34 MPH / Selling Speed

Marketing the Thrill Ride of the Summer

Speed is finally through the thick of it. The hard part — you know, making the movie? — is done. It’s more or less finished. And suddenly, the faint murmur of hope throughout Fox Studios begins to grow to a loud and giddy chatter.

“Tony Sella, who was the head of creative at the time, wildly talented, creative guy, came into my office and he said to me – I remember this very distinctly – ‘You have no idea what you have with Speed,'” former Fox production president Tom Jacobson says. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And we were, like, three weeks into post-production. He said, ‘This movie’s amazing. This movie’s a monster.’ He says, ‘I have so much material to work with on a trailer. This is going to be fantastic.'”

The test screening process takes hold and it’s informative in ways that benefit the post-production process, but more to the point, even with unfinished sequences still being completed, it stands as verification that Fox indeed has the potential for a massive hit on its hands. It would be at one particular test screening, held in Lakewood, California, that the studio would decide that Speed can compete in the thick of the summer movie season.

“Tom Sherak, who was the head of distribution, right there in the screening, he said, ‘We’re moving this movie up. We’re moving it into the teeth of summer. This is a big hit movie. We’re going to sell this like it’s Die Hard, right now,'” Jacobson recalls. “He looked at all of us in production, and I remember him saying, ‘OK, you guys are done. Now it’s us. We’re riding this baby home.’ So, they knew. They knew from that screening. It was one of the most exciting screenings I’ve ever been at.”

Screenwriter Graham Yost has indelible memories of that screening as well.

“The way Tom Sherak put it was, he said, ‘I knew the movie was going to be a hit when people going out to the bathroom left walking backwards,’ because they wanted to miss as little of the film as possible,” Yost says. “I love that sort of old-movie sense of what’s working. I remember it was in that lobby when Tom Jacobson, they had a quick conference and they said, ‘Let’s release it in June. We’ll go up against City Slickers II. We’ll go up against Flintstones.'”

Speed Poster
The movie poster for Speed played up Keanu Reeves as a star on caliber with the greats of the era.

With that release date locked and loaded, now it’s time for Fox to figure out its marketing strategy. Even if it plays like gangbusters, the challenge is getting the audience to turn out. It’s still a film full of unproven commodities. Keanu Reeves isn’t a big star. Sandra Bullock is a nobody. Enter Bill Mechanic, the recently appointed chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment who made his name at Disney in the international distribution and home video realms.

“When we went to market, one of the things we did was treat [Reeves] like he was like an Arnold or any one of those guys,” Mechanic says. “The ads are all about ‘he’s a star,’ even though he wasn’t really a star at the time. Treat the movie like it’s a big movie. You have to overcome the fact that the exhibitors were looking at it like, you know, ‘Sure.’ Like, ‘What?’ It’s not True Lies until you see the movie, you know? Or a big picture. It was an action film that was a date-night movie, that women liked as much as men. It wasn’t a gunfight movie. It wasn’t overly violent. However you want to look at it, it wasn’t a gendered action movie, which is more unusual.”

There would also be a considerable marketing apparatus built around the film’s promotional materials and behind-the-scenes footage captured during production. And Tom Grane, Fox’s former vice president of promotional programming, is the man for the job, having established by that time a format in the HBO First Look series that had moved the needle in terms of driving interest in big movies. The First Look for Speed would be one of his most robust and involved productions. (See below for the full episode.)

“With Speed, what we did was – and this was for movies that I thought had a big chance and I wanted to elevate them rather than just do a straightforward, kind of, like, long featurette – I would do something that would put even more production value in it,” Grane says. “Which is why we went after Dennis Hopper as a host and came up with that kind of sub-story in the thing about, you know, he’s walking the audience through the making of the movie, but then, he also kind of is a little bit of the character and blows up the Hollywood sign at the end.”

Quentin Tarantino Speed Premiere
Among those in attendance at the Speed premiere was filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, seen here with actress Julia Sweeney.

Hard not to love that unknowing wink at the film’s early days, back when Yost’s screenplay ended with the bus colliding with the Hollywood sign in a fiery blaze of glory.

The final piece of the promotional puzzle ahead of release: the premiere. The glitz, the glamour, the red-carpet photos that go all over the world, the interviews from the stars as they file into the first public exhibition of their efforts – this used to be quite the spectacle. You would see clips on Entertainment Tonight or what have you and you would feel that rush of excitement for an upcoming movie release all the more. The Speed premiere would be held at the famed Mann’s Chinese Theatre on June 7, 1994, and the guest list would include Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Campbell, David Spade, Dwight Yokam, Edward Furlong, Gary Sinise, Gene Simmons, Jennifer Tily, Rebecca De Mornay, Eric Stoltz and, of course, the film’s key players. It would mark the final celebration before the masses would finally get a look.

“On the night of the premiere, it’s going to be Fox’s first hit under this regime, right? And it’s my first movie,” former Fox exec Jorge Saralegui says. “At some point, I’m walking out with Peter Chernin, and he put his arm around me and said, ‘Enjoy tonight because it’ll never get better than this.’ And I took him seriously, but he was right. It was such an underdog story, all the way, and to have it work out like this and have it be the beginning of something, the beginning of Fox being a ‘90s action place and the beginning of my career, and really, the beginning of his career as a studio exec, it was an unbelievable feeling.”

All of that and more in this week’s episode of 50 MPH!

HBO First Look: The Making of Speed


Kris Tapley Your Host:

Kris has covered the entertainment industry for nearly two decades, with bylines at Variety, The New York Times, Empire and Vanity Fair. He now works as a writer and consultant in Los Angeles, where he lives with his loving wife, lively son and lazy cat. He likes Speed.