Using controversy to build expectation

Ewa Wildner reports from the panel How To Sell Controversial Films, featuring NYMPHOMANIAC's producer Louise Vesth.

Lars von Trier's NYMPHOMANIAC

No paper bags, provocative T-shirts or storming out of the room: when producer Louise Vesth sat down to discuss one of the most talked-about titles of the year, there was no controversy. Instead, at “NYMPHOMANIAC: How to Sell Uneasy Films“ the participants of Berlinale Talents got to hear, from the producer’s perspective, all about the ins and outs of selling a film.

Despite the title of the talk, it would seem that almost no movie would be easier to sell than NYMPHOMANIAC. Even those who haven’t seen any of Lars von Trier’s films, and aren’t familiar with the name of the Great Provocateur, are likely to be intrigued by the film’s explicit and extensive campaign, featuring the cast members making orgasmic faces. The person responsible for piquing our interest in the film these last couple of months is Vesth. She started out producing low-budget children’s films. Then she ended up working with one of the most controversial directors on the planet. “When Lars told me that he was doing a porn movie that would be very, very long, I knew that would not be easy to sell”, Vesth said. “It was a question of how long the trailers are going to be on YouTube until they notice us, and it meant hours of adjusting the soft version to the standard of soft versions in different countries.”

She decided to adjust the marketing strategy to the film’s content and make it more aggressive than that of MELANCHOLIA, whose campaign plan was to say nothing, reveal nothing and release only a single poster just a week before Cannes. This time the hype started a year before the official premiere. “It takes a long time to build up expectations”, she said. “So we agreed maybe not to reveal many things but rather spread them over time.” The teasing began with minimalist posters featuring giant parentheses. Then came the picture of the whole cast in sexual poses, and finally, individual shots of ecstatic faces in close-ups, which, reportedly, caused several road accidents in Denmark. In the meantime, the press got to see short clips of the movie, chapter appetizers, before the main course of the final release.

Even though, as von Trier has said, the movie is 95% philosophical and 5% porn, the campaign was focused on the sexual part. “It is essential to find a hook in the script that will be as appealing as it can be”, Vesth advised the young producers gathered in the room: “You don’t have to worry that the campaign will not be fully true to the content – your job is to make it more interesting than the film itself. The best compliment you can get is a remark concerning the film heard after the screening: ‘It was not what I expected.’”