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Selling (and Sweding) of 'Be Kind Rewind'

Off-kilter marketing spins off from the film's tale of minimalist moviemakers.

December 31, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

In Oscar-winning writer-director Michel Gondry's upcoming comedy "Be Kind Rewind," Jack Black and Mos Def play accidental auteurs -- a couple of knock-around film novices who end up making movie magic with a minimum of resources: tin foil and cardboard, a junkyard back lot and an ancient camcorder chief among them.

Portraying, respectively, a well-intentioned video store clerk and his amped-up best friend, Def and Black must reshoot a trove of beloved movies -- reenacting and playing all the key roles in "RoboCop," "When We Were Kings," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Rush Hour 2" and "Ghostbusters," among others -- after Black's bumbling character accidentally erases the store's entire inventory of VHS tapes. They call their charmingly slapdash recreations "Sweded" movies (as in Sweden) to persuade the store's skeptical customers to keep renting. "It's a faraway, expensive country," Black explains to one patron.

It's precisely the sort of so-naive-it's-ingenious conflict resolution that prevails in Gondry's filmic universe -- a place where reality is just a poor substitute for surreality. Now, leading to "Be Kind's" Jan. 25 theatrical release, marketers for its distributor, New Line, are giving the film a promotional push that involves Sweding the Internet, the Sundance Film Festival and one of New York's hippest art galleries. As well, it may even result in a number of famous directors' giving reciprocal Sweding treatment to "Be Kind Rewind."

But a clarification about Sweding first.

"I wanted a name that meant nothing," Paris native Gondry said in Clouseau-esque Franglais about the invention of the verb. "I had in mind, like, the suede shoes -- a fake velvet. A sort of ultra-suede? But I always get the word wrong because I'm French."

In the "Be Kind" characters' reductive reasoning, it's more straightforward to reshoot all the films from scratch than to stock the store with new videotapes. With necessity as the mother of their lo-fi invention, the characters use pipe cleaners to stand in for ectoplasmic tractor beams in the Sweded version of "Ghostbusters." Spray-painted cardboard cutouts substitute for animated wildlife in the Sweded "Lion King." And cheese pizza is meant to evoke pooling blood -- the aftermath of a drive-by shooting in the Sweded version of "Boyz N the Hood."

Aaron Sugarman, New Line Cinema's senior vice president for interactive marketing, said the promotional aesthetic was designed to fit the film's broader theme of individual expression via humble means in the Information Age.

"Everyone's taken by this idea of taking these great movies you love and remaking them into your own thing. It's what half the stuff on YouTube is," Sugarman said. "So we wanted to inspire people to do their own Sweding, to tell them what Sweding is and give them the tools to make their own Sweded pieces. We wanted people to be inspired. Because you can Swede a movie, a Web page, a bicycle -- you can take Sweding and extend it to almost anything in life."

Toward that end, the operating idea behind is that Black's character has also accidentally "erased the Internet" and visitors to the site are responsible for creating a Sweded replacement. Google has been crudely reborn as "Goolge." MySpace has undergone a primitive makeover to become MyFace (a social networking site for the "Be Kind" characters). Another section of the site allows visitors to Swede photos of themselves onto VHS movie covers from New Line films, including "The Wedding Singer," "Blade" and "Freddy vs. Jason." (You can also see clips of some of the movies Sweded in "Be Kind.")

As well, "Easter eggs" -- hidden features computer programmers plant on some Web pages, intending them as inside jokes or personal asides -- abound on Taking visitors to nearly 20 ancillary websites, they include Sweded dancing cats, Sweded news and weather pages and a Sweded "arcade" that allows visitors to play the proto video game Pong. A PDF download instructs visitors on how to Swede other sites. There are plans for a channel on YouTube dedicated to fan-generated Sweded films.

Most of "Be Kind" takes place in and around a Passaic, N.J., video store (owned by Danny Glover's retirement-age character) that's rapidly losing market share to a nearby Blockbuster franchise. To hear Gondry explain it, he hopes the film -- and particularly that subplot -- will engender a critical dialogue about consumer culture. As such, the writer-director said he will allow marketers to go only so far with their promotions.

"I want to make sure we're not contradicting ourselves by doing too heavy marketing," Gondry said. "Blockbuster wanted a partnership -- advertising in common, television commercials. But my movie is about an indie video store defending itself against a larger corporation! I said no because using our movie to promote Blockbuster and vice versa would be shooting ourselves in the foot."

He added: "Now I hope our movie will be in their shop."

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