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Marketing sci-fi that’s cerebral is otherworldly task

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Marketing sci-fi that’s cerebral is otherworldly task

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks in a scene from the movie

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks in a scene from the movie "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. (Paramount Pictures/TNS)

TNS

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks in a scene from the movie "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. (Paramount Pictures/TNS)

TNS

TNS

Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks in a scene from the movie "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. (Paramount Pictures/TNS)

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By Steven Zeitchik

Los Angeles Times

(TNS)

The TV spot blares the early buzz for “Arrival.” The new science-fiction film, it says, has created word-of-mouth, wowed audiences and earned a 100 percent Fresh rating on the movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. “It’s a masterpiece you won’t stop talking about,” the ad promises.

Denis Villeneuve’s latest work, starring Amy Adams as a linguist chosen to communicate with alien visitors, may well be that. But it isn’t easy to market a masterpiece — especially a sci-fi masterpiece with spaceships that don’t engage in dogfights, aliens who don’t fire lasers and protagonists who don’t throw punches.

When “Arrival” touches down at 2,200 theaters this weekend, it will do so not only as one of the most well-regarded science-fiction movies in some time but as one of the greatest marketing puzzles in recent memory. The Paramount release is quiet, subtle and patient — an artisanal offering in a time of studio fast food.

“This is a super-unique experience,” said Megan Colligan, Paramount’s worldwide president of distribution and marketing. “It lives in a genre but is doing something very different with it. We think that’s the kind of freshness audiences want to see.”

That a ruminative work is even coming from a studio in this era of franchise machines is an anomaly.

Based on a short story by Ted Chiang, “Arrival” follows the saga of Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor chosen by a desperate U.S. military to make contact with the passengers of an alien craft that has docked here, one of a dozen such encounters with nations all over the world.

Though a global-war element eventually wrestles its way to the surface, much of “Arrival” is centered on the meditative moments during which Louise and a fellow scientist (Jeremy Renner) and the creatures attempt to communicate.

“‘Arrival’ is a very delicate movie, and a very unusual one,” Villeneuve said. “It’s an intimate alien-invasion thriller.”

But will intimacy sell to an audience accustomed to epic bot battles and hungry jungle games?

Paramount’s campaign has sought to walk a line between the splash that traditionally sells wide releases and the low-key moments that more accurately represent the movie’s contents.

Its digital campaign has underscored the mystery at the core of the film, and posters show oblique shots of the alien crafts under the message “Why Are They Here?” But the trailers and TV ads get to the global panic and confrontations quicker, on the assumption the young male audience that can help open a genre movie needs to be fed such fare.

“We felt strongly we had enough clean packaging that can communicate there is a commercial core,” Colligan said of the campaign and the decision to go wide. “(Louise) really is in a fight against time, and there are mounting pressures all over the world. There’s a way to emphasize that.”

Of course, emphasize too effectively and that can become a problem — a challenge faced by the artsploitation movie “Drive” a few years ago. The film was sold a bit too heavily as a car-chase actioner, not the meditation on violence it was, leading to dismal Cinema-Scores and even a lawsuit from one customer.

A Hollywood staple

Cerebral science-fiction movies used to be de rigueur. The category, with its slow burn and small pleasures, its philosophical reveries and character discoveries, was a staple of Hollywood that loved subtle human feeling in its foreign beings.

From “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968 to “Close Encounters” the following decade, “E.T.” in the 1980s to “Gattaca” and “Contact” in the 1990s, these were movies filled with ideas, in no hurry to get anywhere except maybe to meaningful introspection.

Now these films, when they happen at all, tend to be on a small scale — movies such as “Moon,” Duncan Jones’ chamber-piece puzzler from 2009. It was a hit, but a Sundance hit, grossing $5 million.

“Arrival” is different, funded with an estimated budget of $50 million. It must compete not against limited-release, Oscar-bait character pieces but the likes of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” expected to draw plenty of business in its second weekend. “This is,” Villeneuve acknowledged, “a bit of an experimental movie for the studio.”

The recent track record for smaller genre movies breaking out has been mixed. Colligan notes that $80 million at the domestic box office would be a “huge number” for “Arrival.” Last year, no small to mid-budgeted genre film got near that figure, though this year films such as “Don’t Breathe” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” have topped or approached it.

So far tracking for “Arrival” has put the film’s take this weekend at around $17 million, a decent opening that could provide a good bedrock for future word-of-mouth-driven weekends.

Indeed, the studio has been hoping that “Arrival” can follow in the path of successful adult-oriented entertainment such as “Argo,” “The Revenant” and “Bridge of Spies,” in which warm reviews and awards attention kept fourth-quarter films going strong in theaters for much longer than the typical studio release.

By way of comparison, “Argo” opened to $19 million and climbed all the way to $136 million. By way of a more extravagant comparison, “Gravity” — another space-themed movie with an emo element and female lead — opened to $55 million and soared to $274 million.

Those movies, it should be said, did have a triumphant quality. There’s a melancholy vibe at the core of “Arrival” — the kind that, like a certain kind of indie song, attracts hard-core devotees but not necessarily a broad following.

Adams’ presence will help “Arrival” with female audiences, who tend not to flock to sci-fi movies. Even though Villeneuve has not worked on blockbusters, Paramount can take heart from the global $630 million brought in by 2015’s “The Martian,” another interstellar film with a focus on one character’s challenges.

Post-election effect

Central to “Arrival’s” performance is the question of how much the American public wants to move on from a turbulent election season.

The focus on the presidential contest had already had an effect on the early marketing. For instance, Paramount mostly stayed away from advertising during debates — a contrast to the campaign of Sony’s “Inferno” and others.

Still, the election could prove thematically relevant.

“This movie has the ability to hit a real zeitgeist pocket because it’s all about communication and empathy and openness,” Colligan said. “And after a long and fractured election cycle, there’s something cleansing about its message.” Though, it should be noted, she made her comments before Donald Trump’s election seized the headlines and at least a portion of the moviegoing nation’s optimism.

At the heart of the “Arrival” marketing puzzle is whether a sci-fi audience that embraces explosions can respond to quiet charms — and, on the other hand, whether an audience attuned to humanistic cinema will come out for a movie in which aliens are present.

Ultimately, it’s whether a modest movie, done right, can go big. “The energy on set was very quiet, and in many ways it’s a small film,” Renner said. “But it’s an amazing blend of Kubrick and Spielberg. And isn’t that welcome in this movie world?”

———

©2016 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Marketing sci-fi that’s cerebral is otherworldly task