There’s an axiom among movie marketers that there’s nothing wrong with “buying” an opening weekend provided the audience will rally to your side in subsequent weeks.

I was wondering the other day whether anyone let Steve Forbes in on this secret as the Republican primaries reached fever pitch. Forbes, after all, bought a terrific opening weekend in Arizona with massive ad spending, only to see his “box office” dwindle as the action shifted to other markets.

With thousands of movie marketing and distribution types gathered at ShoWest and the American Film Market last week, attendees at both events, a bit bored with showbiz talk, seemed intent on dispensing wisdom to the politicians.

In so doing, they reminded me of the distinct similarities between making a movie and making a president. To wit:

Candidates and moviemakers alike must decide early on what audience to go after. Most marketing people I talked to felt Dole has never quite come to grips with this issue. Indeed, the only candidate who targeted his audience was Pitchfork Pat, but Buchanan’s constituency arguably became so narrow as to eliminate his breakout potential. “Candidates have to acquire the status of a brand name,” says one veteran ad man. “No Republican is even coming close.”

Get a good trailer out there. Movie types I encountered last week simply did not understand why the principal candidates kept shuffling their staffs and changing their ads. Dole’s image changed from Mr. Inclusive to Mr. Pit Bull and back to Mr. Inclusive once again; Lamar Alexander looked like a refugee from “Hee Haw” and Forbes has been all over the map with his “trailers.” Buchanan at least stuck by the same trailer, only to find himself advocating tariff walls in sections of the country that owe their prosperity to foreign trade.

Channel ad spending carefully. It’s fine for Forbes to toss his money at prestigious national shows like “Today” and “Dateline,” but instead of reaching New York voters, he was also paying for “audience leaks” into New Jersey, Connecticut and other surrounding states. Dole, by contrast, conserved money by concentrating on cable TV buys in Republican strongholds on Long Island and in Westchester, as though giving up on anyone outside the reach of the D’Amato machine.

Upgrade your casting. The marketing types at ShoWest and even some from overseas at AFM were aghast at the inability of the Republican party to “cast up” their primaries. The consensus: Dole seemed too doleful, Forbes lacked Reaganesque slickness, Alexander seemed like faux Clinton and Pitchfork Pat looked like he’d be more at home in “The Exorcist.”

One filmster advised: “The Republicans better sign with ICM or CAA.”

Perhaps the underlying dilemma facing the Republican party is epitomized by the results of a readership poll conducted by the right-wing National Review, which published a list last week of the “Hundred Best Conservative Movies.”

In its preamble, the magazine warned that movies started sliding downhill in the 1960s with “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” — films that reflected “Hollywood’s nihilistic themes and chaotic styles.”

Indeed, the readers’ all-time favorites were largely drawn from the 1930s and ’40s, when filmmakers “grew up with convictions like faith, family, thrift, self-restraint and patriotism.”

One of the few favored “modern movies” was “Patton,” since the performance of George C. Scott as the leading man “sweeps away all those liberal theories that the way to fight a war is by controlled escalation.”

Another exception:”Walking Tall” (1973), which depicted Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser’s bat-wielding fight against the local forces of evil.

The readers singled out “Ah Wilderness” (1955) for its glorification of the American family. Also “Four Feathers” (1939) as “perhaps the best movie celebration of imperial heroics.”? Readers also admired “The Beginning of the End” (1947) because it depicted America’s dropping of the atomic bomb as a “heroic act,” in contrast to revisionist thinking. “Prisoner of War” (1954) received many votes, mainly because Ronald Reagan played an intelligence officer who arranged his own capture by North Koreans so he could document the torture of U.S. POWs — a downright presidential maneuver.

The “best tax revolt” movie was “The Adventures of Robin Hood” — naturally the 1938 version, when the anti-government doctrine was more aggressively spelled out.

The movie preferences of readers of the National Review lend insight as to why Republican candidates have difficulty marketing themselves to the electorate. How do you reach people who stopped going to movies in the 1950s? What do you say to voters who want to see movies glorifying colonialism and the dropping of nuclear devices?

What we have here is more than a marketing problem. Remember the old joke about the “leader” who’s desperately trying to figure out which way his followers are headed so he can run and catch up? What does a politician do when society starts moving backwards?

Running backwards is a damnably difficult form of exercise.

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