Sue Kroll isn’t a household name, but her work has had real influence on the movie world over the past decade or two.
In the summer of 2009, filmmaker Kevin Smith was in the midst of tackling his first and only venture into big studio filmmaking. The film in question was going under the troublesome title of A Couple Of Dicks, and it starred Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as a pair of cops on the tail of a gangster with a fine line in collectables and memorabilia.
Smith was a huge advocate for the name of the film as it stood, and he had backing from the studio behind the movie, Warner Bros. More to the point, he had the backing of Sue Kroll, the now legendary marketing boss at the studio. They were thwarted though when major American television networks wouldn’t allow ads for a film with that title to run before 9pm, and Kroll knew that without primetime commercials the film stood no chance.
Eventually, the movie went out under the name Cop Out, was a modest hit, and has enjoyed a hefty afterlife courtesy of Smith’s stories about his less-than-happy time working with Bruce Willis on the film. But one person he did enjoy working with was Kroll. In fact, working with her was one of the main reasons he took a studio film. As he explained to the Hollywood Reporter back in 2011, his films had been independents and marketed as such to that point.
The appeal of working with Kroll at Warner Bros? “I wanted to see how they did it across the street – especially Sue Kroll. I wanted to work with her and pick her brain.” He thus took a pay cut, and did just that. Many people did.
Kroll first joined Warner Bros back in 1994, and by 2008 she was president of worldwide marketing for the studio. It had been a transitional time for the Warners. In 1999, it pumped out – in the same summer – Wild Wild West (a traditional Warner Bros star vehicle) and The Matrix (an uncharacteristic risk that studio bosses admitted they didn’t quite understand).
In the decade that followed, the blockbuster business changed radically. The movie stars Warner Bros routinely courted and offered a production home weren’t delivering the kind of box office that special effects tentpoles did. Riskier films needed more careful curation than ever. And by the end of the 2000s, superheroes were firmly in ascension.
During this period, Warner Bros was one of the studios playing the franchise game. It enjoyed huge success with the Harry Potter films. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy soared. But Warner Bros also became a studio where a non-franchise film could still find a home and – crucially – an audience.
Going To Town
Case in point: Ben Affleck’s sophomore feature as director, heist thriller The Town.
By the time the film came to Kroll – who was already a fan of his earlier directorial outing Gone, Baby, Gone – the movie was in post-production. Affleck showed her a rough cut, and she quickly saw possibilities in it. The Town was a bigger production, having cost some $35m to physically make, and Kroll reckoned there was a bigger audience for it than first suspected. But she knew she needed to concoct a tight strategy to make it work.
Thus, she tried a few things. Television spots promoting the film were booked earlier than usual and targeted initially at summer basketball games in the US. The first trailer was booked to play with Christopher Nolan’s Inception in cinemas (and I’m coming to that), which helped raise awareness. And then to help woo critics, and try to build some awards buzz, Warners took up invitations from both the Venice and Toronto film festivals to play the film early.
Perhaps the moment of genius where The Town’s marketing campaign was concerned came with the poster.
The original visualwas going to be a standard collection of big headshots, and with good reason. Affleck was a good box office draw at the time, and his cast included Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively and Jon Hamm.
But Kroll wanted to add something extra. One of the mock-ups for the promotional art featured the image of the film’s bank robbers in nun disguises. That image kept catching the eye. Kroll and her team looked to blend it with standard cast shots, and the poster came together. A poster that was said to be important in increasing crucial audience recognition of the movie.
The ad spots then ramped up, targeted at NFL games. And whilst The Town didn’t attract awards attention, it turned into a surprise hit. By the time its global run was done, it had banked over $150m in cinemas worldwide alone. All while Kroll’s team were also juggling the unveiling of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a very different campaign that also resulted in a good, solid hit.
Warner Bros was having other hits around the time that bore Kroll’s handiwork.
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of 300 is a notable example. Even though the film wasn’t to be released until March 2007, Kroll and her team got to work at the end of 2005. A campaign was devised – and this was far from commonplace at the time – to engage bloggers and hardcore fans. Snyder himself wrote a regularly updated production blog, long before directors began charting the progress of their movies on social media.
300 was also one of the first big studio films to successfully harness San Diego Comic Con, showcasing footage from the movie ten months before release (Snyder would follow a similar approach with his subsequent Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, where the striking visual of Batman’s glowing eyes was revealed over a year before the film’s release). On top of that, Warner Bros inked a partnership with MySpace back when a) it was a thing and b) it was a very popular thing. The social media service rebranded with 300 imagery. A viral video player was developed by the studio too, all designed to engage with a geeky audience.
Kroll knew all of this was risky, telling Ad Age that it’s “a dangerous game to play with the fanboys unless you have the goods”. But even she was taken aback when the film hugely outperformed box office expectations, grossing over $450m.
Plenty more hits followed. After her promotion to president of worldwide marketing in 2008, Kroll oversaw the release of a sizeable slate of movies, over 40 of which landed in first place at the box office. But in particular, it was her stewardship of Christopher Nolan movies that raised eyebrows. In an era where it was increasingly difficult for movie stars to open pictures, and where studios were wary of making films without some kind of franchise link, Kroll and her team helped turn Christopher Nolan films into event pictures.
The turning point there was Inception.
In producer Lynda Obst’s excellent book Sleepless In Hollywood, she dissects the challenges of selling Inception with Kroll. For starters, how do you describe the movie? How can you get it down to the infamous one line pitch? If 1989’s Twins was pitched with the simple idea of ‘Schwarzenegger. DeVito. Twins’, how do you sell a complex sci-fi film where dreams take place within dreams? Where there’s an unusual heist, a broad ensemble of characters, and ongoing questions about what’s real and what’s not?
On paper, Inception was going to struggle to get through $100m at the US box office. Outsiders viewed it as a speciality film for movie fans that would play well in big cities, but be near impossible to sell and explain elsewhere.
What, then, did Kroll and her team do? They made Christopher Nolan the movie star of the piece.
Coming off the back of his Dark Knight trilogy, they tried to put across the message that his next film was unmissable. Here was a filmmaking talent whose movies demanded to be seen on a huge screen. The only other director a studio would dare ‘sell’ in this way – when it comes to blockbuster movies at least – was Spielberg (note how the posters for 2018’s Ready Player One played up Spielberg’s name).
Kroll also worked out that trying to answer all of the movie’s key questions in a marketing campaign was a no-no. Instead, she wanted the audience to have questions. Draw them in with the striking visuals, and get them talking about it.
By building up the campaign over a number of months, slowly teasing out visuals, Warners was able to initiate a conversation about the film. To use marketing parlance, it was making Inception into an ‘event’. And that was the main objective of the campaign – getting over that this was an event film and a Christopher Nolan film. Then slowly soaking across that the film was about dreams, had action, had Leonardo DiCaprio, incredible visuals and romance.
It remains an astonishing campaign, one that helped the film earn over $600m at the global box office in the summer of Iron Man 2 and Twilight: Eclipse.
A similar line of thinking would be used to underpin the subsequent campaigns for Nolan’s Interstellar and Dunkirk, both of which became huge, original standalone hits. Kroll had many others on her watch – Clash Of The Titans (the pushing of the ‘release the Kraken’ line apparently was a Kroll idea, but possibly so was the infamous tagline ‘Titans will Clash’), The Hangover trilogy, the Harry Potters – and a fair number of movies that didn’t cross over.
In fact, Pan, The Man From UNCLE, Jupiter Ascending and Our Brand Is Crisis all fell hard in 2015, leading to Warners pursuing a safer, bigger, more franchise-driven approach to its big movies. And with that, changes that would ripple throughout the studio were afoot.
What happened next?
Kroll’s tenure at Warner Bros – at least in her marketing role – came to an end in 2018 as part of a big studio reorganisation. Whilst it had enjoyed a strong 2017 – It, Dunkirk and Wonder Woman did very well – it was still struggling in many areas. Its DC slate had, to this point, been dominated by the struggles of Justice League and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, whilst films such as Live By Night, Geostorm, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword and Blade Runner: 2049 had commercially underperformed.
Across town, Disney was scoring hit after hit with a more concentrated slate of heavily commercial movies. That’s the model Warners wanted to imitate. As such, Kroll left her role in favour of a three year producer deal with the studio (she was one of the executive producers of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born), with Blair Rich – who was credited for her work on It – assuming the marketing top job.
Kroll’s departure had been rumoured for a year or two beforehand, and she had a reputation that fools were not suffered gladly. Word was being spread too that she wasn’t a fan of superhero movies, something she firmly refuted in a statement to The Wrap. Quite who was spreading such stories? Good question. I don’t know the answer.
Both Netflix and Paramount were said to be interested in luring her, and that’s telling. But then few people in studio marketing could match her contacts book, and the relationships she earned and enjoyed with key filmmakers.
Also it’s worth noting that such was the impact of Kroll and her team on the success of many Warner Bros movies that she was one of the first marketing bosses to be brought early into the decision-making process. To be involved with the actual greenlighting of films. As the price of movies ran up to nine figures, she was the person in the room who had to decide whether they could sell the film they were planning to make. It’s a model that pretty much every studio now follows.
The trailblazing Kroll did in her tenure at Warner Bros remains hugely influential, not least thanks to her track record of continually helping open movies that looked incredibly difficult to open. Off the back of A Star Is Born? She’s seemingly bringing that touch to her new career in producing too.
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