When filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez pitched movie moguls Harvey and Bob Weinstein on their idea for a double bill tribute to 1970s exploitation cinema, it was an easy sell. Tarantino (Kill Bill) and Rodriguez (Sin City) both had strong track records, critically and commercially, with unconventional fare. The Weinsteins, their long-time backers, eagerly jumped on board.
Now comes the hard part: getting audiences that may be baffled by the whole concept to see the resulting film.
Grindhouse is two films in one—Rodriguez’s gory zombie movie, Planet Terror, and Tarantino’s Death Proof, about a movie stuntman who terrorizes women with his car. The two movies come packaged with trailers for other (imaginary) low-rent movies with titles like Werewolf Women of the S.S.
The double bill harks back to the days of America’s grungy “grindhouse” theatres which showed B movies in the 1970s, often as double or even triple bills. The so-called exploitation films were big on sex, violence and gore. They featured titles like Bald Headed Betty, Satan’s Sadists and The Blood Spattered Bride. Eric Schaefer, who wrote the book Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959, describes such movies as elemental and “seldom concerned with narrative coherence or logic.”
With that sort of a pedigree, the film arrives with an array of marketing challenges that may be more formidable than a pack of Rodriguez’s dead-eyed zombies.
The conceit is obscure enough that it’s tough to sell in a pithy way to audiences used to simple 30-second TV ads and easy-to-understand movie posters. Most of the target audience of hip, young moviegoers in all likelihood do not remember the films that inspired the directors, like the 1971 car-chase classic, Vanishing Point. And at three-plus hours, Grindhouse will only get one prime-time showing per screen at U.S. theatres.
Getting the movie’s message across is key to Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Since forming the Weinstein Co. a couple of years ago, the brothers haven’t had the kind of zeitgeist-defining breakout hits they enjoyed during the best days at Walt Disney Co.’s Miramax, their previous company. While they have expanded their ambitions into new areas like social networking and DVD distribution, their most successful movie at the box office has been Scary Movie 4.
Bob Weinstein acknowledges it was “challenging” to market Grindhouse but says audiences are craving for something new. The brothers made their name in the early days by working with filmmakers like Tarantino who created his classic, Pulp Fiction, in 1994 at Miramax. “This is the kind of thing we built our company on,” Bob Weinstein says of Grindhouse, which the company estimates cost $53 million (around Rs228 crore) to make.
After making a 3-D version of Spy Kids for the Weinsteins’ Dimension movie label, Rodriguez says he wanted to create another “big theatrical experience that lured people back into theatres.” A fan of grindhouse cinema, he started working on a horror double bill, and intended on making both movies himself. Then one day at Tarantino’s house, he spotted the same grindhouse poster he had been using for inspiration for his project. A fellow fan of the genre, Tarantino offered to make one of the movies.
The directors have been intimately involved in figuring out how to sell their passionate interest in the genre to the public. A big part of the draw of exploitation movies historically was their posters and marketing. B-movie filmmakers would take a sensational aspect of their film such as a bizarre character or taboo theme and use that to draw in audiences. Rodriguez says they conceived the poster before they even started the movies. The image for his movie, Planet Terror, started with a sexy woman in a bra-top and mini-skirt with a machine-gun leg. The character went on to become the movie’s star—Cherry Darling, a stripper whose leg is chewed off by zombies.
They used a common catchphrase from 1970s double bills—“two great movies for the price of one”—and spiked it with the kind of breathless language typical of the genre: “Together in one smash explosive show.”
When they sat down to plot a more extensive marketing campaign last year, Bob Weinstein says they realized they needed to do something very basic: educate the audience about the concept. Both directors have big followings of fans who embrace their unusual styles of filmmaking. But they needed to reach out to a broader audience.
They started by making a 22-minute special hosted by the directors in which they talk about the history of the genre and key features such as the “Badass Babes, the Girls of Grindhouse.” The special aired on various cable channels in recent weeks, including MTV2, FX and Sci Fi. Later on, they ran two-minute clips from the special along with more traditional trailers. They also sponsored new shows like FX’s comedy, The Riches, and got Tarantino to talk about grindhouse for special TV double bills of his Kill Bill movies.
While such television efforts are key to raising awareness, they had an important tool that 1970s filmmakers didn’t have: the Internet. The surprise success of movies like 300 have hammered home the importance of that marketing platform: 300 built significant buzz by not only having a myspace page but sponsoring a feature upgrade on the site. Like Grindhouse, 300 was R-rated.
Grindhouse ran a four-month campaign on Yahoo Movies, which featured exclusives on its home page. They also had an exclusive deal with IGN.com, the site for avid video gamers as well as other youth-oriented sites like MTV.com. They gave downloadable versions of the fake trailers to some sites, which quickly found their way onto Myspace and YouTube.
The filmmakers hope the movie is far enough ahead of the craziness of summer that it will be a steady burner, in much the same way their previous movies have been. Kill Bill: Volume 1, for instance, climbed to $70 million domestic tickets sales after a $22 million open. Still, the filmmakers acknowledge that the double bill concept may not work overseas: they have split Grindhouse into two separate releases for foreign markets.
Rodriguez says the project was a “fun experiment.” “It feels like cinema circus,” he says. The film has opened to generally positive reviews. Offshoots are already in the works, including feature-length versions of the fake trailers. Rodriguez’s next project: a possible movie made up only of fake trailers. “Grindhouse is a label we want to use for all sorts of ideas,” he says.
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