Every so often, the unexpected success of a certain movie will leave those of us who cover Hollywood a little thunderstruck.
I think Slate's Willa Paskin hit the nail on the head when she wrote earlier this week: "Sometimes events occur that make me feel as though I live in a nation of strangers." Her Exhibit A: "My fellow citizens plunking down $24.8 million to see a Nicolas Cage movie (Def: A crummy action thriller in which the willfully hackish actor sports a thinning helmet of strange hair while simultaneously saving the world . . .)." She ends her post by asking: "Can someone please explain?"
OK, let's try. How is it possible that a cheesy doomsday thriller that got creamed by the critics (as the Boston Globe's Ty Burr put it, the film "starts off mildly ridiculous, ascends to the full-blown ludicrous and finally sails boldly off the edge of the absolutely preposterous") could easily win the weekend box-office trophy, beating out a well-reviewed Julia Roberts-starring thriller and the Paul Rudd-starring bromantic comedy "I Love You, Man"?
I asked three Hollywood marketing gurus for their expert analysis. And while they all had different opinions about the appeal of the film (produced by Summit Entertainment), they agreed on one thing: It wasn't about Nic Cage. In fact, the consensus was that people don't go see Nic Cage movies, since there are too many movies in too many genres that all starred Cage that didn't make a ripple at the box office. In other words, audiences see fantasy adventure fables that happen to star Cage, but not because they star Cage.
So what made people see "Knowing"? Rival marketers credit Summit marketing chief Nancy Kirkpatrick with cutting a great trailer. But they also said the genius of "Knowing's" marketing campaign was that its trailers and TV spots drafted off of the public's affection for Disney's wildly successful (and Cage-starring) "National Treasure" franchise, which has a similar story. "If you're going to steal, steal from a big hit," one marketer said. "They made the movie look like 'National Treasure 3.' All that business about Cage figuring out a hidden code -- it's a total 'National Treasure' knockoff. They successfully borrowed someone else's campaign and made it their own."
It's not like anyone is up in arms about all this. Studio marketers lift good ideas from rival campaigns all the time, whether it's using a similar visual effect, the same voice-over announcer, a popular hip-hop song or an old piece of film score that suddenly turns up in half a dozen different trailers.
It's also possible that "Knowing" had a special resonance, being a story about saving the world that came out when the world was in the midst of a nasty economic downturn. When events feel out of control, people need to be reassured. "Cage isn't just figuring out a puzzle, he's also a protective father, which must make people feel good in these troubled times," one marketer said. "I think they really got people when -- in their spots -- the young boy asks if the world could be coming to an end and Cage says, 'I'm not going to let that happen.' That really grabbed people."
"Knowing" illustrates one of the great enduring enigmas of the movie business. You make a movie simply because you like the story, but 18 months later, by the time it comes out, it suddenly has a jolting relevance to exactly what's going on in the world. As a marketing chief put it: "When you're reading doomsday stories in the news every day, it becomes very appealing to see a movie about someone who figures out how, when there's a crisis, we all might be saved." Since Cage is in the starring role, he'll get to add another hit to his list of credits. Whether he deserves credit for opening the film is almost irrelevant.
As everyone in Hollywood always says, it's better to be lucky than be good.