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Film A marketing battle to sell Hyena Road, a Canadians-in-Afghanistan war film

Writer-director Paul Gross, centre, in Hyena Road, a serious-minded and sometimes morally ambivalent dive into this country’s role in the Afghan conflict.

Elevation

If you want to sell a Canadian war movie to Canadians, you might want to go easy on the maple leaf.

At least, that's what executives with the film distribution company Elevation Pictures discovered last spring, as they were testing a handful of different posters for their upcoming Canadians-in-Afghanistan war drama, Hyena Road.

Some of the posters, prepared by the Los Angeles-based movie marketing company Art Machine, echoed one for the blockbuster American Sniper, which featured a U.S. flag billowing prominently in the lower half of the frame. An early test audience for Hyena Road said they liked the film in part because it was about Canadian soldiers. But the focus group brought in to review marketing materials reacted coldly to signs of overt patriotism.

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"Waving the Canadian flag – it just wasn't resonating with Canadians in a meaningful way," noted Adrian Love, Elevation's senior vice-president of marketing and acquisitions, in a recent interview.

"They wanted something that was a little more subtle," said Love.

Selling English-language Canadian movies to domestic audiences is always a challenge: Very few ever earn more than a million dollars at the box office. But Hyena Road is a deeply personal film for its writer-director Paul Gross. He is a former army brat, and the film grew out of goodwill visits that he had made to Afghanistan in the wake of his 2008 First World War epic Passchendaele. So Elevation, a two-year-old Toronto-based company that began its life by distributing independent U.S. films such as The Imitation Game and Nightcrawler, and is now making bigger bets with homegrown movies, decided to swing for the fences.

Executives there devised a large-scale, big-budget marketing campaign for Hyena Road that, unusually for a Canadian film, takes several pages out of the Hollywood playbook: multiple trailers and TV spots; screenings with test audiences; months of behind-the-scenes promotional efforts; red carpet galas in cities across the country; and an extensive press tour by the film's stars that sought to ape the U.S. talk show circuit, a key part of building awareness for Hollywood movies that is missing from Canada's TV landscape.

Plans for the marketing began to take shape in early 2014, even before the film's shoot that fall. "We're always thinking, even as we read the script, 'What's the poster going to look like? What's the trailer going to look like?' " said Love. "'Who are we selling it to?' – which is the core question."

Hyena Road is a serious-minded and sometimes morally ambivalent dive into this country's role in the Afghan conflict. Gross focuses on three characters: a sniper, played by Rossif Sutherland, not given to ambiguities; an intelligence officer, played by Gross, who recognizes the war will have no clear winner; and a mysterious Afghan freedom fighter.

The film is like war itself: often thunderous, sometimes terrifying, and occasionally depressing as hell.

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From its inception, Gross positioned Hyena Road as a film of national importance, something bigger than a mere entertainment. Like Passchendaele, which Gross said he made to help rectify a national amnesia toward Canada's role in the First World War, Hyena Road was intended to help Canadians come to terms with what they ask of their men and women in uniform.

About four years ago, Gross went to lunch with Michael Kennedy, who as the executive vice-president of filmed entertainment and film buying for Cineplex Entertainment, decides what plays on almost 80 per cent of this country's cinema screens. (The company operates 1,652 screens in 162 theatres.)

"I remember he said to me, 'I actually didn't want to make another war movie (after Passchendaele), but after being in Afghanistan, seeing what our troops are doing, I felt really compelled to tell their story,'" Kennedy recalled this week. "I asked him, 'What do you need from me?'"

Gross was looking for a commitment that Cineplex would put its full weight behind the film: running trailers months in advance, and – again, unusually for a Canadian release – programming the film on many screens. "We don't normally agree to that, sight unseen," said Kennedy. "But I knew he would not let us down, and I felt strongly this was a story we needed to be involved in."

Kennedy says the film will open on between 100 and 125 Cineplex screens. To go higher would mean putting it into some of the company's smaller theatres – "seven-plexes in small towns," says Kennedy. "That's a little more difficult to book than the big, 16-plexes."

At Elevation, executives saw the core audience for the film as over-35-year-olds, the same demographic they expected would turn out for The Imitation Game. Distributors who have a movie in theatres get to attach a trailer for one of their upcoming films. So Elevation contracted the Hollywood-based marketing agency BLT Communications, which had done the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty, to create a so-called teaser trailer for Hyena Road to run in front of The Imitation Game. (Partly because of the scale of the industry and the low marketing budgets of domestic films, there are no such Canadian agencies that specialize in trailers.)

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But time was tight: Hyena Road was shooting in Jordan last fall, and The Imitation Game was due to open in January. "We needed to tell a story somehow without any footage," said Love, of Elevation. So BLT digitally created some black-and-white visuals that looked like drone footage of the film's tense opening sniper sequence, and Gross took some precious time out from the production to record voiceovers with a couple of actors.

Teaser trailers, which publicize a film's release date sometimes a year in advance, aren't commonly used by Canadian distributors, who must bob and weave to avoid getting knocked out by Hollywood heavyweights. But they help plant in the public's mind the idea that a film is an event, an increasingly important tactic in a crowded marketplace where audiences often need cajoling to bump something up from merely Netflix-worthy to theatrical must-see.

That promotional drumbeat became louder in July, when Elevation booked Gross to appear on Canada AM on the day the film's two-minute trailer debuted in theatres. The trailer played through the summer in theatres, in front of films such as Terminator Genisys and more adult-oriented fare.

In June, Gross had also travelled to Quebec City to press the flesh with theatre managers at ShowCanada, the domestic exhibition industry's annual conference, and give them a 15-minute sneak preview of the film.

By then, Elevation had committed itself to a Canadian Thanksgiving weekend release – a relatively quiet period for the U.S. studios, which are usually regrouping after the fall festivals and focused five weeks down the road, on the mammoth U.S. Thanksgiving weekend.

Still, Elevation had no good way to know whether its efforts were bearing fruit. It can monitor chatter on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

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But while there is robust market research in the U.S. that tells the studios how hotly their films are anticipated – allowing them to adjust their marketing expenditure and strategy on the fly – efforts to build a similar system in Canada have never succeeded.

Instead, distributors look at so-called "comps" in hopes of mimicking their success. For Hyena Road, says Love, "we looked at all the U.S. movies about the conflict in the Middle East – Lone Suvivor and Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker – and there's nothing we think is a direct comp to this movie." Being a Canadian story, Passchendaele might have been a comp, but "it's about World War I, which is a different type of war." And it was out in 2008, when the marketplace was a different beast.

In early summer, Gross screened Hyena Road for Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie, the retired Commander of Task Force Kabul, who called the film, "A powerful and visceral look at modern warfare." That quote is now on one of the film's two posters; part of it is in one of two new 30-second TV spots. Love says those spots will get heavy play on news and baseball broadcasts from now until the end of Thanksgiving weekend.

Gross and members of his cast, including Allan Hawco (Republic of Doyle) have also been interviewed by many local news shows: After its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film travelled to festivals in Halifax, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, as well as a gala premiere in Winnipeg.

"In the U.S., with The Daily Show shot in New York, and Jimmy Kimmel in L.A., you'll see people travelling back and forth," says Love. Since Canada doesn't have anything similar – after George Stroumboulopoulos decamped to hockey – distributors need to build their own publicity circuit.

"We wanted to make sure that, not just Canada AM, not just the national news, but also the regional news had time with Paul and Allan and Rossif, to really make it feel like an event, and to bring the red carpet experience across the country," said Love, "as opposed to it being, 'Oh, it showed at the Toronto Film Festival and here's the coverage.'"

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How long will it last? Passchendaele spent months in theatres, earning $4.4-million, becoming the top Canadian film at the box office that year. "Things just happen quicker now than they used to," notes Cineplex's Kennedy.

"The ambition is to play it for a minimum of two weeks. I would certainly hope this movie would play for four to six weeks. Not everywhere, of course, but we'd like to have it around in November. I hope it works."

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