Timing is everything when it comes to movie marketing, writes Craig Mathieson.
15 Jul 2010 - 1:55 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 11:30 AM

It's the story that everyone knows about: a Russian espionage ring in America, images of massed government agents, international intrigue and saber rattling, and at the centre of it a beautiful femme fatale who no-one knows the truth about.

The only question is whether that's a description of Phillip Noyce's forthcoming action thriller Salt, where Angelina Jolie's CIA agent has to go on the run when a defector accuses her of being a Russian plant, or the recent headlines following the FBI scooping up 10 Russian agents who were based as sleeper agents across the East Coast. The cell's members included the photogenic real estate entrepreneur Anna Chapman (or Anya Kuschenko), who the New York Daily News helpfully pointed out, “was great in bed”, according to her ex-husband.

Hollywood studios literally spend hundreds of millions of dollars marketing their blockbusters, but sometimes the biggest boost comes for free from the news cycle. Salt, which already has sizable advance buzz, suddenly acquired newsworthiness; the trailer dovetailed neatly with news reports that culminated in a Cold War-style prisoner swap in Vienna.

News bulletins can have all manner of unexpected impact. The apocalyptic virus drama Carriers was completed in 2007, for example, but was only acquired and scheduled for release in the United States in 2009 after months of swine flu headlines made “pandemic” part of the public vocabulary (it also helped that star Chris Pine had subsequently shot a small arthouse title called Star Trek).

But as producers and marketers know all too well, current affairs can be your worst enemy. There are no shortage of stars whose real life indiscretions have impacted on the appeal of their next release (Fatty Arbuckle, meet Russell Crowe), but political or social upheaval ultimately leaves a more lasting mark.

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 played out across release schedules. A workmanlike Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage, had to be postponed for five months because it opened with a terrorist bombing. Phillip Noyce was on the opposite end of Salt's boost, with his fine adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American suddenly in trouble because of its historical critique of American interventionism. Another Australian filmmaker, Gregor Jordan, had a black satire about corrupt U.S. troops, Buffalo Soldiers, virtually shown the door. By contrast the Owen Wilson-in-Bosnia military thriller, Behind Enemy Lines, had solid box-office grosses when it was released in November of 2001 with stirring shots of American soldiers rescuing their comrade.

Now if Sony could just get Anna Chapman back into America for the Salt premiere…