Marketing Missteps, the Media Machine and Georgia Rule
Marketing Missteps, the Media Machine and Georgia Rule
by Christina Maria Villamor
Beleaguered from the start, the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Georgia Rule (Universal, 2007) was fraught with production delays and rumored accounts of the star’s infamous partying habits. Along with a leaked letter from the producer chastising her, a misleading marketing campaign, and an ill-timed release ultimately led to the project’s box-office failure. Despite critical praise for Lohan’s performance in an imperfect film, the consequent fall-out adversely affected her career alone.
Georgia Rule stars Lindsay Lohan as Rachel, an unruly teenager from San Francisco following her senior year of high school. After drunkenly crashing her new car, her mother, Lilly (Felicity Huffman) succumbs to her final recourse: commending Rachel to her own estranged mother, played by Jane Fonda. In the role of the titular Georgia, she is a devout, no-nonsense woman who strives to create structure in her granddaughter’s life with her “rules.”
Obligated by Georgia to maintain a part-time job, she reluctantly begins to work for Simon, a veterinarian (Dermot Mulroney). After her sexual advances go unrequited by him, Rachel learns he lost his wife and son in a car crash. She insensitively chides him about moving on as means of survival and casually admits to years of sexual abuse by her stepfather, Arnold (Cary Elwes). Simon recounts this to Georgia who immediately informs Lilly and promptly returns to Idaho to confront her daughter. Initially believing her, Arnold follows his wife and persuades her that Rachel’s claims are false. Upon Rachel’s own realization that her mother cannot contend with the shocking fact, she acquiesces and concedes that she lied.
Once alone, Rachel surprises Arnold at his motel room to blackmail him. Divulging that she possesses a sex tape, she demands $10 million and a request to keep Lilly happy in return for her silence. Lilly accepts Arnold and agrees to return with him to San Francisco. As they drive back, Arnold admits his culpability upon revealing his intent to gift Rachel his new Ferrari. She is disgusted. He leaves her on the side of the road. Georgia and Rachel encounter her as she walks backs to town. They hug.
Georgia Rule was directed by Garry Marshall, best known for his rom-coms (Pretty Woman, 1990 and The Princess Diaries, 2001), along with films that explore female friendship (Beaches, 1988), sister- and mother-hood (Raising Helen, 2004). Scriptwriter Mark Andrus shared a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination for As Good as it Gets (1998) and developed the story for Diving Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002). Both writer and director have experience with mainstream, so-called “chick-flicks” and filmographies that demonstrate their capacity to oscillate between serious subjects as mental or grave illnesses and intergenerational conflict while maintaining a warm tone and balancing heavy subject matter with light comedy.
The key art of Georgia Rule complies with the visual language engendered (pun !) to the chick-flick, or films with female leads and multigenerational appeal, recalling successful 1980s and early 1990s movies– Terms of Endearment (1983), Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). The one-sheet to these films emphasize [heterosocial] love among women: between friends, sisters, mothers and daughters. The key art shows women in medium to close-up shots to highlight the star power of the movie.
Perhaps inspired by the woman’s film or melodramas, the key art dates back to the 1930s to promote that it is a film centered around women’s issues and again, using star power to generate interest. Examples that applied this technique in one-sheets include The Women (1939), 1950s Douglas Sirk melodramas, as well as Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977). Predating Georgia Rule by five months, the Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore vehicle, Because I Said So (2007) employs a similar aspect of branding.
Despite this wholesome-seeming marketing campaign, the movie’s trailer left sexual abuse or incest unmentioned. Passing itself off as a feel-good, warm-hearted film, this can be considered a glaring oversight for triggering subject matter to an unwitting audience. Critics themselves denounced this fact in their reviews. In USA Today, Claudia Puig wrote, “Don't be fooled by the ad campaign. This is not an endearing Mothers’ Day movie. It tries to pass itself off as a film about feistiness, forgiveness and the bonds of motherhood. Instead, it deals lightly and inappropriately with promiscuity, alcoholism, drug abuse, grief and child molestation.” For The Huffington Post, Jennifer Pozner wrote, “Oh, yeah, that’s right, I mentioned childhood sexual abuse. Didn’t know that’s what Georgia Rule is really about? Not surprising, if you’ve seen the trailers, TV commercials or the promotional materials.”
Lohan’s career enjoyed commercial successes in the late 1990s and early aughts as a Disney darling beginning with The Parent Trap (1998) and Freaky Friday (2003), her most successful film to date, generating $160 million worldwide.3 Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004) was a modest success and Mean Girls (2004) drew her critical praise and another hit film, earning $129 million worldwide; she was a bankable star with mainstream appeal.
In 2005, reports began to circulate over Lohan’s drastic weight loss and alleged drug use. In early 2006, Lohan admitted to an eating disorder and hinted towards her use of cocaine to Vanity Fair. Georgia Rule went into production that summer and by late July, she was hospitalized for heat exhaustion.
Days later, James Robinson, head of the production company financing the film, Morgan Creek, sent a formal letter to Lohan accusing her of “discourteous, irresponsible, and unprofessional” behavior. Robinson cited her tardiness for delays in production and contends that her “all night heavy partying” is to blame for hospitalization or absence from set. The letter was then published by The Smoking Gun website 7 and subsequently picked up by media outlets around the country.
Believed to be leaked deliberately, this letter generated headlines and solidified Lohan’s reputation for being out of control. In the fall of 2006, Fonda recounted her admonishment of Lohan to the press after the film wrapped. Other accounts that year reinforced Lohan’s reputation: breaking her wrists at a New York Fashion Week event, pole-dancing with Kate Moss, and later wearing a chip that symbolized sobriety.12 In January 2007, Lohan checked into rehab for the first time.
Prior to Georgia Rule’s debut, the media had established a narrative of art imitating life: Lohan’s personal life was spiraling whilst playing a character going through comparable problems. A full year in advance, Caryn James wrote for The New York Times, “Lindsay Lohan crystallizes a question now haunting so many movie stars: how much does the off-screen image bleed into, and possibly hurt, the reception of the work?” 14 Unjustly editorializing in his review of this film, James Berardinelli summarized thusly, “I have to admit that Lindsay Lohan is credible as a sexually promiscuous, spoiled brat. Typecasting? ... Art imitates life when Rachel wears a skirt sans underpants and lets a guy look up it (although he doesn't have a camera).”
In addition to the tabloid scrutiny, Lohan’s own press for the film exposed a young woman who was at times contradictory, combative, and aggressive. This is not exclusive to Lindsay Lohan, who at 20 years old was in the process of transitioning from child star to leading lady; actresses have often employed the oversexualized image makeover to accelerate viability towards casting in adult roles. While an unspoken industry standard, this perception of the star was at odds with the standard of “likeability” to which Hollywood starlets are subjected. This quality translates to box office success: on the topic, Sonia Saraiya writes, “in the industry, likeability is an actual score, which factors in how well audiences...feel about the person in question.” Seemingly arbitrary, this attribute serves to quantify an actor’s appeal, leading to endorsement opportunities and future casting offers. For actresses, the author notes, likeability is a more elusive factor, as a ratings system developed by Nielsen shows 3 women to 7 men. This reinforces the status quo and perpetuates sexist stereotypes as to what ideals we uphold for women. In her promotion of Georgia Rule, Lohan appears to straddle the line between asserting sex appeal and self-deprecating humor, while succeeding at neither, as there is ostensibly no formula for getting it right. Writers were unsympathetic. An article from Nylon in May of 2007 illustrates a chain-smoking, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed Lohan that mocks her own bad press. 18 When Lohan satirized her image on Saturday Night Live in April 2006 19 and in an interview for GQ20, reception was less than warm.
As a wide release playing at 2,531 theaters, Georgia Rule earned $6,773,870 on opening weekend, where Spiderman 3 maintained the number one spot and 28 Weeks Later performed at a far second. While the film debuted at number 3, the movie was considered to be a bomb, with a worldwide gross $24,991,167.22 The movie was critically panned, earning a 9% score on Rotten Tomatoes with top critics. Georgia Rule was also included in Rolling Stone’s worst films of 2007,24 along with movie websites and blogs, as the A.V. Club.
“No offense to either of them, but ‘Georgia Rule’ suggests an Ingmar Bergman script as directed by Jerry Lewis. The subject matter is grim, the relationships are gnarled, the worldview is bleak, and, at any given moment, you suspect someone’s going to be hit with a pie.” - John Anderson, Variety.
“We are supposed to believe that under her bad-girl posturing is a smart, sensitive and misunderstood teen. But nothing in this offensive, convoluted and clichéd movie convincingly portrays this.” - Claudia Puig, USA Today.
“But let's talk about tone. It's the hardest thing to convey in a review, especially with a movie as jarring in tone as ‘Georgia Rule.’ The film is intended to be light and whimsical, but with a core of sincere emotion. But it's as if the thing were made by Martian anthropologists who assume that human audiences are as twisted as the people onscreen…. then sexual abuse is mentioned, and the audience is supposed to genuflect, speak in hushed tones and give ‘Georgia Rule’ a pass. We're supposed to think the filmmakers are on the side of the angels because they're not in favor of a stepfather's raping his 12-year-old daughter. Good for them.” - Mick LaSalle, SFGate.
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly did not review the content of the film, but rather fixated on Lohan’s personal troubles and gives the film a D+.
Released on Mother’s Day weekend, Georgia Rule was proposed as a film for families, specifically one mothers and daughters could partake. Opening on May 11, 2007, two weeks before the official launch of the summer blockbuster season, as it was not expected to compete with the juggernauts. The film was one of the few dramas to be premiere this month. While the date belies an 18-29 target audience, the plot and casting of the film accorded it to cast a wider net between generations. With an R rating, it can be surmised producers assumed Lohan’s fans were aging with her to appeal to young women over the age of 17, but neglected her younger fans. Additionally, Felicity Huffman’s recent buzz in Trans-America and a starring role in the ensemble show Desperate Housewives, added a 16-39 demographic. While Jane Fonda, whose return to film after a 15 year hiatus with 2005’s Monster-in-Law attracts an audience of 45+, or an audience who would be familiar with her decades long career. The film purported to draw several generations of women.
Indisputably dismissed by critics, the film’s target audience of older women– an audience cognizant of reviews– largely avoided Georgia Rule, while Lohan’s below 17 fan base was neglected due to the movie’s R rating. Box office numbers also suffered from a late in season premiere. With a handful of films intending to hit all four quadrants and an earlier start to the summer season, low- to mid- budget Hollywood films would have likely performed better as an early spring release. Nonetheless, Lohan largely took the fall for the flop, while her casting allowed the project to take form. Additionally, Lohan’s waning appeal in the prior year and a half due to negative publicity and considering Monster-in-Law’s lackluster reviews, it was evident that contemporary audiences were not drawn in by Lohan and Fonda and did not promote promising figures.
The movie’s deceptive marketing campaign highlights a teenager who is reckless and rebellious in a dysfunctional family which the media scrupulously compared to a star mired in family problems of her own: the tabloids relentlessly covered her mother/ manager, Dina’s and father, Michael’s troubled marriage, substance abuse and legal issues. James Robinson’s letter fanned the flames that the actress was insubordinate and unmanageable, as well as on-set scoops. The paparazzi’s continued reportage of Lindsay from 2005-2007 was likely the cause of both over-exposure and box-office bombs that plague the actress to this day. The perception of Lohan was at odds with the film’s promotion as a family film. This dissonance played out to the paparazzi, her personal life made into spectacle and detracted viewers from her abilities as an actress.
Reviewers unjustly criticized the actress’s looks and personal life. Richard Roeper unnecessarily includes in his review, “As for Lohan, she's not a great beauty -- especially with the heavy tan and gooey lip gloss she employs here -- but she's undeniably sexy and camera-friendly, and she delivers her lines with the ease of someone who's been acting since she was a child. She's good. Maybe she can become an actress of note if she gets her stuff together off-screen.”
Few critics were sympathetic, engaging with the material and Hollywood in an analytical fashion. Movie columnist A.O. Scott condemned the online media, noting Lohan “has been subjected recently to the prurient, punitive gaze of an Internet gossip culture that takes special delight in the humiliation of young women with shaky discipline and an appetite for fun.” Jennifer Pozner, from a feminist standpoint, observed that Georgia Rule can be beneficial to opening the lines of communication in discussing sexual abuse, “Among the best things about this film is the fact that the three strong female leads are given mostly (or, at least moderately) meaty roles….This film could be used as a springboard to talk with young people about issues of incest and sexual assault — but that presumes that they know what they’re going to see before they see it. So far, the marketing seems to ensure that won’t happen. Maybe feminist bloggers can encourage viewers to see it for the right reasons, and applaud, critique, rip into or appreciate it for the right reasons, too.”
Lohan’s onscreen performance was partly reduced or delegitimized by her extracurricular activities. This, in stark contrast to cast and crew, whose careers were left unaffected. Lohan’s career was judged through that lens and not, in essense what she was hired to do. In an ironic parallel, Jane Fonda was similarly punished for her “bad girl” image in the 1960s and 70s: her offscreen sexual proclivities with husband Roger Vadim, vocal protests of the Vietnam War, and her affiliation with the Black Panthers. In a maternal role as Georgia, her “rules” can be read as lessons to Lohan that appear to reinforce an industry’s approval of what behavior is considered acceptable for women. Lohan bore the weight of the Georgia Rule’s critical and box office failure. A flawed script with a tone that did not register with audiences, combined with a marketing team that omitted heavy subject matter and a majority of the plot, critics and audiences alike felt hoodwinked. Is it a fair assessment to conclude that when a film carried by female actors fails, it justifies Hollywood’s marginalization of “women’s films” and in turn, a less diverse mainstream landscape? Furthermore, in this moment of cultural reckoning (wage disparity, representation inequality, #MeToo), it is due time to reevaluate the insidious structures (“likeability,” image makeovers, mainstream film criticism) that also serve to perpetuate harmful and sexist stereotypes and undermine true equality in Hollywood.
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