Disney Corporation wants to market this film as a great Christian story, they'll just have to tell lies about it." Sadly, whether or not Pullman's assertions about Narnia are true, he's missed the point that Disney is not marketing the film as a great Christian story. Hired publicists are doing that for them, targeting a specific market demographic as only one facet of Disney's broader campaign. Even sadder, Pullman's comments have led to knee-jerk reactions like the following:
The book has long been recognised as having strong Christian themes. It's claimed that Aslan represents Jesus, the Witch represents Satan and the wardrobe is probably a bloody church or something. Or a vicar. Look, we don't know.

And if there's one thing that American cinemagoers love, it's Jesus-y films. The Passion Of The Christ: Die Harder took an incredible amount of money at the box-office, despite being nothing more than a relentless procession of screaming and guts. Disney must have noticed this, because they seem to be marketing the Narnia films as a kind of kiddie Passion.

Evangelists are already organising the use of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe as a preaching tool—even going as far as using exclusive trailers to draw audiences to church.
Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerebino chimes in, "When you can combine the forces of Disney, the McDonald's Happy Meal and Gov. Jeb Bush in one tidy package—all of them working together to cram thinly veiled Christian theology down the gullets of Florida's schoolchildren—you've got yourself a hell of a plan."

Clearly, people see what they want to see. Vicars and pastors have indeed been quoted as saying The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is like "The Passion for Kiddies," as if that's a good thing, and atheists have used the same description as supposed evidence of the movie's pernicious inanity. And both sides mistakenly claim that Disney is marketing the film to kids in that way.

Pullman and other atheists aren't alone, of course. Reactionaries on the other side of the argument are just as pugnacious, claiming that The Passion and Narnia have changed nothing. Last week, syndicated columnist L. Brent Bozell III ranted,
So why are some at Disney so uncomfortable with the religious theme in their own movie, a message embraced by 82 percent of Americans?

"We believe we have not made a religious movie,” Dennis Rice, Disney's senior vice president of publicity, told the Washington Times. “It's just a great piece of cinema that is true to a great piece of literature." The message in that is clear: don’t think this is a Christian film, because that is box-office death. Why not: “This is a fabulous story which also has a glorious message about faith and redemption”?

The reason for this unease is simple. There are people who are disturbed by the promotion of religion in the culture. Gov. Jeb Bush found this out when he promoted the first Narnia book for Florida school children in his “Just Read, Florida” program. Barry Lynn of the perpetually annoying group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State objected to this as a governmental encouragement of children’s literature with Christian overtones. You can have school teachers assign students to read books about rape, drug addiction, and accepting homosexuality as normal, but there better not be a Christian metaphor on the reading list.
All of this, of course, is part of the general climate of intellectual bullying going on in our world right now. No matter what side of any given debate one finds oneself on, it's apparently just a given these days that the other side is either demented, manipulatively evil or just plain stupid—maybe even a diabolical and contradictory combination of all three. Watching this all play out in the context of The Chronicles of Narnia is rather like watching two starving men endlessly battle to the death over a single loaf of bread—never stopping to realize that there's enough there for both to share, and never stopping to actually eat.

I have to admit that it was refreshing to see Christianity Today finally ask: When it comes to Narnia, is the church merely being used by Hollywood? But they failed to ask the equally compelling question: Isn't the church attempting to use Hollywood in much the same way? Who's using whom, exactly? And why can't the movie be genially viewed as a good thing for everyone?

Personally, I'm happy to conclude that Disney's The Chronicles of Narnia is no more a conspiracy to promote a Christian agenda than its theme parks are a conspiracy to promote a gay agenda.

What We Stand to Lose

I'm somewhat saddened, however, to also conclude that, at the end of the day, business is still business. It's tragic, really, that any artform should have such staggering income potential. When business interests and artistic decisions collide, the art usually suffers. And this is, probably, the greatest danger in this particular scenario: that the ideological tug-of-war over Narnia will translate into market pressures that compromise the right of Andrew Adamson, as an artist, to pursue with integrity his artistic vision for the film.

It would also be a shame if non-Christian audiences are so put off by Christian leaders' rather silly band-wagon-hopping enthusiasm for a film they've never actually seen that they skip the film entirely and miss out on what could be the most purely enjoyable moviegoing experience of the season. Here's a personal recommendation: If you're not interested in being preached at, just ignore the Vacation Bible School and camp programs, tell your adult Christian friends that, no, you really don't want to attend a Narnia-themed dinner at the church, and sneak down to your local multiplex when no evangelists are looking to check out the film for yourself. You'd probably cut Saw II that much slack, anyway.

It would be equally sad, of course, if utilitarian-minded Christians missed the fact that films are good for something other than evangelism. And if you don't understand that statement, I really don't know what to say.

Can we all just forget the hype when we finally go to see the movie? I hope so. The worst thing of all would be if Disney ruined the movie's chances by making us all sick of the film before we see it, or by distracting us with a useless and tiresome sideshow. I guess it's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen.