The publishers of Wonder magazine asked me to write about the advertising campaign of one of my favorite films: 2001: A Space Odyssey. The online edition launches in early 2020, but here's a sneak preview. . .
The Ultimate Hype
Advertising the Future
Stanley Kubrick was pissed.
The celebrated filmmaker had spent four years and $10 million to realize his ambition of making “the proverbial `really good ‘ science fiction movie” but early reactions to 2001: A Space Odyssey were not promising. At the April 2, 1968 world premiere in Washington, DC, a distinguished but restless audience had fidgeted and talked over the picture. The following night’s New York premiere was just as bad. Nonplussed by the non-verbal narrative and 161 minute running time, several attendees walked out, among them box office idol Rock Hudson who captured the mood by quipping “What is this bullshit?” Kubrick disliked the limelight under the best of conditions, but the opening of 2001 was grueling. It was the last time he would attend the premiere to one of his films.
Following the disastrous screenings, Kubrick pondered his next move. Tightening the film’s editing would quicken the pace, but the director now wondered if 2001 presented a more complex marketing challenge than he had initially anticipated. The publicity campaign promised “an epic drama of adventure and exploration,” but Kubrick had delivered a metaphysical art film about the evolution of humanity and the mysteries of the universe. The audience, primed for futuristic spectacle, was caught off guard. A legendary control freak, Kubrick had personally overseen creation of the picture’s advertising materials. Had his instincts failed him? And, if so, what could he do about it?
Science-fiction movies were scarce in the 1960’s, and good ones were practically nonexistent. The launch of Sputnik I and John F. Kennedy’s subsequent challenge to put a man on the moon had ignited the Space Race, but mainstream audiences remained largely indifferent to the sci-fi genre. At the same time, fueled by a potent combination of Cold War paranoia and Utopian naïveté, the public’s fascination with Futurism had begun to take flight. Kubrick, mindful of the zeitgeist and curious about the cosmos, sensed the time was right for “a serious space picture.” Somewhat remarkably MGM agreed, and on February 21,1965 Daily Variety announced Journey Beyond the Stars, a “big budgeted” film to be directed by Kubrick based on a story by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. A two page spread followed in Variety on June 23; stretched across a shot of the Milky Way, bold type announced: “This Space Reserved is For 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
The future was taking shape. And so was the hype.
Principle photography on 2001 commenced in December of 1965. With a projected budget of $10.5 million, it would be one of the costliest features MGM had ever produced. Although the word “marketing” had yet to infiltrate the executive suites of the major studios, MGM’s Vice President of Advertising, Publicity and Promotion, Dan S. Terrell, promised a campaign “as unique as the film itself… the most extensive, in-depth advertising campaign in the company’s history.” Kubrick, who knew something about advertising from having overseen successful campaigns for Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, was intent on leveraging 2001’s widescreen scope and 21st century hardware. At the same time, the promotional materials were to avoid any hint of extraterrestrial contact. Kubrick believed, not unreasonably, that teasing the picture’s trippy, enigmatic ending would only confuse audiences. It was a decision he would later revisit.
Robert McCall was a 45-year old conceptual illustrator when he was approached by MGM in 1967 to create a series of paintings for the 2001 campaign. The Ohio native had a flair for capturing the drama and poetry of manned flight having been one of the first artists hired by NASA in 1962 to promote America’s nascent space program. “Kubrick had clipped some of my stuff from Life magazine as kind of a reference,” remembered McCall in a 2000 oral history for NASA. “He worked in London and did all of his work there. I had my studio in Manhattan at the time. They (MGM) said that Kubrick had mentioned me and would like to talk to me, and so would I like to go to London? Practically overnight I said, `I'd love to.’ So I flew to London and spent like one day, and then flew back, which tore my heart out because I wanted to spend some time there. But I met him, and we talked, and he wanted me there. I then immediately made arrangements, and Louise and I and our younger daughter flew there and spent four months. And I did the paintings that were used in promoting the film that now belong to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.”
Epic adventure or commercial for NASA? Kubrick enlisted artist Robert McCall to provide an illustrated chronology of the film’s interplanetary narrative. Beautifully executed and beloved by movie poster fans, the original campaign stressed hardware over humanity in an advertising strategy some found misleading. From left to right: 1) Style “A” one sheet art: the Pan Am “Space Clipper” disembarks from Space Station Five. 2) Style "B" one sheet art: Dr. Floyd and his team survey the moonscape surrounding Clavius base as a trans-lunar shuttle hurtles earthward (note Floyd's iPad-like notebook). 3) Style "D" one sheet art (unused): Astronaut Dave Bowman begins his climactic journey across Jupiter space and Beyond the Infinite.
The Art of Science. Kubrick and McCall pose with the original painting for the Style "B" sheet.
With McCall onboard to create the visuals, Kubrick and production associate Roger Caras coordinated with Dan Terrell and the MGM publicity department to shape the film’s “Key Art” campaign (movie industry parlance for all advertising materials created in coordination with a picture’s theatrical release). Fifty years later, such campaigns would expand to include all manner of emerging digital and social platforms. And yet, while traditional media such as billboards, magazine ads and movie posters (aka one sheets) would one day find themselves in danger of being replaced by more mobile-friendly formats, in the 1960’s they remained an effective means of connecting with audiences.
Mid-twentieth century advertising pros had long considered Print to be their profession’s most challenging discipline. A TV commercial could take its time grabbing the audience’s attention, but a Print ad had to do so instantly. Originally known for painterly compositions and hand-drawn artistry, theatrical one sheets had, by the 1960’s, begun to reflect modern graphic design trends incorporating the influences of Pop Art and the concept-driven messaging of Madison Avenue. Regardless of technique, effective one sheets all have one thing in common: the ability to distill the experience of a feature film into a single compelling, provocative, and attention-grabbing image. The primary objective of an artfully conceived Key Art campaign is making a good first impression.
Making a good first impression was not always Stanley Kubrick’s strong suit. His movies are notorious for confounding expectations and 2001 was no exception. Aside from its sci-fi subject matter, which 1960’s audiences remained suspicious of, the film featured few women and no big stars – at least no movie stars. Kubrick believed, and the studio agreed, that 2001’s biggest sell would be its futuristic mise en scène and widescreen scope. Capturing panoramic grandeur within the vertical confines of a 27”x 41” one sheet requires a deft touch and Robert McCall did not disappoint. In a series of four paintings, the artist vividly chronicled 2001’s narrative journey from Earth to Jupiter and beyond.
Principle photography on 2001 was completed in September of 1967 with Kubrick and his photographic effects team continuing work on the picture’s complex visuals throughout March of 1968. That same month, flanked by Robert McCall and actor Keir Dullea, MGM’s Dan Terrell officiated over a press conference at the studio’s Manhattan headquarters in which he announced the film’s ad campaign. Targeting an estimated 49,000,000 newspaper readers, it would launch via a series of full-page color Sunday Magazine ads in each of the eight cities chosen for 2001’s initial U.S. engagements: Washington DC, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit and Houston.
To better dramatize “the full size, scope and excitement of the epic journey that will sweep audiences into space,” Terrell revealed that Arthur C. Clarke would provide the copy lines accompanying McCall’s imagery. Having previously penned extensive narration for the film, the esteemed science author had objected when the voiceover had subsequently been cut. Kubrick, eschewing verbal exposition, preferred to let 2001’s visuals speak for themselves. Like most writers Clarke loved to explain things, and in June of 1968 he’d get a chance to do just that with the publication of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (written in conjunction with the screenplay). Until then, Clarke would have to be satisfied with his earnestly poetic narration being recycled as advertising copy.
The Futura is Now. The final Style “C” one sheet complete with ultramodern sans serif title and Arthur Clarke’s descriptive copy. In conjunction with the film’s release the classic MGM logo was given a modern spin by designer Saul Bass. The Cinerama logo denotes the film’s original “road show” release -- a poster type highly prized by collectors.
With the help of McCall, Clarke and MGM, Stanley Kubrick had devised an ad campaign as ambitious as its subject. But would it work? Kubrick wasn’t the only one with a lot riding on 2001. MGM president Robert O’Brian had green-lit the picture at a time when the threat of a proxy fight loomed, and the studio’s future was in doubt. A decidedly un-mogul-like executive, O’Brian didn’t know from moon bases and monoliths, but he believed in Kubrick. Ever mindful of the bottom line, Kubrick was determined not to let O’Brian and MGM down but the poor preview screenings had rattled him.
The director’s worst fears were confirmed in the days immediately following the premiere. Early reviews from the major critics were vicious, none more so than that of Pauline Kael, the grand doyenne of American film criticism, who dismissed 2001 as a “monumentally unimaginative” failure. Kubrick was as sensitive to criticism as any filmmaker, perhaps more so, but his immediate concern was the effect negative reviews would have at the box office. If a movie bombs in 2019, it still has a chance to recoup a portion of its investment via secondary markets and digital platforms. In 1968, if a major motion picture underperformed during its initial “roadshow” release, there was a chance it would be yanked from future venues altogether. And heads would roll.
From Daily Variety, March 1968: (right to left): Robert McCall, Keir Dullea, and MGM’s Dan Terrell with the Style "C" one sheet art.
In 2000, interviewed for the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, Woody Allen would recall his initial reluctance to see 2001 upon its original release for fear of being subjected to “a commercial for NASA.” In time, Allen (and many others) would come to consider Kubrick’s film a classic, but the early misapprehension is indicative of the challenges facing MGM and Kubrick in 1968. Kubrick knew he’d made a good movie; certainly it was the one he’d set out to make. Even so, had the great chess master committed a strategic error by emphasizing science and technology in the ad campaign? Could the audience be forgiven for misconstruing his masterpiece as a commercial for NASA?
Mike Kaplan was a young “long-hair” working in MGM’s publicity department when Kubrick associate Roger Caras introduced him to the director immediately following 2001’s New York premiere. Still stressed out by the poor response and concerned about the advertising strategy, Kubrick asked Kaplan for his opinion. Privately, Kaplan believed the campaign had been misleading, but he was savvy enough not to press the matter. Treading lightly, he wondered if revisions might be possible. Kubrick was noncommittal, but fate soon intervened in the form of a glowing review from critic John Allen. Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Allen called 2001 “A bolt of brilliant, high-voltage cinema… so beautifully wrought and intricately carved and inlaid as to defy description.” Newsday’s Joseph Gelmis echoed Allen’s sentiments in a stunning recant of his initial negative review proclaiming 2001 “A masterwork.”
Seizing the moment, Kaplan boldly proposed that Allen’s complete review be repurposed as a subtle (some might say covert) newspaper ad. Ethically ambiguous marketing strategies were not unusual for B movie campaigns, but blurring the lines between editorial journalism and paid advertising was considered a dodgy move for a prestige motion picture. Dodgy or not, Kubrick and MGM signed off. The ad, which at first glance looked like an Arts page editorial, appeared in both the New York Times and the Village Voice on April 7, 1968.
Kubrick's Crew. Left: Kubrick and production associate Roger Caras, who served as liaison between the director and MGM's publicity department. Right: Former MGM publicity and advertising associate Mike Kaplan (pictured in 2018). Introduced to Kubrick by Caras, Kaplan was instrumental in reshaping 2001's ad campaign for the film's 1970 re-release.
It’s hard to gauge the extent to which Kaplan’s gambit improved 2001’s fortunes, but by the following week the initial negative critical assault was meeting positive resistance. Kubrick’s decision to trim 19 minutes from the film’s running time no doubt helped. Regardless of the reasons, the critical tide was turning and an encouraging buzz was building. On April 17, Variety noted that while the initial reviews had been mixed, “follow-up notices based on the shorter version have – with one exception – been raves.” Quoted in the same article, writer Mary Knoblauch was prescient; “2001 would,” she ventured, “start a lot of arguments at cocktail parties. Some people will hate it. Some people will call it the best movie of the year. And everybody who sees it will argue about what it means.”
A half-century later, audiences would still be coming to terms with both 2001 and the tumultuous 1960s. The world that existed when Kubrick and Clarke began their epic odyssey in 1964 was in many ways a different one by the time they reached their destination in 1968. And while the Tate-LaBianca murders would soon foreshadow the end of the so-called “hippie” movement, American movies had become an increasingly youth-driven industry. In the year following its rocky debut 2001 had developed a surprising but devoted following amongst college students and countercultural influencers. MGM had anticipated the picture’s appeal with intellectuals and cinema buffs; what the studio hadn’t anticipated was generating repeat business from the likes of John Lennon and Mick Jagger.
One person who wasn’t surprised by 2001’s popularity with young hipsters was Mike Kaplan who early on had sensed the rumblings of a rising pop-cultural groundswell. MGM eventually sensed it too, and in late 1969 the studio announced 2001 would be re-launched the following year at New York’s Ziegfeld Theater. Additional 70MM venues would follow in major cities accompanied by a new advertising campaign. Kaplan was elated, telling the Guardianin 2018, “My boss, Mort Segal, gave me the news which I had long awaited, convinced the initial `hardware campaign’ of space vehicles and helmeted astronauts dehumanized the film and limited the audience. Mort asked, ‘What should it be?’ Instinctively I saw the StarChild, the mysterious, inviting embryo with eyes wide open that stimulated much of the film’s controversy.”
Kubrick wasn’t so sure. As Kaplan later explained, “Stanley had placed an embargo on using any stills or footage of the film’s final sequence where the StarChild evolved as well as the Dawn of Man sequence which opened the film. He felt those images outside of the context of the full film would confuse the audience. Now, two years after the film’s opening when the ending had been intensely dissected, centering the campaign on the embargoed StarChild would be inherently striking and illuminate 2001‘s human dimensions.” Kubrick’s reticence to release materials from the film extended even to the studio. As Arthur Clarke confided to Variety in 1968, “My shoulder was wept on by a good many people. But I must say, for what I always considered a crassly commercial company, which of course MGM or any film studio must be, (president) Robert O’Brian displayed very much patience and faith.”
Kubrick may also have been leery of ghettoizing 2001 as a “drug movie” but at the end of the day he knew a clever piece of commercial advertising when he saw one. Signing off on Kaplan’s psychedelic StarChild campaign, Kubrick added one caveat: the director’s name had to appear above the title. “That’s legal,” he added lest anyone think it was a question of ego. Kaplan explained the printing plates had already been made, and it would cost $5,000 to reposition the credits. That was all the cost-conscious director needed to hear; Kubrick's name remained below the title.
Having settled upon the StarChild, MGM needed a suitably provocative copy line to contextualize the image. Kaplan’s solution, “The Ultimate Trip,” would add the final grace note to what would prove to be one of the most iconic ads of the twentieth century.
"The world that existed when Kubrick and Clarke began their epic odyssey in 1964 was in many ways a different one by the time they reached their destination in 1968. . ."
The face that lunched a thousand trips. Sculpted by Liz Moore for the film’s controversial climax, the StarChild was deemed by Kubrick to be too confusing for the initial ad campaign. MGM publicity associate Mike Kaplan ultimately prevailed upon the filmmaker to sign off on a new campaign targeting students and counterculture hipsters. The resulting one sheet remains a 20th century icon.
Blink and you missed it. The so-called “Eye” poster was created for 2001’s 1970 relaunch. Released only in New York for in-theater displays, it is the most collectible and highly sought one sheet from the original campaigns.
Buoyed by Kaplan’s Key Art, 2001 would continue to play in theaters across the globe throughout the early 1970’s. Audiences liked experiencing Kubrick’s epic with all the 70MM, six-track stereo bells & whistles and MGM graciously obliged. At the Pacific Warner Theater in Hollywood, the film played for 80 weeks and earned $2.5 million -- a Los Angeles single-screen record until eclipsed in 1974 by Deep Throat.
It would take seven years for 2001 to recoup its original investment, but during that time it would solidify its position as one of the most influential and highly regarded motion pictures ever produced. Kubrick’s victory would prove a Pyrrhic one for both MGM and its beleaguered president. Shortly after announcing 2001’s 1969
re-release the company responsible for Gone With the Wind and Singing in the Rain was purchased by real estate developer Kirk Kerkorian who promptly sold off both the studio and its classic film library. Robert O’Brian, who had gambled on Kubrick’s vision based on little more than a story treatment, would never work in the film industry again.
Science-fiction movies seldom do a good job of predicting the future, but they frequently excel at reflecting the past. After six manned moon landings, the Space Race had run its course and public interest in exploring the heavens quickly cooled. A product of its era, 2001 remains an artfully rendered reminder of the technological terror and starry-eyed optimism that typified the 1960’s. And yet, despite the chatty computers, orbital hotels and bubble-headed stewardesses, the film’s themes remain as timely as ever: the ageless quest for existential meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe. With its transcendent climax 2001: A Space Odyssey offers perceptive audiences a sliver of hope.
And they call Stanley Kubrick a cynic.