It’s regarded as a comedy classic of the 1990s – but thanks in part to a ‘difficult’ marketing campaign, few people turned up to see Office Space.
History is littered with really, really good comedies that did next to nothing at the box office, yet managed to find their audience when they landed on home formats. Certainly the likes of the Austin Powers trilogy would have stopped at one movie had the decision to press ahead with a sequel been based purely on cinema performance.
Arguably one of the finest comedy movies of the 1990s fell into this category too. Mike Judge’s Office Space remains a flat-out sublime delight. It stars Jennifer Aniston and Ron Livingstone, but as impressive as they are in the feature, every scene that Gary Cole is let near is promptly stolen in plain sight. If you’ve never had the pleasure, do purchase a copy and settle down for a treat. The man was robbed of an Oscar nomination, as comedy performances often are.
Part of its fame now is that it was a box office disappointment, something that’s added injustice to its story over time. Yet it’s worth noting that 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the movie, certainly gave it a good go promoting the film. Not that it was always on the metaphorical same page as Mike Judge and his team. Even during the production of the movie, it had no shortage of concerns, was reportedly unconvinced by some of the casting, didn’t like the music, and executives were on the back of Judge throughout production. He’s told the story since of it being a difficult movie to make
When it came to release, though, it had an idea for what it wanted to do. Is approach wasn’t always in keeping with the style of an offbeat comedy, mind. Notably, against the wishes of Judge, it pursued promotional imagery that featured an office worker plastered with Post-It notes. As Judge told Brian Raftery in the excellent book Best Movie Year Ever, “it looked like an Office Depot commercial”.
It certainly didn’t sell the movie very well.
Fox doubled down, though. It took its Post-Its imagery out into the real world too, as Fox hired someone to visit a basketball game with them stuck all over them. It’s unclear quite how many tickets this approach sold. A guess could easily be hazarded, though.
Furthermore, it stuck with it for the home release, and would promote the theatrical opening with homogeneous TV ads and trailers. The chosen tagline, ‘Work Sucks’, left Judge no more impressed. Whoever bought a movie ticket based on a line like that?
Yet whilst he and Fox were at loggerheads over the marketing campaign for the movie’s theatrical release, the studio did come up with a pretty good wheeze in the midst of it all, set for the start of February 1999.
It decided it needed an ‘office guy’. Someone who, a few years before David Blaine would commandeer the idea, was going to sit in a glass box above Times Square in New York from 9 to 5 every day. What a way to make a living.
His job? To answer the phone. A number on the side of the box – 1-877-WORK-SUX (or, in British, 1-877-9675-789, but that’s less catchy) – would lead to the phone he was sat by. And passers-by were invited to ring up to complain about their jobs.
Spoiler: people did.
The person hired to answer the phone was a then-up-and-coming actor by the name of Andrew Burlinson. In more recent times he’s had roles in Parks & Recreation, Just Add Magic and Silicon Valley. But back then he was a 24-year old with no screen credits to his name. For the two weeks running up to the original US cinema release of Office Space, he was sat in a glass cubicle above one of the busiest places in America, taking complaints.
As he told The Crimson at the time, “it’s been an interesting study… a lot of people are really disgruntled and dissatisfied with their jobs”. Not that he was spilling the beans, but he did concede that the glass box – which was streamed live on the internet back when such things were a novelty – got “intensely sunny”. This is what websites in late 90s looked like, kids…
Burlinson’s time in isolation was softened by the interviews he had to give, the freebies he got, the acupuncturist who came to see him and a phone call from a pig farmer (as he told Empire back in issue 119).
The stunt got headlines, certainly, and brought attention to the movie. But it was all a bit of an odd way to sell what was ultimately a satire, rather than a broad studio comedy. The movie had an underwhelming time at the box office, bringing in $10.8m at the US box office. It was regarded as a financial disappointment, destined to be forgotten. The marketing campaign had not helped.
But then, the film was brought back to life by it becoming a word of mouth hit on the-then burgeoning DVD format, and also thanks to it playing on cable TV in the US. More and more people kept discovering Office Space. And whilst it still finds itself adorned with imagery to promote it that Judge hated, it’s finally earning its place as one of the best comedies of its respective decade…
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