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How movie taglines are born

AMONG TONIGHT'S OSCAR nominees for best picture, "Master and Commander" doesn't have one. "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" squeaks by with "The Journey Ends." "Lost in Translation"'s offering ("Everyone wants to be found") is cute, but lacking compared to last year's crop: the pathos of "Music was his passion. Survival was his masterpiece" ("The Pianist"), the cocked fist of "America was born in the streets" ("Gangs of New York"), the sass of "If you can't be famous . . . be infamous" ("Chicago").

2003 was an off year for copy lines, those punchy epigrams printed above or below the film's title in posters and ads. As studios compete in an increasingly cluttered media landscape, a good line, according to one marketing exec, is needed to "reinforce that one iconic image."

Writing ad copy for posters and trailers is generally the first step in marketing a film, setting a strategic direction for what are often multimillion dollar campaigns. This April, the Key Art Awards, a pseudo-Oscars for film marketing sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter, will award its first "Best Print Copy Line" prize after 32 years of honoring virtually everything else -- from best trailer to best "theatrical standee," as those cardboard cut-outs standing by the popcorn counter are known.

In-house copywriters at specialized poster design firms (virtually all in Los Angeles) may collaborate with freelancers and the studios' own marketing departments to churn out as many as 1,000 tagline ideas for a given film. Writers are shown a rough cut of the film, a script, or even just synopsis. Turnaround times range from a year to a few days.

"I usually sit down and if it's there, it's there. It's not the kind of thing, at least for me, where you sit and stare at your computer screen," says Mike Kaiser of the design firm Concept Arts, who has been writing copy for 25 years. (His father was a copywriter, and so is his son.) Kaiser will jump around a thesaurus or Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, looking for phrases he can "spin or twist." His most famous line -- "The first casualty of war is innocence," for "Platoon" -- grew from Senator Hiram Johnson's 1917 assertion "The first casualty of war is the truth."

Stuart Bauer of the marketing firm BLT & Associates pored over countless radio stations' listener-favorites lists from the 1960s and `70s in search of tagline fodder for last year's "School of Rock." He ultimately pinched a line from Pink Floyd's "The Wall": "We don't need no education." Bauer's line for "Sylvia" ("Life was too small to contain her . . .") alludes to the title of Sylvia Plath's most famous work, "The Bell Jar." For "Scooby-Doo" ("Be Afraid. Be Kind of Afraid.") he reworked the seminal tagline for The Fly ("Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.")

Yes, even taglines can be respun into sequels of sorts. Kaiser calls it a "cannibalistic effect," citing the numerous permutations of "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . ." (Who remembers that the line promoted "Jaws 2," not the original?) The tagline for "Seabiscuit" ("The dreams of a nation rode on a long shot"), he notes, echoes the "classic" line from "Rocky": "His whole life was a million-to-one-shot."

Devon Hawker was one of several writers for the "Seabiscuit" trailer, which included the line. Before shooting for the film had even begun, his team pitched ideas using stock footage of old horse races and bits of "The Cider House Rules," which also featured Tobey Maguire in Depression-era clothes. Their copy aimed to get audiences past the horseracing, a minority interest, and on to the human story.

"It was about the times and the broken people who were struggling to make a comeback," Hawker says. "`Long shot' was the closest thing to a horseracing term we ever got at."

Indeed, strong copy can often distract an audience from less-appealing aspects of a film. "Often the impulse that made someone make the movie is the very thing that is going to make people put their hands over their eyes and scream `no,"' says one veteran trailer writer. Sometimes, he says, copywriters get a film set entirely on a submarine only to be told by the producers, "Do whatever you want, but for God's sake leave out the [expletive] submarine."

Kaiser sees some links between movie copywriting and political sloganeering. Both make "more a call to emotion than a call to intellect," he says. "You're looking for an active response rather than a contemplative response."

Indeed, the Bush administration appears especially copy-savvy. The president's "Top Gun"-style speech on an aircraft carrier last May was in essence a live-action movie trailer, with the "Mission Accomplished" banner hovering above its hero like a massive tagline. John Kerry's campaign might want to listen to Kaiser, who suggests that a poster with the candidate's face and the slogan "Bring it on" -- Kerry's frequent taunt to President Bush -- would make "the perfect one-shot for a film on Kerry."

Jon Mooallem is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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