Hollywood’s ultimate hard-sell movie paid off in spades, when Disney’s marketing strategy to position Frank Marshall’s “Alive” as a heroic tale of survival translated into $ 8.6 million at the box office over the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

The opening success of the film–based on the true-life drama of a South American rugby team that crashes in the Andes Mountains and survives for 10 weeks by resorting to cannibalism–stunned rival studio exex, who questioned who the audience would be, given the film’s grim subject matter.

“Most marketing guys in town would have said the movie would not open,” said Warner Bros. executive VP of advertising Joel Wayne, adding that it wasn’t until three to five days prior to release that tracking studies showed “Alive” had a chance of survival.

In fact, the subject matter of “Alive” blocked it from a major Hollywood production for more than a decade. Based on Piers Paul Read’s 1974 bestseller, pic finally got greenlighted when Touchstone and Paramount shared risk on an unusual co-production between rival studios. (In 1976, a low-budget version titled “Survive!” was made by Alan Carr.)

To interest audiences in seeing the picture, Disney used several different TV spots, varying in intensity. The campaign was targeted toward midteens and young adults. In its preopening, the movie played very strongly to 18-24-year-olds, but Disney sources claim audience age is expanding upward.

Industry sources said the sensationalism of Disney’s campaign has delivered a surprisingly large numbers of teenage girls. A Disney source acknowledged exit surveys showed the film was playing “a little stronger female than male.”

Disney marketing prexy Bob Levin declined all comment on the studio’s marketing of “Alive.”

In shaping its campaign, Disney sold “Alive” as a story of high adventure and triumph of the human spirit. Disney constructed some of its TV ads around the grueling plane crash, which was explicit enough to earn an R rating.

The big question mark was how to deal with the cannibalism. Disney opted to meet it head on but to present it in the same tone as higher-minded aspects of the pic.

In spots aired on such shows as “Hard Copy,””Inside Edition,””Cops” and “Rescue 911,” Disney was bold in keying on the issue. The most explicit spot shows one crash survivor holding a piece of broken glass and saying, “This should be good for the cutting.”

A Disney source said, “We found the younger segment who watches these shows liked the harder-edged, more spicy ads.”

Disney earned kudos for its raw-edged sales pitch.

WB’s Wayne said, “They didn’t pull any punches. And it paid off.”

Disney’s publicity campaign for “Alive” keyed on a seven-city tour by three of the actual survivors — Nando Parrado (played in the film by Ethan Hawke), Roberto Canessa (Josh Hamilton) and Carlitos Paez (Bruce Ramsay) — who added authenticity and helped raise interest in the picture.

Twentieth Century Fox exec VP Tom Sherak “wasn’t surprised” by “Alive’s” strong opening. His wife, a math teacher, told him 10 days ago “that every kid in class wanted to see the movie. That’s when I knew it would do business.”

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