Pic marketers face a grave new world

Fall films tough to hype amid war worries

HOLLYWOOD — It’s the best of times and the worst of times for movie marketers, with holiday releases offering the usual seasonal bounty of star-studded pics to promote — even as dramatic news events preoccupy prospective moviegoers.

Just last weekend, MGM execs lamented the No. 2 bow for Bruce Willis starrer “Bandits,” citing topliner’s canceled TV appearances Friday as evidence of the nation’s current divided attention. Pic should have done much better than its $13.1 million weekend opening, Lion execs said.

In this case, it was an outbreak of anthrax contamination in New York and elsewhere that threw a wrench in distrib’s marketing plans. News about the anthrax outbreak caused TV webs to lurch temporarily again into all-news mode.

But ever since the Sept. 11, Hollywood has struggled with how to market its wares in these suddenly serious times.

Meanwhile, November and December will see the launches of several tentpole pics. Those include Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Ocean’s Eleven”; Disney’s “Monsters, Inc.”; New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”; Paramount’s “Vanilla Sky”; and Sony’s “Ali.”

Junket planning

Marketers must figure out how to book related TV ads, talkshow appearances and press junkets with the knowledge all their work might be canceled or rearranged at the last minute. TV ads are a major concern because they account for nearly 75% of a major’s promo spending.

New Line long ago staked out Dec. 19 for the wide bow of “The Lord of the Rings.” Yet, news events still could preempt commercial TV programming at the 11th hour.

“Basically, you would look around at what is still available,” said marketing prexy Russell Schwartz. “Maybe newspapers become more important, maybe radio.”

“Rings” has completed its junkets for foreign journos. But if events force a cancellation of the pic’s domestic junket on the first weekend of December, New Line has a back-up plan.

“We have a lot of stuff that can be put on CD-ROMs and delivered to the world press that way,” Schwartz noted. “And satellite (interviews with talent) is another option.”

At DreamWorks, marketing boss Terry Press recently shifted TV ads for “The Last Castle” into slots tied to news programming. She also boosted the frequency of latenight spots, when more viewers are watching these days.

Distrib has had a standing order for a “Castle” spot to run during the Emmys telecast. But there’s now zero chance of such a kudocast airing prior to pic’s skedded bow on Friday.

“It’s just such a weird time,” Press said. “Last week, it was like ‘Omigod they’re bombing Afghanistan — they’re canceling the Emmys — there goes our (movie) spot.’ But that’s just a marketer’s train of thought these days, as it’s become more expensive and harder to reach people.”

Sony had skedded its “Riding in Cars With Boys” press junket for Oct. 7. Then the bombs started dropping over Afghanistan.

“About 10 o’clock … when we were about to begin, the attack was announced,” recalled Sony marketing lieutenant Geoff Ammer. “But Drew (Barrymore) worked all day. We all did.”

Sony’s planning to stage an “Ali” junket sometime in late November or early December. In general, however, studios plan to stage fewer promo junkets over the next several months, due to travel woes and sundry talent concerns.

Talent balks

Willis bailed from some European commitments for “Bandits” over safety concerns, hampering pic’s foreign promo in general and Lion rights-partner Hyde Park in particular. (Topliner’s still planning to attend pic’s London preem prior to bow in U.K., where Lion retain “Bandits” rights.)

Previously, topliner-helmer Ben Stiller nixed several appearances for Par’s “Zoolander” including a skedded gig on “Saturday Night Live.”

Meanwhile, the number of opportunities for promo appearances are shrinking. NBC News’ “Today” hasn’t aired any celeb interviews since the military action began in Afghanistan.

“As long as we’re in the middle of this military operation, the appetite for news and information has never been greater in the morning,” said exec producer Jonathan Wald. “When bombs are falling, it’s difficult to hear from stars of any kind.”

Mused “Early Show” exec producer Steve Friedman: “You play it by ear. You don’t want to bump Michael Douglas once you book him, but you have to be appropriate. It does stars no good if they stick out like a sore thumb coming on the show when people are interested in other things.”

Shelley Ross, exec producer of ABC News’ “Good Morning America,” has booked celebs who can offer unique perspectives on recent events, such as singer Carole King, whose father was a fireman.

Thesps’ hesitancy to tubthump their films is a relief to some.

Said one studio wag: “Actors are barely capable of talking for five minutes about anything other than themselves, so do you really want them taking questions about the fighting in Afghanistan when something breaks out during a junket? Who needs it?”

Little room to move

The studios still have some wriggle room for change in the next few months. But unlike Warners, which found success when it delayed the bow of “Training Day” for two weeks to get more time for TV spots, — distribs won’t have the option of simply switching release dates in the fourth quarter.

“At some point, it’s too late to move a date,” shrugged Sony marketing and distrib chief Jeff Blake, who has five pics to market over the next couple of months, including its all-important “Ali” biopic.

Due to the jam-packed schedule, it’s unlikely a distrib would find the necessary screens on such short notice.

On top of everything else, it appears studio suits feel obliged to pay even more than usual heed to political correctness. At Warners, where a whopping seven skedded titles easily rep Hollywood’s biggest slate of major holiday releases, execs declined to discuss current marketing challenges.

It would be “insensitive” to talk publicly about such things as the nation is engaged in “more important” military action, an exec insisted.

It’s unclear how AOL Time Warner shareholders might feel about such a sentiment.

(Paula Bernstein in New York and Claude Brodesser in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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