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How to Sell Horror, Post-Captivity

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‘It’s the ritz pack versus the splat pack!” says Eli Roth, whose Hostel: Part II opens June 8, opposite Ocean’s 13. His sequel was an underdog, even before Virginia Tech and the controversial Captivity ads made horror a tougher sell. Here’s how they handled it.


1. MAKE YOUR FIRST POSTER COUNT
“For the first Hostel, the image we used was a beautiful daguerreotype of an autopsy tool,” says Lionsgate marketing exec and photographer Tim Palen. For Hostel: Part II’s first poster, Palen wanted to coin another obscure, creepy image that evoked what Roth calls “smart horror.” So “I just went to the butcher, bought some meat, and shot it in my apartment. I ended up using the wild boar—apparently, pig meat is the closest to human issue. It’s just one of those weird, fucked-up, kismet-y things.”


2. EXPLOIT THE LOOPHOLES
The MPAA only regulates domestic advertising. So Lionsgate’s partner Sony International—“It’s an important legal distinction to make,” says Palen—brought Palen’s risqué “international” poster to the New York Comic Con: a topless Bijou Phillips, holding her own head. Though the poster couldn’t be released here, fanboys instantly forwarded the image all over the Web. “Tarantino has it up in his house,” brags Roth (above). “He says it’s an exploitation poster by way of Diane Arbus.”


3. WATCH YOUR COMPETITION
Palen submitted a Stateside version of the decapitated Bijou ad to the MPAA—with Bijou’s nude body superimposed over the meat. The MPAA asked for a few tweaks, says Palen, “and Thursday or Friday, it was approved. Then Monday it’s not approved. What happened in between was Captivity.” That film’s posters of a tortured, sexy Elisha Cuthbert sparked an instant controversy. Despite Lionsgate’s distribution deal with Captivity’s After Dark Films, Palen “had nothing to do with those ads,” he says. (“I saw those billboards and I was shocked,” says Roth. “I immediately thought, This is going to screw it up for everyone.”) But Palen felt their impact: “We could only display the posters where we had proof that Happy Feet wasn’t playing next door.”


4. ADAPT
With Captivity on his mind, Palen’s last round of posters steered clear of tortured women—with a surprisingly peaceful image of a fetal Bijou—and he says his poster of an imprisoned Heather Matarazzo hanging upside down (not shown) points out the difference between the two campaigns. “The Captivity campaign was very fashion-y … When we hung Heather, there’s snot coming out of her nose. I make it very clear that I’m not selling mascara.


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