When a studio sells a movie during the crowded Oscar season, it's always looking for the money quote that eloquently establishes its film as the must-see movie of the moment. So when Universal Pictures Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger opened up his copy of Newsweek earlier this month, he could barely control his excitement.
"We all read the column Monday morning and went, 'My God, this guy gets it. This is exactly what we've wanted to convey to everybody,' " Shmuger recalls.
Better still, the praise came from someone whose intellectual credentials and name-brand recognition would not only appeal to Oscar voters but could also bolster the film's credibility in the eyes of potential media detractors.
By that Friday, the studio had dropped its more conventional plaudits from ABC Radio and "Good Morning America" and made Will the centerpiece of a new set of nationwide print ads for the film.
"A breathtaking movie about a beautiful mystery," the Will blurb read. "It imagines the almost unimaginable: how the intersection of a woman's love, a cluster of caring individuals and one man's will contributed to something extraordinary."
Of course, that's not exactly what Will said. With the columnist's permission, Universal altered Will's original concluding phrase, which originally read: "... a sick man's will contributed to something extremely rareremission from a disease that is almost always irreversibly degenerative."
The fact that Universal dropped any reference to Nash's illness is hardly a shocker; studios tidy up critic quotes all the time.
It's worth noting because the trailers and TV spots created by Universal and the film's producer, Imagine Entertainment, have all along avoided any mention of Nash's mental illness. Universal and Imagine believe it would be a hard sell for moviegoers and would spoil the conceit of the film, which relies on audiences not questioning Nash's view of the world.
When it became clear that women strongly responded to the film's portrayal of the couple's relationship, the studio revamped its print ads, replacing a pensive image of Crowe with an intimate shot of Crowe and Connelly, their hands intertwined as she whispers in his ear and caresses his cheek.
The careful marketing has paid off. "A Beautiful Mind" has emerged as the adult movie hit of the holiday season. In only three weeks of wide release, the film has already taken in about $74 million at the box office, won four Golden Globe Awards and earned a pole position in this year's wide-open Oscar derby.
"We're still anxious, but things are looking good," says Imagine's Brian Grazer, who has done his own audience research, sitting in the front row of theaters, looking back at audiences to see if they were crying or not. "This has been really different from the way we've marketed a movie like 'Grinch' or 'Nutty Professor.' There's no Coca-Cola or Happy Meals tie-ins, no easy merchandising hooks to help the film. This is a movie where you go for the emotion."
As recently as early December, the outlook for "A Beautiful Mind" wasn't so promising. Early press screenings got mixed reactions, an indicator that reviews wouldn't be uniformly good. Most worrisome of all, the film was inspired by (and took its title from) Sylvia Nasar's National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 1998 biography of Nash, putting it squarely in the troublesome biopic genre.
Biopics have not only done poorly at the box office, but they also have frequently been undermined by divisive media debates over the issue of accuracy and authenticity.
Universal knew all too well how easily these public squabbles could capsize a film. The studio's top 1999 Oscar candidate, "The Hurricane," had been irrevocably damaged by a lengthy media-fueled brawl over its portrayal of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter as an man wrongly imprisoned for murder.
Universal had been careful to position "Beautiful Mind" as a movie "inspired by" events in the life of Nash. Last spring, the studio invited the New York Times to visit the film set in Princeton, N.J. The subsequent story gave filmmakers a chance to distance the movie from Nash's life story. "It is certainly not factual and doesn't pretend to be," screenwriter Akiva Goldsman explained in the story. "Most of the things that happen in the movie didn't happen in John's life."
Nonetheless, by Christmas week, controversy was brewing. New York Times critic A.O. Scott criticized the film as an "almost entirely counterfeit story," detailing the messy aspects of Nash's life that had been left out of the film.