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Biz goes to summer school

Marketing is beachhead amid sea of fresh trends

The lessons linger longer than the pictures have in summer 2001. Lesson No. 1 for studio execs: Get ready to spend more money marketing pics in summer 2002.

That message trails like a skywriter’s scrawl after a season of dramatic openings followed by equally impressive disappearing acts. Pic profits added up much the same as ever, but more of the domestic moolah came from opening grosses.

“That first Friday night is essentially your shot to make a picture, so it’s inevitable more money will be spent on marketing,” figures Rick Myerson, exec veep of domestic sales at 20th Century Fox, whose “Planet of the Apes” opened at a boffo $68.5 million before plunging 60% in its second frame.

Change in the air?

Studio brass isn’t thrilled about the situation, but they’re trying to deal with it as best they can. Universal vice chairman Marc Shmuger hopes the big bow/big drop trend will scatter with the coming of autumn, minimizing its impact to a few months.

“I think it’s a summer pattern, and you won’t see it for the next several months after this,” says Shmuger, whose studio has debuted four straight pics at No. 1. “But I do think you’re seeing a new paradigm.”

Marketing execs aren’t thrown by the trend, he adds. “You never had a second chance at opening well,” Shmuger notes, “at least not in the recent past.”

Indeed, the days of platformed bows for big-budget pics are long dead. But another indisputable trend has been the broad embrace of super-saturation releasing.

For the first time, nearly all tentpole pics unspooled in 3,000-plus theaters, with double-booking in many venues prompting runs of up to 6,000 prints. The super-sat trend is expected to repeat over Christmas and next summer.

Distribs long have dismissed the importance of adding more theaters to saturation bows of 2,000 or more, saying extra venues tend to be in small markets and help only minimally. Then conventional wisdom crashed, as hundreds of new megaplexes trained auds to expect easy access totickets, and distribs fought for as many screens as possible.

It was considered a coup when distrib topper Nikki Rocco muscled an impressive 3,063 domestic engagements for U’s Aug. 10 bow of “American Pie 2” despite super-sat competish from “Apes,” “Rush Hour 2” and “Jurassic Park III.”

That those four pics all came from established franchises reps another lesson from summer ’01 (and one apt to make cineastes sick): Repackaged goods still sell.

“If you play the law of averages, sequels, pound for pound, do better than new product,” says Tom Borys, prexy of box office tracker ACNielsen EDI. “They’re also easier to sell. They have a built-in audience that generally knows what the picture will be about and is familiar with the characters.”

Marketing boss Peter Adee relied on such familiarity in hyping U’s “Pie 2.” The laffer unspooled amid tighter security barring underage teens from R-rated pics, so U emphasized amiable characters and morphed “Pie” from a teen-males phenom into a sequel for young-adult femmes.

Still, sequels are notorious for fast starts and quick falls. So it’s no coincidence the rapid turnover among box office leaders came in a summer full of repackaged hits.

Sequels also commonly cost more than the original pic they follow. In the case of “American Pie,” higher costs for talent and other outlays on the sequel ballooned the second pic’s production budget to $30 million, compared with $11 million on the original.

Further exacerbating the one-week-wonder trend was a dicey quality among big pics, evidence by the failure of many to stimulate much repeat biz. Films unspooling to mixed creative and commercial reaction included much-anticipated titles “Pearl Harbor” from Disney and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” from Warner Bros.Make better — or at least more interesting — pics next summer, and they’ll play longer, many contend.

Finally, there’s wide agreement that next summer will again see big event pics slotted late in the season. A mind-bending five wide releases are set to bow Aug. 24, the once-throwaway frame a week before Labor Day.”It used to be that August was a total dumping ground,” EDI’s Borys notes. “Now, you’re going to see more and more studios considering, say, the second week of August as a great release date.”

Ready to rumble

Summer 2002 already has Warner Bros./Castle Rock’s “Down and Under” positioned at Aug. 2. Other slottings include DreamWorks toon “Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron” for Memorial Day, Fox’s “Minority Report” for June 28 and Sony’s “Men in Black 2” for Independence Day.

So, let’s see … bigger bows, frantic franchising, longer slotting. Who you gonna call to bust out of the pack next summer?

Marketing execs, of course.

“They are under enormous pressure,” Fox’s Myerson says. “The message they get across is what can make your release that Friday’s event picture.”

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