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WORD OF MOUTH

Word Of Mouth

July 02, 2009|John Horn

Sacha Baron Cohen's latest fictional character hails from a different foreign land, wears different clothes, and tells different jokes. But the closer you examine Universal's marketing campaign for Baron Cohen's "Bruno," the more the sales pitch starts to look a little like "Borat 2" -- which simultaneously explains "Bruno's" advantages and drawbacks.

When Universal's ribald Baron Cohen comedy lands in theaters July 10, expectations will be high. The studio paid a steep $42.5 million to acquire "Bruno's" distribution rights, and 2006's "Borat" grossed more than $260 million worldwide for 20th Century Fox, a remarkable outcome for an R-rated comedy starring a once-obscure British television comedian.

Universal declined to discuss its "Bruno" marketing methods, but a review of the film's numerous television spots, coming attractions trailers, print advertisements and websites reveals an intentional hand-in-glove attempt to link Baron Cohen's two comedies. "The man who brought you Borat is back," says one spot. Says another: "The man from Borat is back."

The campaign also shows how the studio is wrestling with some of "Bruno's" potential liabilities, including the fact that the title character is potentially more divisive and forceful -- not as likable and naive, in other words, as Borat was.

When Fox released "Borat" three years ago, it faced completely different marketing challenges. Despite having appeared regularly on Baron Cohen's "Da Ali G Show" on HBO, hardly anyone knew who the movie's title character was, and even fewer were familiar with the comedian's satirical style -- the 37-year-old impersonates extreme characters (in "Borat," he's an anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist, in "Bruno," a flamboyant Austrian fashion journalist) who then crafts uncomfortable scenes in which unsuspecting people react to his outlandish behavior.

To help establish "Borat's" modus operandi, Fox showed the film hundreds of times across the country in the months ahead of the film's release, not only bringing the movie to numerous film festivals (including Toronto, Helsinki, Finland, and Traverse City, Mich.) but also conducting countless word-of-mouth screenings for radio stations, social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and entertainment journalists.

Fox also released the film in only 837 theaters ("Transformers: Rise of the Fallen" premiered in 4,234 locations last weekend), letting positive buzz spread from the larger metropolitan cities into the rest of the nation, where "Borat's" audience continued to expand.

Unlike Fox, Universal will release "Bruno" widely immediately, and because moviegoers are now hip to Baron Cohen's manner, the studio doesn't need to launch a Fox-style education effort.

In fact, according to data compiled by the National Research Group, "Bruno," nine days before its release, enjoys double the audience awareness of "Borat" at the same point -- 70% versus 35%. In addition to showing strong "Bruno" support from men younger than 25, the NRG data also show that "Bruno's" "unaided awareness" -- a measure of how familiar moviegoers are with a title without prompting by survey takers -- was running ahead of "Borat's" pace. One rival studio estimated that "Bruno" could enjoy an opening weekend gross of more than $30 million.

Universal has repeatedly suggested to ticket buyers that if they liked "Borat," they will love "Bruno," which is undeniably more outrageous. At the same time, the studio is courting female moviegoers ("Bruno" spots have been running in "Gossip Girl" and "The Bachelorette," shows that also have followings from gay males), in hopes of expanding Baron Cohen's fan base.

In part because the film has been criticized by gay activists for its depiction of homosexuality (Bruno is a gay man obsessed with anal sex, bondage wear and sex toys), Universal has used its television spots and preview trailers to show that many of the film's pranks have nothing to do with the title character's sexual orientation, or how people in the movie react to his sexual conduct.

Almost every TV spot shows Baron Cohen, trying to hide his face from paparazzi, running into a wall at the airport. Several spots include a sequence where he tells a purported terrorist that Osama Bin Laden "looks like a kind of dirty wizard or homeless Santa." Many spots have included Baron Cohen's appearance on Richard Bey's television talk show, where the actor says he adopted an African American infant in a swap for an iPod.

At the same time, Universal is emphasizing that Baron Cohen is playing a character -- the film's publicity material, in a departure from how Baron Cohen typically operates, reveals in detail how he and his filmmaking team staged the movie's set pieces.

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