The Real Reason ‘Bruno’ Blundered

There’s a hilarious urban myth that has never really been denied: that the renaming of the great historical drama “The Madness of George III” to “The Madness of King George” for the U.S. market was because they feared Americans wouldn’t go see a sequel. The old adage about never underestimating the intelligence of the American […]

There’s a hilarious urban myth that has never really been denied: that the renaming of the great historical drama “The Madness of George III” to “The Madness of King George” for the U.S. market was because they feared Americans wouldn’t go see a sequel.

The old adage about never underestimating the intelligence of the American audience rarely rings false. The fact that Larry King is still covering Michael Jackson nightly is proof enough.

But “Bruno” might be a case of estimating too low.

Lots of explanations have been offered as to why the opening weekend’s box office for Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest mockumentary was solid but didn’t soar. Some say it’s because the reviews weren’t great. Or, even if they were, each made the inevitable comparison to SBC’s breakout hit, “Borat.”
 
Others point out how the immediacy and impact of social networking are wreaking havoc on traditional methods of driving ticket sales, a subject analyzed recently here in TheWrap. The breadth of clips and trailers released through viral marketing can cause a backlash since audiences know that so-so films pack these with the best highlights. (We Americans are pretty smart about that.)

Some folks are angry that the satire’s over-the-top depiction of gay stereotypes might provoke homophobia. And homophobes are just scared of it because it’s, well, gay. 

I think it’s a misguided publicity campaign.

When SBC rolled out “Borat,” few people knew him or his work. He was smart to make virtually every publicity appearance in character as Borat Sagdiyev, the Colonel Klink of cultural ambassadors –endlessly offensive but ultimately lovable. And he probably wanted to ensure that we understood it wasn’t really a Kazakhstan government production. (That dumb American thing again.)

SCB’s initial PR strategy matched what little we know about his real-life persona. He’s famously silent about his characters and creative process, shows no interest in personal publicity and ducks the red carpets more often than walks them.
 
I discovered SBC in the late ‘90s when I was in London often on business, and he was doing standout bits on British TV. I fell in love with him instantly — possibly the only thing I had in common with the late Queen Mum besides a good gin and tonic. I watched his HBO series often, couldn’t wait for “Borat” and tried to catch as many of his publicity appearances for it as possible. But by the 44th or 61st time he appeared in that gray suit and Mr. Kotter hair spouting faux-Kazakhi schtick, it got a little tiresome.

This time around, the publicity for “Bruno” started out tired. That’s because SBC now means something very different to filmgoers, but his PR strategy didn’t adjust, too.

We now know him as the Orson Welles — or Clint Eastwood — of tightrope comedy. We know he’s fearless about injecting himself in situations that are provocative at the outset and then prodding them even further. That he loves to taunt stereotypes and knows how to push buttons that make people let down their guard and say the most offensive things. And we know that he’s not just the performer but the architect of these meticulously-produced situations.

Which means that now the public wants a little more.

One of SBC’s first “Bruno” publicity ops was on a wire, in angel wings and bare-assed, landing on Eminem at May’s MTV awards. I sighed, realizing instantly what the rollout strategy would be. And rather than join the masses wondering if Slim Shady was in on the joke or not, I was wondering if he and SBC were ever let in on the fact that their stunt was a rip-off of the 1992 MTV awards show, when a half-naked Howard Stern was flown onstage to collide with Luke Perry and Metallica. The only difference is that SBC’s cheeks were much nicer.

Since then, SBC’s done countless photo ops and walk-ons as Bruno. I stopped watching for them. But I made a point of tuning in to “Letterman” on July 7 when SBC as himself was the first guest. He was smart, funny and sweet. And he successfully pulled back the curtain on his brilliant creative process — just enough to serve our curiosity without violating his comfort zone.

On the next night, SBC returned to the show as Bruno, to offer the “Top 10 Reasons to See the New Movie ‘Bruno.’” Compared to the previous night’s fresh exchange, the walk-on left me flat.

Playing your scripted character endlessly off-screen has never really worked to drum up ticket sales. Just look at Paris Hilton. Oh, wait … she wasn’t doing publicity and she wasn’t in character.

So to SBC and the marketing team around him: There’s still time. One or two more great real interviews would be appreciated. And since they’re so rare, we’d all watch.

And a private note to SBC: If you want to conduct them bare-assed as well, I’d personally appreciate it.