Pics’ quick B.O. dropoff a concern to marketers

Opening weekends emphasized, debate on value of Internet

LAS VEGAS — On the heels of new data showing a surge in movie marketing costs, a panel of studio marketing chiefs convened at ShoWest on Wednesday to assess the effectiveness of all that spending.

Participating in the wide-ranging “State of Movie Marketing” event, sponsored by Variety, were Peter Adee of Universal, Geoff Ammer of Sony, Bob Levin at MGM and Russell Schwartz of New Line.

“It’s clear from Jack Valenti’s comments that the stakes have never been higher and the marketing of movies is a dynamic business,” said moderator Charlie Koones, Variety‘s publisher and group VP.

It’s also not a completely sensible one, panelists agreed. Prompted by questions from Koones, they decried the emphasis on opening weekends, raised questions about the value of the Internet and urged more cooperation with exhibs.

Schwartz said last summer’s crop of quick-dropping pics revealed several disconcerting trends.

“It’s not about the movies being bad — though they were,” he said. “It’s that more screens are being taken and more people are seeing the movie earlier. Consequently, you have a big dropoff the second weekend. This is something we have perpetuated. The question is, how do we cope with the costs?”

MPAA ratings crucial

In that pressurized environment, ratings from the Motion Picture Assn. of America become more critical, Adee noted. “PG-13 is where you want to be,” he said. “You don’t want to end up making an R-rated movie for an audience that can’t see it.”

Ammer added, “That probably hurt ‘Ali’ because it was R rated and Will Smith has a young following.” Helmer Michael Mann, Ammer said, exerted creative control to retain five scenes with profane dialogue and thereby earn an R.

Levin offered a few moments of levity. When Koones asked about MGM’s postponement of the release of “Rollerball,” which misfired in February, Levin deadpanned, “Well, that was a successful decision.” He also jousted good-naturedly with Schwartz over MGM’s upcoming James Bond pic and New Line’s “Austin Powers” installment, making reference to the two companies’ ongoing legal feud.

Levin grew testy, however, when Koones began a question about the effects of Sept. 11 by saying that a series of war pics have come out of late. MGM’s “Hart’s War” and the upcoming “Windtalkers” are part of that group.

Not all the same

“Why does everybody lump together movies with different casts, different stories and different takes on the material?” he wondered. “We don’t say all comedies are the same, that all dramas are the same. We’re putting it in the public’s mind that these are fungible goods.”

As to Sept. 11, the panel agreed that little has changed in terms of film development, production or marketing in the wake of the attacks. Seeking to leverage the country’s swell of patriotism is treacherous, they added.

Adee and Ammer in particular expressed skepticism about the return on Internet investment, except in isolated cases.

“It’s extremely additive, but it’s not the central part of any campaign,” Adee said. “Our media staff wants more of a commitment, but I’m fighting it. I need some more proof that it works.”

Ammer said the financial imperatives can get overlooked when personalities are involved.

“The hardest part is that every filmmaker wants a million-dollar site but not every movie warrants it,” he said. “At some point you have to make the call that the money is better spent elsewhere.”

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