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Fight Club (1999) : When Marketing ruins a Film



‘’ The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club’’ is a now well-known movie quote based on and written by Chuck Palahniuk in his book Fight Club. Se7en director David Fincher was chosen to direct the adaptation of the anti-capitalism and antiestablishment story filled with violence, dark humor, and, ironically, anticonsumerism. How do you market and sell a film that condemns worldwide capitalism? According to David Fincher, you ought to do the exact opposite of what the designated 2000 Fox marketing team did.


Fight Club is now a well known ‘’cult-classic’’ film of the ‘90s that has all the great selling points a marketing team could use; big actors such as Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, David Fincher as a ‘big-name’’ director, music made by The Dust Brothers, and a book which would attract its readers. Unfortunately, on its opening weekend, the film only grossed 11 million dollars on a 65-million-dollar budget. Fincher blames Fox entirely for its original failure, as he fought for its marketing to be different from leaning on the ‘’Star system.’’ Still, for the marketing team, it was a film that was ‘’unmarketable.’’ As Fincher recalled in an interview for Fight Club’s 20th anniversary, no one in marketing believed in the film and even telling him that the story was unplaceable in their universal marketing quadrant. The director was told, “Men do not want to see Brad Pitt with his shirt off. It makes them feel bad. And women don’t want to see him bloody. So, I don’t know who you made this movie for.” David Fincher created a few PSA style commercials to play in cinemas, advertising its movie by putting Norton and Pitt speaking directly to its audience, as in a few scenes in Fight Club, where they would aggressively shout and assault its audience, telling them to shut their phone or to pay attention to the film. Fincher wanted the advertisement to reflect the aesthetics and tension of the film. He wanted the movie’s paratexts to be ‘’in your face,’’ as he said, but Fox refused, never releasing those PSAs. Recalling his own fight with Fox, Fincher said, “The publicity shots that went out were Brad bare-chested, bleeding, ready to fight. They could have done university screenings at midnight or built some sort of groundswell. But Fight Club went out as a big-studio film with movie stars.” Not only did the marketing failed Fincher and sold the film with the star system, but they marketed it at Wrestling events and box matches because of its violence when the film is more about Anarchy and counterculture than simple fistfights.


Filming resumed at the end of 1998 and was supposed to be in theaters in July 1999, but it was pushed further in August. Unfortunately, the release would be pushed again for October 1999 due to an event that shattered the United States. Earlier that year, in April, the Columbine High School massacre happened. Not only was Fight Club released later due to its violence, but it was postponed because the Columbine killers had been greatly inspired by another violent film: Natural Born Killers, a 1994 film directed by Oliver Stone. To avoid any controversy and backlash, the executives at Fox decided to wait a while longer. After its release on October 15th, 1999, with a 16+ warning, in the US and Canada, the film was even invited to be part of the 1999 Venice Film Festival. Unfortunately, the exposition in such a prestigious event did not help its advertisement. According to Edward Norton, “It got booed. It wasn’t playing well at all. Brad turns and looks at me says, ‘That’s the best movie I’m ever gonna be in.’ He was so happy.” Not only did the audience disliked the film, but it also disturbed them. Brad Pitt, playing Tyler Durden, said, “It gets to one of Helena’s scandalous lines—‘I haven’t been fucked like that since grade school!’—and literally the guy running the festival got up and left.”


“We buy things we don't need with money; we don't have to impress people we don't like.” This quote from Palahniuk’s book made it into Fincher’s film, alongside 75 completely ironic brand deals. For a movie about anti-capitalism, the product placement in it gave Fox Studios 144 million dollars. While all these brands are put to shame in the film, most notably a Starbuck being destroyed and the protagonist’s Ikea-filled apartment exploding, the brands still got the exposition in cinemas worldwide. The irony does not end there, as commodities and ties-in are still being sold to this day; t-shirts, posters, and even the famous Paper Street Co. soaps made in the movie.

Contrarily to the local distribution, meaning in the US, the film was more successful abroad, grossing $ 63.8 million internationally, earning 50% more than what it brought from the ‘’Capitalist Nation.’’ With these low and quite unsuccessful numbers, it is hard to comprehend why the film is now a cult classic and why ties-in are still sold today. Because of word-to-mouth, another more successful theatrical release, and DVDs, the grossing of Fight Club is presently higher than $101,2 million2 (USD.) The film has sold more than 6 million DVDs (and Blue rays) since its release.


Overall, it may be said, as David Fincher has so abundantly declared, that the original marketing and distribution of Fight Club was a failure. It was through 2000 Fox’s marketing team that refused to participate in Fincher’s ideas, their lack of attention towards the film’s real intentions, and their horribly placed posters and billboards at sports events. Even though the film had a rough start, a delayed-release, a failure at Venice Film Festival, and a horrible opening weekend at the box office, the film, its anticapitalism story, and delightful plot twist braved through time becoming one of Fincher’s top films, but also a ‘’Cult Classic’’ of the 1990s.

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Raftery, Brian. ‘’Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen.’’ Simon & Schuster, 2019.


Concave Brand Tracking. ‘’ Top 10 brands in Fight Club (1999)- Product Placement Analysis.’’ Concave Brand Tracking, 18 Oct. 2019. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Raftery, Brian. ‘’The First Rule of Making ‘Fight Club’: Talk About ‘Fight Club’’’. The Ringer, 26 Mar. 2019. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.

Sharf, Zach. ‘‘Fight Club": David Fincher on clashing with Ed Norton, battling Fox over marketing, bad box office.’’ Salon. 29 Mar. 2019. Accessed 10 Feb. 2021.

The Dangerous Maybe. ‘’ How an apartment becomes a prison: An Analysis of Commodities and Spaces in Fight Club.’’ The Dangerous Maybe, 4 June. 2019. Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

© 2021 Heloise Koszegi

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