Kubrick marketing maven Mike Kaplan on 'A Clockwork Orange' at 40

Posted by · 11:38 am · February 9th, 2012

A well-known filmmaker friend and I were chatting about the dearth of quality films in the annual Oscar race at an awards show recently. He said to me, “When I was young, films like ‘Network’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ were nominated. I feel sorry for you that nothing nominated touches those films these days.”

Well, I’d argue few things MADE these days touch those films, and I almost wanted to say something like, “You’re a filmmaker in today’s environment. What does that say about you?” But nevertheless, point taken. Even still, I marvel at the fact that a film like, say, “A Clockwork Orange” was nominated in 1971. I couldn’t fathom that kind of thing happening today. Of course, few films have the earth-shattering impact that Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece did, and when the earth moves, I guess you kind of have to take note.

The film was released in the US 40 years ago this week. Naturally, then, it’s been getting plenty of coverage in the press, but I’ve been relishing Mike Kaplan’s pieces at Moviefone. Kaplan was Kubrick’s marketing man and spent a lot of time overseeing the publicity particulars of the filmmaker’s works. And truly, the marketing imagery of some of these films has become as iconic as the films themselves.

In a January 10 piece, Kaplan recalled the lessons of “2001: A Space Odyssey” being applied to the marketing of “A Clockwork Orange” four years later. “Nothing was left to chance,” he writes, “including the crucial selection of cinemas, which were usually decided by a studio’s sales executives. ‘2001’ was a special roadshow film, meaning it was presented with higher prices, reserved seating, and usually 10 performances a week. Only one to three roadshow cinemas existed per city and were easily identified. ‘Clockwork’ would be shown in standard cinemas as a quality platform release, which meant there were many options per city.”

He then goes on to detail how he and Kubrick devised a way to track which theaters sold “the most tickets to the most interesting pictures” at a time when detailed box office figures of competitive films was a closely guarded secret. They built a spreadsheet full of info from back-issues of Variety, which tracked weekly figures (but not cumulative ones) from major markets and theaters. “This hand-crafted database would be our bible, guiding our directives to Warner Bros. concerning which cinemas should show ‘A Clockwork Orange,'” he writes.

It’s an absolutely fascinating nugget about Kubrick that you might not have known: he changed that side of the business forever and virtually invented the modern box office report.

In another piece, from January 30, Kaplan recounts a second marketing milestone the film set: taking promotional images directly from the film, rather than from second unit photography that, according to Kubrick, “weren’t an accurate representation of what was on screen,” as Kaplan puts it. “So each day, for three to five hours, I would sit in front of a Moviola — the hand-fed editing machine through which all the printed film passed — watching every scene from every angle as assistant editor Gary Shepherd loaded the takes, removing the frames I marked with a chalk pencil and placing them in slide holders to be culled later.”

Kubrick, though, insisted that Kaplan view the film without sound, responding to the visuals only. And it wasn’t until he heard the sounds of Malcolm McDowell belting out “Singin’ in the Rain” echoing in the halls of editorial that he broke down, far too curious, and finally forced the editors to play him the scene with audio. Still, seeing a Kubrick film (in its entirety) for the first time with no sound had to be a trippy experience, particularly THIS Kubrick film.

Which brings me to Kaplan’s third Moviefone piece, published yesterday. It explains the scenario of the director shooting his own photo for “Newsweek”‘s exclusive cover story on the film. Kubrick, of course, was a brilliant photographer who started his career as such at “Look” magazine. Notoriously meticulous and controlling on all elements of the process — it wasn’t just imagery but quotes he’d obsess over, having the right to edit them into what it was he really wanted to say — Kubrick told the magazine he’d set up the shot and shoot it himself. This was unheard of.

“There would be no budging,” Kaplan writes of the inevitable push-back Kubrick got from the magazine. “Stanley…intended to set a precedent by shooting his own cover portrait, controlling the image he wanted to project.” Eventually the magazine buckled and, as Kaplan notes, the credit on the magazine read: “Cover Photograph: Stanley Kubrick.”

It’s been a fascinating series so far and I hope there are more to come. Check them out for yourself for some great first-hand stories.

But on the film at hand, I actually happened to take some time out while at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival to check out a screening of “A Clockwork Orange,” which has recently been digitally restored by Warner Archives. It was beautiful as ever. No one captured a shot like Stanley Kubrick, and no one ever will. Shadows strike across the screen in such compelling ways, depth of field is fussed over for instantly iconic images, so many frames look like gorgeous paintings, etc. It was a true delight to see that on the big screen. The Academy actually held a special screening of the restoration back in September. Malcolm McDowell was on hand for a Q&A.

Finally, one more bit of Kubrick news. I missed the documentary “Room 237” at Sundance because its first screening was the afternoon of my flight home, which was a bummer, because I expected that it might have been my only opportunity. From the film’s official site, “Room 237” is “a subjective documentary feature which explores numerous theories about Stanley Kubrick”s ‘The Shining’ and its hidden meanings. This guided tour through the most compelling attempts to decode this endlessly fascinating film will draw the audience into a new maze, one with endless detours and dead ends, many ways in, but no way out.” The extensive use of footage from the film led me to believe it would be a rights issue.

Thankfully, though, fair use privileges have made it possible for the film to indeed see a public release, as IFC Films picked it up for theatrical and VOD. So the first chance I get, you can bet I’ll be taking that one in.

As for other upcoming Kubrick occasions, “Paths of Glory” (which was recently released on Criterion Blu-ray) celebrates its 55th anniversary this year. “Lolita” will celebrate its 50th, while “Full Metal Jacket” turns 25. 2013 marks 45 years of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” while “Dr. Strangelove” will ring in its own 50th in early 2014.

And next year, the 60th anniversary of Kubrick’s first feature (which aired recently on Turner Classic Movies for the first time): “Fear and Desire.”

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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