Next month, Nicole Kidman will vie for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, having received a fifth career Oscar nomination thanks to her turn as Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos. But far more influential than an Amazon Prime biopic with mixed reviews is the minute-long ad spot Kidman did for AMC Theaters.
The commercial debuted in September, hyped by none other than the company’s CEO on Twitter, and was clearly intended to be a landmark event: a major star making an impassioned pitch for the cinematic grandeur you won’t get streaming a film at home. The tagline, “We Make Movies Better,” was fittingly assured and to the point. Online, however, the reactions went a bit sideways. Viewers joked that Kidman is better-known for TV roles these days, wondered if she’d ever personally been to an AMC and said that her reverent affect struck an uncanny nerve. Something about Kidman rhapsodizing in her Australian accent on the power of film as she sits alone in an immaculate theater watching Jurassic World and Wonder Woman is just… bizarre.
Yet this initial wave of mockery turned AMC’s awkward $25 million advertising onslaught into an undeniable success. People couldn’t get enough of the noirish atmosphere, the corny appeals to emotion, that halo of projected light around Kidman’s faultless face and her conspiratorial intimacy with the audience.
What happened? I believe a redditor on r/AMCsAList, a forum for subscribers of the chain’s top-tier rewards program, put it well: “First you sort of like it, then you get annoyed by it, then you hate it, then you become indifferent, then you start to like it ironically, then you actually start to like it legitimately, then you’re actively cheering when you see it,” they wrote.
This is no exaggeration, either. Each time I’ve patronized an AMC in the past few months, for films ranging from Scream to Jackass Forever to The Worst Person in the World, the crowd has erupted at Kidman’s high-heeled shoes moving briskly through a shallow puddle, and the way she pulls back the hood of her coat, as though she’s a Jedi entering a sacred temple.
“It immediately felt like a balm for the most uncanny time: to see this supremely famous person living out loud — bizarre and joyful — completely alone in a giant movie theater,” Carey O’Donnell, L.A. comedian and among the earliest fans of the ad, tells me in a Twitter DM. “And she gave us an incantation to repeat, a prayer to remember a sweet pastime we’d all been unable to enjoy for two years. And people said it back to her! Witch! We knew things would still be unsettling when we went back to the movies, sitting in the dark, hearing our own horrible breathing behind our masks. But Nicole challenged us to have fun. Thank you, Nic!”
Much of this, no doubt, has to do with timing: The spot runs after the trailers for coming attractions, meaning Kidman’s arrival heralds the beginning of the feature. (In one showing I recently attended, after she said, “We make movies better,” some wise guy yelled back, “And longer!” to uproarious laughter.) Particularly in Los Angeles, which lost the beloved ArcLight luxury theater franchise to the pandemic, there seems to be a newfound affection for AMC venues formerly viewed as inferior alternatives. Whether you’re a retail investor who bought up cheap stock in the company last year or a regular old moviegoer, you want them to rebound — because the theater really can be as thrilling as Kidman suggests.
I myself upgraded to A-List membership in the fall, enjoying the return to a communal and larger-than-life experience. When I asked my film-focused group chat whether they liked the ad, they were more than enthusiastic. “I love that commercial,” said Emily, in Brooklyn. “She should have been nominated for an Oscar for it.” Dennis, who lives in L.A., riffed on the script: “It’s hard to believe how recently it was that we didn’t have a place where heartbreak felt good. Now we do, and the world is better for it.”
Perhaps no one has been a stronger advocate for the campaign than the anonymous comedy writer behind @americanamemes, who creates hilariously niche memes about L.A. culture, from malls to traffic to the movies. Back in December, he started a Change.org petition demanding that AMC restore the 60-second long version of the Kidman ad after they’d replaced it with a 30-second cut. The document collected more than 600 signatures, and “I am happy to report the [full] Kidman Cut has recently been seen in AMCs across SoCal,” he writes in a Twitter DM.
“As a long-time A-lister, I’ve been able to see the evolution of the Nicole Kidman AMC spot,” @americanamemes continues. “The first time I saw it in a theater, there were a few snickers, and some confusion, but overall it didn’t make a huge splash. Over time, the audience’s reaction changed. We started to look forward to this wacky ad,” taking pleasure in each detail, he explains. He agreed that memification played a part: “People love being in on a joke. Secondly, with the death of MoviePass and the rise of AMC A-List, there’s a community of movie fans who love to hate/actually kind of love the AMC experience,” including familiar sights like “the popcorn guy,” he says. “I think Nicole Kidman’s ad is the perfect addition to the AMC experience. It’s become a ritual for the audience to clap at the end. Like many internet jokes, it could be mean-spirited, but instead it genuinely gets us more excited about being at the movies.”
I guess you have to hand it to that marketing team: With a short scene so earnest as to invite cringing bafflement, they accidentally leveraged the internet’s knee-jerk hostility to create real excitement. When the sequence begins, there is nothing phony or jaded in the anticipation that ripples through the theater. We’re actually happy to be back, and to have Nicole Kidman usher us into a world of immersive fantasy. If you can take your eyes off her for a second, turn around and sneak a glance at the person sitting behind you. Because I guarantee they’ll look like this: