From January–May 2012, I was a script development intern at Overbrook Entertainment, the production and management arm of the world’s most bankable star, a Mr. Willard Smith. While a majority of my time was spent doing mostly rather unpleasant intern tasks, I also had the opportunity to take a peek into an adept public relations machine.
Smith had been on a break from feature films since 2008, when he starred in Seven Pounds, and had mostly stayed out of the public eye besides a brief marketing push for the 2010 release of The Karate Kid, starring his son, Jaden. However, he had spent a good portion of the last two years making the Men in Black franchise’s third entry, a movie that nobody seemed to have asked for. Nevertheless, with Smith as its star, the secret organization of alien wranglers was primed for an inevitable return.
The original 1997 film is widely accepted as a critical and financial success. The outrageous Rick Baker-designed aliens battling Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones throughout New York were wrought with both star power and a visual style that appealed to viewers critically, and raked in over $500 million worldwide against only a $90 million budget. The moviegoing population loved MIB, but does anyone remember MIB II? And if so, is it anything positive?
MIB II was a financial success, yet it made substantially less than the original—about $60 million less in the U.S., and nearly $150 million less worldwide. A long five-year layoff between the two films coupled with changing screenwriters to produce a convoluted plot that greatly distracted viewers from the fantastic aliens everyone had grown to love. So if viewer fatigue and production issues slowed down the second film, how did the franchise manage to rebound with its third installment 10 years later?
A deft marketing strategy and the overwhelming stuff of star power brought the well-dressed G-Men back from the past both literally and narratively. Men in Black 3 was the culmination of many years of development hell that have been well documented by reviewers across the critical spectrum. For example, there was a three-month shutdown in production over the time-travel conundrum in the plot; it was cleaned up but still left a lot to be desired. Still, the film reviewed well, with much praise for Josh Brolin’s taciturn turn as a young—circa 1969—Agent K, the character whose present-day counterpart is played by Tommy Lee Jones. And along with reviewing well, the film surpassed the box office take of the first movie. The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore even claimed that this installment “easily erases the second installment’s vague but unpleasant memory,” which was necessary to move the franchise into the minds of a new generation of viewers.
MIB 3 has been everywhere. From Smith hosting the Kids’ Choice Awards and reintroducing himself to youth who only know his children in late March, to the MIB 3 spots during the NBA playoffs, the franchise has been pounded back into the public consciousness. The original MIB was released 15 years ago, but the permeation of the MIB 3 marketing machine worked tirelessly even to align the film with the recent string of superhero blockbusters—company it clearly is not among. In a summer filled with superheroes galore and cartoon powerhouses like Ice Age and Madagascar, the necessity of an aggressive strategy could not be overstated.
It’s safe to say that all of this groundwork resulted in success for Sony’s bottom line, and that audiences were generally satisfied with MIB 3’s lighthearted summer fluff. The film had its detractors, but it seems that in the same way I grew to marvel at the impressive marketing for the film, many reviewers came to accept the film for what it is and even laud it for being complete despite its purported painstaking birth. A.O. Scott of The New York Times offered this apt assessment in his review: “Can you think of a new movie with less reason for existing than ‘Men in Black 3’? Apart from the urgent necessity of reminding us that Will Smith is a movie star (and the usual need to wring a few more dollars out of a profitable franchise), ‘Men in Black 3’ arrives in the multiplexes of the world with no particular agenda. Which may be part of the reason it turns out to be so much fun.”
The complaints about a convoluted plot and certain actors (*cough* Tommy Lee Jones) mailing it in are easily surpassed by the simple fun of this three-quel. As viewers we’ve come to expect a certain formula for our summer staples; at this stage in the MIB franchise’s history the filmmakers deserve some kudos for managing to produce a good film when even the best brands tucker out and leave us with a great deal of confusion-induced head-scratching at their third installments (*cough* X-Men, Spider-Man).
After sending countless faxes to Japan and Germany for unknown reasons and stumbling over super-secret special product placement plans while working at Overbrook, I gained a great appreciation of all the marketing madness that resurrected an almost-dormant franchise for a new audience of viewers. The Smith world tour that culminated in the marketing blitz, despite a kissy dustup in Moscow, is indicative of a savvy global and domestic outlook whose success stands in defiance of some of the bigger critical and financial blockbuster flops in recent memory.
Brandon Harrison is an observer and a commenter. He’s also an M.A. student in the Cinema and Media Studies program here at UCLA. Born in New Jersey, raised in New York, and seasoned in Atlanta, Brandon brings an inquisitive perspective to all things media. Follow him on Twitter @_brandonallen.