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Thursday, April 16, 2009


Marketing matters

To my delight, I've just recently managed to get my mittens on a DVD of Celia, an Australian film that I first saw when I was a child. The contrast between how I first watched it and how it was sold is an interesting little demonstration in the importance of marketing well.

Celia, first released in 1988, is the story of a nine-year-old girl living in 1950s Australia. Her two great desires are to own a pet rabbit and to play with the lively Tanner children next door, with whom she has sworn loyalty in vows of blood. Unfortunately, the plague of wild rabbits means that even pet rabbits are under attack from government policy, and meanwhile the Red Scare leads her father - himself the child of a Communist mother - to ban her from playing with the Tanners, whose parents are fringe Communist party members. Under pressure from the adult world to relinquish all that matters to her, largely because the government and surrounding culture are overreacting to perceived dangers, Celia's grasp on reality becomes shakier and shakier; already an imaginative child haunted by frightening fairy tales, she is also fierce, and increasingly aggressive. The film captures beautifully the passionate hatreds and loves of childhood, the strangeness of the adult world and the interplay between the two; it's a subtle, intelligent and extraordinarily memorable film.

I say 'memorable' advisedly, because I first saw it shortly after its release, when I was eleven or twelve myself. That was twenty years ago, and I remembered it so vividly that I leaped in excitement when I saw it had been re-released.

Yet if I'd been thirty-one in 1988 and seen the marketing for it, I might very well have given it a miss.

Here's why I watched it. Barry Norman, may his tribe increase, was still doing his film review show on terrestrial TV, and while watching it one night they showed a few clips from the film. Shortly afterwards, my parents signed me up for a good local-ish video library; not the one round the corner, which was dark and grotty and had what I now realise was a collection of porn in the basement (I remember being young enough not to be quite sure whether the illustrated cover of Bad Girls' Dormitory, with the blonde's head thrown back and the brunette licking her neck with predatory glee, was supposed to be sexy or a horror film). No, this new library, near the Pizza Express we sometimes visited as a treat, was located in upscale Notting Hill, with a wide selection and plenty of art-house stuff. Celia was not the only film it provided in my early adolescence - I remember going through Zhang Yimou's early work as well having seen Raise the Red Lantern as well - but its cover leaped out at me from the wall.

Its slogan was 'A tale of innocence corrupted.' Now, in an interview the writer-director Ann Turner remarks that she does see Celia as being 'corrupted into adulthood' by having her world so overset by adult concerns, but the somewhat salacious strapline doesn't quite capture that. Never mind; I was twelve at the oldest, a bit to young to find fault with the slogan, but the image was captivating - mostly a photograph of the star's expressive face. I'd seen some arresting clips of it, and more importantly, it was an adult film in which the central character was a child, and a little girl at that; when you're a little girl yourself, you don't get many of those. So I scooped it up, took it to the counter, watched it twice and have been wondering if I'd get to see it again ever since.

Celia is violent and sometimes shocking - though, as with Susan Hill's I'm The King of the Castle, the relentless enmity and vengefulness of the child characters looked altogether less extreme and closer to reality from a child's perspective that it would to a nostalgic adult - but as a film, it's definitely not a 'shocker'. But have a look at the posters. The American studios released it as Celia: Child of Terror, as if it were a splashy horror movie. Look, a child holding a rifle! One of the quotes refers to 'shades-of-Carrie horror', but stylistically and thematically, Ann Turner is a long way from Stephen King. Someone looking for a King-like experience would have felt let down by all the politics and understatement; someone looking for a film like Celia would not pick up a King adaptation.

The result of all this was that, according to my liner notes, the film 'didn't achieve the popular or even cult success that it clearly deserved,' despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and winning prizes, and has only just now achieved a DVD release by Second Run DVD. It was pitched in a way that put off its natural audience. I don't think I'd have watched it based on those posters; I only got to see it because I'd missed much of the marketing.

Being a genre-juggler myself, and knowing that genre-mixing artworks are most vulnerable to bad marketing decisions, this is the kind of issue I take seriously. But it's a shame for Celia as well; good films don't deserve to fall into obscurity. If you look on Amazon, you can see a few clips from it; in any case, I'd highly recommend it.


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