Don't blame the studio, says Lisa Schwarzbaum. Spielberg's artful film is too complex for an easy sell

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT


  • Movie

Did Warner Bros. blow ”A.I.”’s marketing?

Steven Spielberg’s ”A.I.” has made more than $60 million in two weeks, and people in and around Warner Bros. want to know what went wrong. Wrong?!! Apparently box office receipts dropped 52 percent in the second weekend, and number crunchers now predict that the movie might not make $100 million before the end of the summer. The studio’s marketing department is receiving most of the blame: The thinking is, they didn’t get the ”message” out as to what ”A.I.” is about. (Also, their focus was diluted by the big push they were simultaneously giving to ”Cats & Dogs.”)

Now, it’s true that studio marketers are traditionally terrible at selling movies that don’t fit neatly in boxes. ”Election,” ”The Butcher Boy,” ”Nurse Betty,” ”Go,” and ”Rushmore,” to name five terrific, badly sold films, were all hamstrung by terrible promos and ad campaigns that conveyed nothing of the films they were meant to support — campaigns that made the offbeat and innovative look noisy and hysterical.

For ”A.I.,” the decision was evidently made to promote the cute, ignoring the harder, sadder, more disturbing aspects of the story. ”His love is real, but he is not,” the posters proclaim, emphasizing the outline of a boy with his chin uptilted, a silhouette of trust — suggesting that ”A.I.” is another in the comforting line of Spielbergian boyhood reveries.

So okay, class, how would YOU position ”A.I.” if the movie was yours to sell? Would you hype the alienating, cold futurism that is the late Stanley Kubrick’s contribution to this wild work? Would you highlight the ”Pinocchio” parallels, at the risk of confounding potential ticket buyers who can’t figure out if the movie is for kids or not?

How about pitching the sci-fi sexuality of the mechanical gigolo played by Jude Law, or the concentration camp overtones of the displaced robots marked for destruction at the Flesh Fair? Of course, those hoping for ”A Clockwork Orange” will be disappointed by all the dewy Haley Joel Osment stuff.

See, it’s not easy selling ”A.I.” — nor should it be, even with Steven Spielberg’s name in large type. Which is why I’m beginning to think the marketing flaw lies not in any one poster or tagline or promotional event but in the whole notion that ”A.I.” ought to be as easily positioned as ”Jurassic Park 3.” I mean, maybe it’s to Spielberg’s credit that this isn’t familiar territory; maybe the best thing he did was make an important movie that’s not for everybody.

Maybe ”A.I.” is meant to provoke excitement and wonder and admiration and even spirited argument — you know, like real art can do — and maybe number crunchers ought not to crunch so hard trying to hit $100 million. ”A.I” is real, even if the posters are not.

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  • 145 minutes