A marketing idea for 2006’s Mission: Impossible III led to newspaper dispensers being blown up and Paramount Pictures facing a legal threat.

By the early 2000s, the number of tools available to movie marketing teams was – stating the obvious perhaps – bigger than ever. The world wide web had amplified an awful lot of stuff, which helped, and the web was pivotal in powering 1999’s The Blair Witch Project to box office gold. Others tried to replicate that level of viral success, albeit finding it a bit harder than it looked.

Bottom line: it was getting harder to get a film noticed. Major studios were needing to come up with more and more extreme ideas to get their movies attention. Thus, in the case of 1998’s Armageddon, a large photo-realistic drape was put down the side of a huge skyscraper in Los Angeles to make it look as if a real meteor had blasted through it. That had to be taken down in the end when people thought it looked too realistic, but the deep impact of it had been made.

For Mission: Impossible III, Paramount Pictures faced challenges then. It had hoped to turn around the third movie in the saga a little quicker than the four year gap between films one and two (the first sequel delayed due to the overrunning of Tom Cruise’s previous film, Eyes Wide Shut), but instead it found itself waiting six years to get the third into cinemas.

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Mission: Impossible III had been held up by Tom Cruise’s choice of director – JJ Abrams – being committed to making the TV show Lost. Cruise elected to delay the movie and wait for him, although Paramount in the end got 2005’s War Of The Worlds as well, so wasn’t grumbling.

But there was still the challenge of reigniting audience interest in Mission: Impossible III, given that any momentum from the last instalment had petered out.

Furthermore, this was the film you might recall where – on promotional duties – Tom Cruise went on the Oprah Winfrey show. An interview that the chairman of Paramount’s parent company wasn’t happy with. That chairman was the late Sumner Redstone, who ended Cruise’s lucrative deal with the studio, arguing “we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot”.

Cruise currently has three upcoming films with Paramount 15 years on, and remains one of its most important creative partners.

Still, in the case of Mission: Impossible III, it was a different promotional wheeze that nearly caused the studio huge problems. It came up with a  promotional campaign idea in conjunction with the Los Angeles Times, and it did not quite go to plan.

In the run up to the film’s release, the studio inked a deal that on April 28th 2006 placed digital devices on certain newsstands in the Los Angeles area. The devices played the theme tune to Mission: Impossible when the doors of the newspaper dispensers were opened. It’s an iconic tune of course, and it’s not difficult to see how this might have looked a good idea in a posh Powerpoint presentation.

The problem though was that it hadn’t factored in how consumers would react to seeing a digital device secreted away on a newsstand. Just to add necessary colour to this, the devices were six inches long, two and a half inches wide, and came in a red plastic box with wires attached.

At the intersection of Sand Canyon and Soledad Canyon’s roads in the Santa Clarita area for a start, one or two people were understandably concerned enough when they spotted the devices that they called in the Los Angeles police department. The reports were taken seriously too, and as such in also came the Los Angeles County sheriff’s arson squad, which moved in and blew up the Los Angeles Times newsstand where the roads met as a precaution.

Furthermore, as – ironically – the Los Angeles Times reported, the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in west Los Angeles was evacuated when a device was spotted at the news dispenser inside. The evacuation went on for an hour and a half, with as many as 300 people (some 50 of them patients) affected.

It wasn’t immediately obvious that the devices were tied to a movie promotional campaign, but the penny eventually dropped. As it turned out, Paramount had paid for 4500 of the things to be randomly placed around Los Angeles in those newspaper dispenser boxes.

CBS News quoted Mike LaPerruque, a retired Los Angeles sheriff’s sergeant, saying “with the wires leading to the micro-switch on the news rack doors, I can easily see how someone might have misconstrued it as an improvised explosive device”.

The ramifications began soon after.

Assistant US attorney Linda Kontos sent letters to both Paramount Pictures and the Los Angeles Times advising them of the threat of a federal lawsuit over the promotion.

The damages to the Veteran Affairs Center alone were costed at – pre-legal inflation – $92,855.77. Couldn’t tell you what the 77 cents was for.

The legal threat came some eight months after the movie itself had dropped to less than expected box office too, at a point where it looked like Paramount was backing away from more movies in the series (at least with Cruise involved). To its relief, the legal threat dissipated in the end, and there’s no evidence I can find that anyone admitted liability or that the case was eventually brought. I can but speculate that someone somewhere may have written a cheque to make it all go away.

When it came time to promote the next Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol (there was a five year gap to that one), the marketing instead focused on the fact that Tom Cruise was pretty much atop the tallest building in the world. That seemed to work out a little better, rewarding the studio with the best returns yet for one of the films in the series, and re-establishing the franchise as one of the most potent outside of comic book cinema.

Furthermore, it didn’t involve the studio falling the wrong side of the bomb squad too. It might just be that a lesson had been learned there…

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