You just can’t mess up your marketing

Subject of much discussion over the weekend was why Love and Other Drugs didn’t do better at the box office. On paper, everything was there for a nice little holiday hit. Charismatic leads—check. Potent chemistry for the romantic plot—check. Massive media push—check. Yet still Love and Other Drugs underperformed, pulling in a measly $9.8 million over a five-day holiday weekend. That’s really sad and unless Jake Gyllenhaal scores huge next spring with Source Code he’ll never be a Movie Star. We’ll be stuck with Channing Tatum who is missing a chromosome as our leading romantic star. Frak.

After taking in Love and Other Drugs for myself I came up with two central reasons it failed. It’s not because it sucked—it wasn’t great but it wasn’t horrible. It was a serviceable romantic drama with some genuine humor and heart. And it started off really sharp with Gyllenhaal starring as “Jamie Randall”, a smooth-talking manwhore who can get a chick’s number even as his most recent conquest’s boyfriend (and his boss) kicks his ass/fires him. Jamie, we learn, is the layabout son of a successful doctor whose family is largely medical. His older sister (who we meet once and then she ceases to exist all together) is also a doctor and his younger brother has just sold an internet company specializing in electronic data storage for hospitals for $35 million dollars. And Jamie has been fired from yet another job.

Love and Other Drugs suffers from a case of split personality. When Jamie’s younger brother “Josh” (played for excellent comic effect by Josh Gad of 21 and Party Down) gets Jamie a job as a sales rep with Pfizer, the movie grows even sharper. Jamie is a pig, trading on his looks and bedroom skills to advance—he begins scoring sales when stops ambushing doctors and begins sweet-talking receptionists. Misstep one in the storytelling—Jamie hooks up with a medical assistant, “Cindy” (Judy Greer, veteran of many TV shows), and uses her to get the number of a young Parkinson’s patient, “Maggie” (Anne Hathaway). I feel like Cindy’s anger and hurt at her circumstances as a stepping stone for Jamie aren’t fully developed. She pouts at Jamie and snaps like an enraged chipmunk but never did I feel like Cindy showed him anything resembling genuine hurt or devastation. What Jamie did was really low—he made Cindy love him so he could get the confidential phone number of a patient. Then he dropped Cindy to pursue the other woman. Yikes.

Enter Maggie, the jaded, bitter, kind of self-pitying romantic foil to Jamie’s shallow slut. She engages in a physical relationship with Jamie but won’t let him have anything more than casual sex. And here’s where marketing is key. Love and Other Drugs was sold as a romantic comedy. Within the context of the actual story, Maggie’s emotional harshness is perfectly understandable and natural—she’s been burned before by men who bail on the “sick girl”. Within the preconceived—marketing encouraged!—notion that this is a romantic comedy, however, Maggie is really unappealing. Ditto for the extent of Jamie’s douchebaggery.

The first trailer for Love and Other Drugs showed a brief glimpse of Maggie’s fingers trembling as she had coffee with Jamie but a second trailer with that split-second glimpse cut out was almost immediately released. The marketing for Love and Other Drugs really did not want you to know about Maggie’s status as a person with a serious illness. And that trailer—as enjoyable as it was—was all bouncy moments and weepy emoting. The depths of Jamie’s depravity are not hinted at, nor is the fact that 2/3rds of the movie is not, in fact, romantic comedy but is instead a mix of late-stage coming-of-age and pharmaceutical satire. Audiences don’t like to be duped.

So with the movie not lining up with expectations we enter the second part of the problem: Thanksgiving weekend. Holiday weekends are traditionally good box office, but if you look, November and December box office are dominated by PG and PG-13 rated fare. Families want to go to the movies during the holidays when they’re sick of looking at each other, and an R-rated sex drama like Love and Other Drugs isn’t family friendly. I wonder if theater-goers would have been a bit more enthusiastic if this movie was released on December 3 instead of during a major family holiday weekend.

Minor problems that certainly didn’t help with these larger issues: Reviews weren’t great. Most critics picked up on the confused themes—the story never settles into any one plotline. Despite the attractiveness and great chemistry of the oft-naked stars, you’re never really sure what you’re supposed to take away from it all. If director Ed Zwick (producer of Defiance and Blood Diamond) elected to go with any one of three options—romantic/sex comedy, coming of age melodrama about a shallow guy, or sharp satire of the pharmaceutical business—he could have delivered a much stronger film. And then—Jake Gyllenhaal can’t seem to sell a mainstream movie. I don’t think anyone doubts his talent, but people don’t seem interested in buying him as a mass appeal commodity. This concerns me as it says something terrible about the human race.

Marketing is everything these days. People don’t go to the movies like they used to. It’s just too expensive for most people to see a movie every weekend. It’s not even a case of good movies versus bad movies—Unstoppable wasn’t remotely good yet it did just fine because the marketing clearly stated, “This movie is all action with nothing annoying like plot to get in your way plus Denzel Washington.” It was a clearly-labeled product and consumers knew what they were buying. Love and Other Drugs’ marketing was less clear and so people, unsure of what they were getting, stayed away. It certainly would have helped, though, if Zwick knew what kind of movie he was making in the first place. And you really can’t underestimate the importance of sticking with family-friendly ratings during the holiday weekends. This is the same logic that will propel the wretched money-grabbing Little Fockers to Christmas-weekend success next month.

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3 thoughts on “You just can’t mess up your marketing

  1. Shannon Christie

    Amen! Didn’t really love the EW article, but thought she was good on SNL, went to see it for Jakey, and it was just SO uneven… do I laugh or cry? Do her perfect breasts make up for her horrible mood swings and self-rightousness? Am I rooting for them to stay together or run screaming the other way? Gah.

  2. Lilac

    I have not seen it yet, but I think the emphasis on the movie’s nudity didn’t help. It certainly had a lot of competition, too. However, “The Kings Speech” had a huge opening. Dramas just haven’t done that well this year because life is hard. Audiences want an escape. Good critical notices matter with these types of films. “Love and Other Drugs” scored low, so I think that may have cost it some of it’s audience.

    In regards to Jake Gyllenhaal being a leading man, it remains to be seen. It all depends on the movie. He’s going for the mainstream male lead right now. Maybe he’s better in another capacity.

  3. Bobbi

    Thank-you for that bit about a director knowing what a movie should be and then sticking to it. Yes, it opens up people to criticisms about playing safe and the constrictions of genre, but a clear vision is vital. So is confidence in your story and audience.
    I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I agree with you about the holidays being a family friendly zone. As if mid 20’s to mid 40’s are leaving kids/parents/friends behind to go watch a couple be naked. Broad (and sort of empty) movies will always win when you need to pick a movie for more than just a couple. Who wants to be emotionally riled when there is turkey and other holiday dramas on the agenda?
    I used to review movies, and at the end of 5 years would trash any movie that was not honest about what it was. I could not stand watching decent stories, or entertaining movies go off the rails into either focus group blehness or try to be all things to all people, or not even be sure how the parts of the movie related to each other in a cohesive whole.

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