Crossing Over The Appeals And Complications Of Filmmusic Synergies

The release of Men in Black appeared to mark a perfect moment of corporate synergy, with Smith at its heart. The film, in which Smith starred alongside Tommy Lee Jones, was distributed by Columbia Pictures (it was produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment), part of the Sony Corporation. The music - a soundtrack album including the main theme, also released as the 'B-side' to the single 'Gettin'Jiggy With It' - was released by Columbia Records, another branch of the Sony empire (as was the Danny Elfman orchestral score, more of a niche-market product). Smith's image - cool, hip, but safe for family/white/middle-class consumption - appears to have been a defining component in each case. Sony was ideally placed to reap the proceeds in both dimensions (not to mention the broader benefits to its primary source of revenue: the production of electronic goods such as televisions, video recorders and CD players on which software such as films and music is played).1

The film earned $51 million at the box office over the opening '4th of July' weekend (a record for a non-sequel), ultimately grossing $250 million in the US and around $330 million worldwide. The 'Gettin'Jiggy With It'/'Men in Black' single was one of the hits of the summer, selling more than 500,000 copies; the soundtrack album sold three million. Sales of Smith's subsequent solo album, Big Willie Style, released in November 1997 and including the Men in Black theme, reached nine million in July 2000.2 The hit records provided an ideal form of promotion for the film. Association with a major blockbuster film and its star, in return, would be expected to help to sell the music: a textbook example of cross-media synergy, in which total revenues promise to be greater than the sum of their parts. Radio play, record sales and airings of the music video offered hours of advertising that was not only free, but for which the corporation was paid. The soundtrack was released on 1 July, the day before the opening of the film, with the CD single following on 12 August, the main theme gaining considerable air-time in advance. The connection between theme and film was emphasised most clearly in the music video, the heavy rota-don of which on MTV was credited with boosting the chart success of the soundtrack (Los Angeles Times, cited by the Internet Movie Database, Studio Briefing, 10 July 1997).

Equally significant, although less likely to gain the fanfare of recognition associated with the theatrical opening, was the simultaneous release by Sony/Columbia of Big Willie Style and the video of Men in Black, on 25 November 1997. This offered a fresh burst of Will Smith-ed synergy in arenas of high and more enduring revenue potential. Single-arrist non-soundtrack albums have by far the largest long-term earnings scope in the music business, as demonstrated by the growth of sales of Big Willie Style in the years following its release. Video, likewise, has become the biggest single source of revenue for Hollywood films.3 The video earned more than $100 million in rentals and sales in the US in its first six days.

A similar cross-media dimension surrounded the release of Wild Wild West in the summer of 1999. Smith sought to repeat two previous successes (Independence Day, 1996, USA, and Men in Black) as star of a '4th of July' hit (Smith's near monopoly of blockbuster success on that premium release date in the second half of the 1990s was a mark of his status in the industry). The film was another expensive and heavily promoted would-be blockbuster, accompanied by a single the lyrics of which, like those of 'Men in Black', revolve around an insistent repetition of the tide, a particularly blatant form of cross-media promotion. Refrains such as 'here come the men-in-black' or simply 'wild-wild west' help to plant film tides into the public imagination, or at least those of pop-music-radio-listening or music-buying audiences. These are likely to overlap significantly with target audiences for the films, increasing the effectiveness of this kind of promotion. What is offered for the film is advance potential audience awareness of its existence, and a flavour of its style.

Cross-media patterns surrounding Wild Wild West were much the same as for its predecessor: film opening, 30 June 1999; 'Music Inspired by the Motion Picture' soundtrack, by various artists including Smith, released 15 July; CD single, 6July. In the second phase, accompanied by a major marketing campaign, the Willennium solo album was released on 16 November, followed by a music video collection a week later (23 November) and the video release of the film a week after that (30 November).

Promotion of the kind offered by this strategy of coordinated film and film-related releases has long been attractive to Hollywood. A history of overlap between the sale of music and movies dates back to the start of the sound era. Figures such as Will Smith, with equally successful careers in film and music, were generally more common in the past than in contemporary Hollywood, as Paul McDonald suggests (2000: 87). One notable feature of the Smith music associated with Men in Black and Wild Wild West is that it does not feature in the body of the film text. It is reserved, instead, for opening or closing tide sequences. It does not have the effect of disrupting or intruding on the narrative suggested in other cases, somewhat exaggeratedly in my opinion, by Justin Wyatt (1994). Much of the Smith persona is carried into the films, but not the music itself or its performance, a feature also of some of the other rap stars who developed Hollywood careers in the 1990s.

Synergy, of one variety or another, is far from new. But it takes on distinctive forms or implications according to the particular characteristics of one industrial regime or another. One significant development in recent decades is the pressure for films to perform well immediately on release, a pressure that increased during the 1990s. Hollywood has moved towards a strategy in which more and more films are opened on very large numbers of screens, and given only a few weeks, at best, to prove themselves at the box office. In this environment, advance recognition of the kind provided by music or other forms of crossover promotion is particularly desirable. Jaws (1975, USA) is generally credited with playing a key role in the establishment of this trend, although its opening on some 400 screens has been dwarfed by subsequent 'event movie' openings, including Batman (1989, USA) on 2,000, and the likes of Men in Black and Wild Wild West, which opened on 3,020 and 3,342 screens, respectively. By the late 1990s, an opening engagement on 3,000 screens had become the norm for prospective mass-audience films.

Wild Wild West performed healthily enough at first in this arena, appearing to demonstrate the imperviousness of mass-market filmgoers to critical opinion by taking a respectable $36.4 million during the four-day weekend, in the face of hostile reviews. Its first-week total was a blockbuster-worthy $49.7 million, with Smith earning the credit from the marketing head of one cinema chain for his ability to pull in 'all ages, all ethnic groups, all sexes' (USA Today, cited by Internet Movie Database, Studio Briefing, 6July 1999). Smith contributes to particularly effective theatrical openings, a reflection of his appearance in productions of blockbuster scale in the latter half of the 1990s. He was rated joint-first with Jim Carrey, scoring an average North American opening of $34.7 million, in a table complied by The Hollywood Reporter as part of its 1999 'Star Power' survey. Wild Wild West suffered a rapid decline of attendance, however, as is typical of blockbusters that receive poor word-of-mouth, taking only $5.3 million on its fourth weekend, while still showing on more than 3,000 screens. Its final gross in the US was $113.7 million, a total of $217 million including the overseas market, compared with a total of $580 million for Men in Black; disappointing figures for a film for which the budget was estimated at between $105 million and $170-180 million (which may or may not include extensive promotional costs).

Despite its promising start, Wild Wild West was generally considered a failure at the box office. Revenue of $217 million would leave little in the way of net profits when all costs of release were included, even at the lower end of the budget estimates. Perhaps more than anything else, the difference between Wild Wild West and Men in Black was the 'buzz' produced in anticipation of, and during, the opening of the film; the amorphous and ephemeral sense of positive or negative associations. This is a quantity that exists in arenas - especially the internet - over which studio promotional efforts have only limited influence. Wild Wild West suffered from a strongly negative buzz, a factor that did not appear to undermine its opening performance, but which affected its value in subsequent release windows. I have not been able to obtain definitive US video figures,4 but sales and rentals data for the UK show a marked disparity, even when allowance is made for the fact that Men in Black has been on the market for two years longer. By December 2000, Men in Black had achieved 3,396,856 rental transactions, compared to 1,121,994 for Wild Wild West, sales were even more divergent, at 1,224,000 and 84,000, respectively.s The television rights were sold for a mere $6 million, a fraction of the reported $70 million earned by Men in Black (Benjamin Svetkey in Entertainment Weekly, 9 July 1999, accessed at 1999).

What about the music sold primarily through Smith's presence in the film? To what extent does the success or failure of one affect the other (a crucial question in the analysis of cross-media synergy)? It is hard to be certain, as a number of variables are involved in the relationship between film and other media. In a case of clear-cut overall success, such as Men in Black, it is easy to assume a mutually positive reinforcement. The evidence provided by Wild Wild West is less conclusive. The performance of the film did not match studio expectations. Synergies via the figure of Smith did not quite perform their magic as far as the film was concerned, proving - if more proof were needed - that there is no such thing as a sure-fire sustained hit in Hollywood, and that even the most carefully orchestrated media corporation promotional campaigns are distinctly fallible.

The music, however, did not fare at all badly. The single sold more than 500,000 copies, in the same bracket as the combination of 'Getting'Jiggy With It' and 'Men in Black'. The soundtrack sold two million, which compares well with that of Men in Black (at three million), given Men in Black!s unusually high degree of success in all quarters. Smith's music video is reported to have been 'one of the few things that actually generated good buzz for the film' (Svetkey, 1999). The music products associated with Wild Wild West did not suffer as much, relatively, as the box office or video performance of the movie. This raises a number of questions. The two branches of the entertainment industry, often brought together within the giant media corporations, remain distinct in many respects. A considerable degree of insulation may exist, which complicates any simplistic picture of buzzing synergies between arenas such as film and popular music through the presence of figures such as Smith.

Smith's movie star and rap artist are closely related in many respects. The former draws on the latter to a large extent (a generally 'cool' and 'stylish' image, elements of the 'funky' rap persona often blended with more authoritative or institutional roles; this is a process treated most explicitly in the transformation from not-so-plain-clothes cop to black-suited federal alien hunter in Men in Black). There may be considerable overlap between audiences for the mainstream films in which he has appeared and for his music, but the two are far from identical. The appeal of Smith-as-rapper - in movie-related single, contribution to a soundtrack, or free-standing solo album including a movie theme - need not be attached too closely to the positive or negative buzz attached to any film project.

Smith's music career was established long before he became a Hollywood star. In the late 1980s he achieved millionaire success as the Fresh Prince, half of a rap/hip-hop act with DJ Jazzy'Jeff Townes, which produced five albums on Jive Records. The last of these, Cock Red (1993) performed disappointingly, and, along with the demands of his growing acting career and the imminent birth of his son, encouraged Smith to take a break from the music business that lasted until the release of Men in Black (Nickson, 1999: 81). Smith's reputation in the music business did not appear to suffer from any negative associations as a result of his participation in Wild Wild West. At the American Music Awards of January 2000, he won 'best male artist' in the pop/rock category and 'best soundtrack' for Wild Wild West. The single was named 'favourite song' and 'favourite song from a movie' in Nickelodeon's Kid's Choice Awards in April 2000, where Smith was voted 'favourite male singer' for the second year in a row, demonstrating his appeal to the youth audience ('Daily Music News', Billboard online, 12 January 1999; 18 January 2000; 17 April 2000). The continued faith of the exhibition sector in Smith's ability to draw crowds to the box office was indicated by awards presented at the ShoWest convention: he was named 'best actor' in 1999 and 'male star of the year' in 2002, following awards for 'male star of tomorrow' in 1995 and 'international box office achievement' in 1997 (The Hollywood Reporter East, 28 January 2002).

More research would be required to establish the nature of the relationship between audiences for the same performer in different media contexts. Conspicuous success in one arena may boost performance in another, to a greater extent than failure is necessarily translated across the media divide (although performers such as Smith remain wary about the potential implications 'unsuitable' roles might have for their image in the music business). Such a conclusion would no doubt be a comfort to the media corporations themselves, and a further justification for multi-media industrial strategies. Perhaps the performance of films at the box office is the particularly fragile and unstable element in the equation, theatrical release often being constrained by limited windows of opportunity and dependence on intangible advance impressions. Barry Sonnenfeld, director of Men in Black and Wild Wild West, reportedly blamed some of the problems of the latter on studio anxieties about unofficial pre-release comment on the internet, which, he suggests, led to a reduction in the number of test screenings permitted before release (Svetkey, 1999). In the music industry, by contrast, buyers have the opportunity to sample for themselves in advance, via radio and music television broadcasts, before deciding for or against any financial investment in the product. The two industries have been joined under the corporate umbrella, but they also remain very different enterprises with their own specific dynamics.

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