The Method To The Madness Of ‘Mother!’s Box Office Marketing

When Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan came out of the fall film festival circuit seven years ago, the pic was promptly teed up for Oscar season with many bewitched by Natalie Portman’s graceful turn as a tormented ballerina who notches the lead in Swan Lake. 

“Black Swan”

Fox Searchlight ensured that the movie was protected theatrically in what was a pretty fierce awards season that included competition like The Social Network and The King’s Speech. As such, the label platformed Black Swan during the December holidays before going wide around the time of the Golden Globes in January. Black Swan crossed over feasibly from specialty houses to multiplexes, appealing to horror fans, the LGBTQ community and sophisticated audiences who shelled out close to $107 million. The film remains one of three Searchlight titles to cross the century mark in the classic label’s history. Black Swan earned five Oscar noms, with Portman walking home with a Best Actress trophy.

This weekend, Paramount is taking a completely different, audacious approach with Aronofsky’s latest genre twist motherstarring Jennifer Lawrence. Having just finished earning great praise out of the Toronto and Venice film festivals with a 76% certified fresh Rotten Tomatoes score, mother! won’t be receiving a platform rollout. Instead, the studio is brazenly taking the Aronofsky pic wide in 2,368 theaters.

Typically when a distributor goes wide with what appears to be an art house film, it’s because they need to make their cash back fast, making a platform play risky. But that’s not exactly the case for Paramount with mother!, which per insiders cost around $30M before PA.

Sure, part of the wide-release strategy stems from having a star like Lawrence, who guarantees a female turnout between 50%-60% for her post-Hunger Games fare. Social media monitor RelishMix points out that Lawrence’s Facebook followers alone rep 25% of the film’s 81M social media universe. However, Paramount feels it has something wild in mother! and that the best way to pull the string open is to go big, hopefully triggering a huge conversation on social. Early audiences have expressed a wide array of emotions and reactions — the Google search phrase “what does mother movie mean” has generated 77 million results as of this afternoon. Some moviegoers interpret mother! as a Biblical allegory, or a jab at social media, while others believe it’s about climate change, or as Lawrence explains in her deconstruction of the film above, it’s all allegory, with Shel Silverstein’s children’s book The Giving Tree more of an inspiration than Roman Polanski horror pics.

The film’s storyline has largely been shrouded in secrecy with its initial theatrical trailer attached to Dunkirk two months ago literally comprised of words on the screen and chaotic audio. Throughout the last month we’ve come to learn that Lawrence plays the younger wife to Him (Javier Bardem), a famed writer. They’re restoring their country house, but have unexpected guests showing up portrayed by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Rival distribs have rubbed their chins over Paramount’s brave move to open what looks to be a horror film in the wake of New Line’s behemoth It, which will cross $200M at the domestic box office this frame take No. 1 in its second weekend with $50M-plus. But while mother! looks and smells like a horror film, it’s essentially something crazier, Lynchian, and completely Aronofsky-esque. After Blumhouse’s PG-13 horror pic Happy Death Day moved on to mother!‘s original release date of Friday, October 13, Paramount moved mother! up to September 15 as it saw both titles were competing for under-25 females.  

Tracking has mother! at $11M. If Paramount can get the movie to $15M, it would be considered a decent start, with anything higher being fantastic. CBS/Lionsgate’s American Assassin is also in the mix this weekend at 3,154 sites, with a projected debut of $15M-$17M, and while older men are that pic’s bread and butter, spots have been featuring more of Dylan O’Brien to attract, yup, young women.

In the final run-up to the mother!‘s opening, Paramount is hoping that its Europe-North America premiere tour of the film — including the Venice and Toronto film festivals, London, Paris and a Radio City Music Hall New York City premiere this week — has spurred a want-to-see. On the day of the London film premiere, #mothermovie hashtags spiked to 43,000 and have since settled and grown this week from 4K to 8K daily, and generic #mother from 1,500K to 3K hashtags on Twitter, per RelishMix.

Well, what about awards? Wouldn’t it be wiser for mother! to roll out slowly and be something akin to a Crying Game that specialty audiences discover? While there will certainly be an awards campaign for the movie, of utmost importance for Paramount was that a bold movie deserved a bold launch. By going wide, it’s a way to get everyone talking in the Stranger Things sense all at once, whether they enjoyed the movie or not. Not to mention, if an actress of lesser marquee value than Lawrence was toplining, a platform strategy would have been considered.

Last weekend, to goose interest among the It masses, Paramount released a custom in-theater trailer in the vein of a Screen Gems horror film that exclaimed to audiences, “In one week, in this theater, one movie will mess you up for life…You will never forget where you were the first time you saw mother! After the movie, visit the box office to get your tickets.” The question tomorrow is whether any leftover It moviegoers were so inclined. mother! is not the traditional horror pic by any means in the commercial sense of the term. A bulk of the marketing campaign was shrouded in symbolism and secrecy, which is certainly sincere to the movie’s gripping, maddening sensibility. From moment to moment, you’re unsure of the fate of Lawrence’s character as the camera follows her Hitchcock-style (over her shoulder, on her face, or her POV).

On Mother’s Day, Paramount dropped James Jean’s Catholic prayer card-like one sheet of Lawrence offering up her bleeding heart. There were clues embedded throughout, and props from the film (i.e. a jewelry box, a lighter. There was also a companion Jean poster dropped in early August of Javier Bardem with hell flames in the background and his hubby character holding a silver globe. On Instagram, the Bardem poster was embedded with audio, which when run through a pro audio tool revealed a spectogram of the Oscar winner’s face. Neither poster was permitted for use in theaters by the MPAA, but the early August one sheet showing a porcelain face of Lawrence was OK’d for in-theater use. During the first weekend of August, a second teaser showing Lawrence walking around the house amid chaotic noises was released in theaters. By the time Annabelle: Creation opened the next weekend, the full trailer was released showing the pic’s unwelcome guest premise as we know it with images of people storming the country house’s lawn at night, capped off Lawrence yelling “Get out of my house!”

By late August, the meat of the campaign kicked in with the Rosemary Baby homage posters and billboards (in orange and the original 1968’s hunter green) appearing in cities and online. This was a hint Lawrence’s character in the movie was indeed pregnant and in peril. There were also theories that the actress’ half-face image was an homage to the 1997 animatef film Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion. The exclusive look during the September 5 premiere of American Horror Story: Cult fully revealed that Lawrence’s Mother was in fact pregnant. Aronofsky and Paramount’s marketing team worked closely in crafting all aspects of the cool and clever in the campaign. Paramount is using such critic quotes as “The boldest studio movie since Kubrick died” and “Tear-down-the-screen inferno” in its TV spots.

Typically a studio will test their campaign materials, but Paramount decided to go with its gut. In addition, mother! wasn’t tested, rather screened to friends and families only. Aronofsky is known to get final cut.

Paramount’s mother! opens tonight at 7 PM.

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