Col's Spidey avoids traps, makes right moves

In a business where you truly can be flying high in April and shot down in May, a film that makes $63 million-a-week worldwide for three months (and counting) probably hasn’t made any wrong marketing and licensing moves. And so it is with Columbia Pics’ “Spider-Man.”

Yes, “Men in Black II,” “Mr. Deeds” and “Stuart Little 2″ have been chugging along nicely this summer. And “XXX” with Vin Diesel is almost guaranteed to blast to $100 million in box office within the first 10 days of its release. But when the dust has cleared at the end of the summer (and DVD and other ancillary revenues start to flow in later this year), it’s Spidey that will be deemed to have made all the right moves.

“They were firing on all cylinders on this one,” says David Davis, senior veep of entertainment at investment banking firm Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin. “From the teaser trailer during the Super Bowl (in January) to the maintenance campaign after the opening, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything they could’ve done differently.”

And, say industry observers, there was a lot of pressure on Sony to launch their first comicbook franchise on the right foot. The studio needed a big hit, longtime fans were wary of Hollywood mangling the spirit and tone of Spidey’s world and the economics of tentpole pics meant anything less than a huge opening weekend would be a disaster.

But from casting actors in the lead roles for their talent (and not necessarily their opening power) and the concomitant emphasis in film trailers, and TV and print ads on the character of “Spider-Man” and the central story, Columbia avoided the traps that have befallen other superhero series.

“You can’t really pinpoint what made (‘Spider-Man’) take off the way it did,” says Mitch Litvak, president of the L.A. Office, an entertainment promotion company. “But the buzz started two years ago and it never stopped.”

With the promise of Internet-based marketing of films and other entertainment properties a distant and somewhat laughable memory, it’s still movie trailers and the TV ads they beget that drive the marketing of movies worldwide.

“No question about it,” says Craig Murray, president of Craig Murray Productions, a Los Angeles-based trailer production house. “Few selling environments are as powerful as a cinema full of people who, by their very presence there, are movie fans.”

Captive audience or not, marketing “Spider-Man,” as with any blockbuster was not inexpensive. According to the experts, prints and advertising for the domestic release totaled $60 million to $70 million. Add in international expenses and the tab for the film’s worldwide P&A alone may have topped $110 million. And movie marketing isn’t an exact science.

“There’s always a bit of luck involved,” says Paul Dergarabedian, prexy of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking company. “You can have the best creative teams in place and still, at the end of the day, no one can predict how things are going to turn out.”

As a general rule, studios produce two trailers for their properties — a short, teaser that plays in multiplexes up to a year before the film’s release date and a full-length one that un-spools a few months before opening weekend.

The 30-second “Spider-Man” teaser opens with a quick montage of New York City skyline late-afternoon beauty-shots and ends with a short sequence of Spider-Man swinging through Gotham’s canyons of steel.

“From a pop psychology perspective, it’s brilliant,” says Harry Knowles of Aint-it-cool-news.com. “In the post 9/11 world we’ve been conditioned to think fondly of New York. And here’s a half-minute piece of film, replete with the main character’s elation at being there, that celebrates the city. It’s New York the way we dream of it. Not the way we saw it last year.”

According to a recent article on film marketing in the New York Times, ad execs are especially happy when movie trailers and ad campaigns hit all four quadrants of the marketing pie-chart — older men, younger men, older women and younger women. In its nearly 2½-minute running time, the trailer tells the backstory (for aud members who aren’t comicbook geeks), introduces the main characters, the central struggle of the story and the love story, the charismatic leads.

“They hit all the targets,” Murray says. “And it doesn’t hurt that there was a sense of fun to the whole package.”

In fact, adds Litvak, contrary to the majority of trailers that tend to show too much: “This one was so polished and so much more of an actual tease, that it made audiences hunger for more information.”

And a place in the ticket line. More than anything else, the marketing plan represented by the trailers and TV ads didn’t cheat.

“Quite a few trailers give the impression there’s more of one ingredient in a film than there really is,” Murray continues. For example, a love story may be promised or hinted at (to attract the fem aud), only to turn out to be a minor part of the film. And that can hurt repeat business, the mother’s milk of blockbuster numbers.

Though it remains to be seen what’ll happen with respect to licensing agreements now that “Spider-Man” has become such a huge hit, for the first go-round, industry observers say Columbia execs played their cards perfectly.

“In the past, companies have had unrealistic expectations,” says Ira Mayer, whose Gotham-based EPM Communications publishes newsletters such as the Licensing Letter and Entertainment and Marketing Letter. ThatWhich, in part, led to the fiasco of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

The 1999 film had tie-ins with seemingly every imaginable fast food, toy and clothing vendor in the country. The parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, for example, famously saw sales fall during its “Phantom Menace” summer promotion period.

And retailers such as Toys R Us were left holding bags of “Phantom” product that had to be deeply discounted to sell. While younger auds have been shown to respond more favorably to tie-ins and product placement than older demos, even they can be alienated by too much, too soon clumsily executed. For its part, Spidey’s licensing deals with the likes of Cadbury Schweppes, the Hershey Foods Corp.

Cingular Wireless and Reebok Intl. have generated re-orders for product, the first time that has happened in some time, Mayer reports.

“If you looked hard enough, maybe you could find something they might have done differently,” Mayer adds. “But why argue with success?”

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