Prestige pix jostle for auds' attention amid hordees of horror

To Oscar-minded studio marketeers and ad folk, “Mystic River” is the real scary movie this Halloween.

Clint Eastwood’s gritty crime thriller has cachet, a sterling cast, rave reviews. There’s not a single special f/x shot. It was supposed to be the antidote to the summer avalanche of sequels and mindless crowd-pleasers.

It will be lucky to eke out $50 million in American theaters.

That’s ominous news for marketers peddling other Oscar-worthy, high-minded, character-driven films to adults. Studios haven’t stopped greenlighting such pics.

But lately, they’ve been clobbered by escapist, teen-style tentpoles like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Freddy Vs. Jason” and “Scary Movie.”

Therein lies a widening audience problem that could play havoc with this year’s jam-packed year-end release calendar.

While TV net execs are grumbling that young viewers are abandoning primetime in record numbers, studios are confronting the opposite problem this fall: Adults are staying home.

Despite widespread media interest, favorable reviews and word of mouth, “Lost In Translation,” “Runaway Journey” and “Mystic River” are fighting for breathing room in a dense thicket of genre titles.

“For the more commercial audience, it’s all about the rush of the first week and seeing the newest and latest thing,” says Focus Features head of worldwide marketing David Brooks.

Prestigious films may not have huge opening weekends, he says, “but a sophisticated audience catches up with them over time and they have a long burn.”

That could prove worrisome, however, for Oscar contenders like “Cold Mountain,” “Big Fish,” “Master and Commander” and “The Last Samurai.”

Such upmarket films are a hallmark of studio release slates each fall. They have a clear upside: They attract other filmmakers to work there, and they allow the studios to dabble in the awards race at a time when more Oscars are going to specialty films. But they’re often a tough sell.

And they’re sure to get bruised by the colossal release campaigns of titles like “Matrix: Revolutions,” “Cat in the Hat,” and “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.”

Warners is planning to synchronize the international “Matrix” release, opening on more than 20,000 screens in dozens of countries the weekend of Nov. 7.

The marketing blitz for prestigious holiday titles is just now being unleashed. New trailers are arriving in theaters; outdoor campaigns are being splashed across billboards and bus stops, and TV spots are beginning to infiltrate primetime.

Marketing execs point out that early fall is invariably a slow time for prestigious releases; year after year, adults return to the multiplex in big numbers over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The trick is to event-ize these films, much as summer films are eventized in the months before opening weekend, with the right marketing and release campaign.

But pitching the elusive, adult audience has arguably never been harder, and many marketers complain that the demographic conventions used to construct their campaigns is out of date with the changing times.

Since the advent of Hollywood market research, marketers have divided their audience into four quadrants: males and females over and under 25. Studios execs have long said that their holy grail is a four-quadrant hit like “Spider-Man,” “Chicago” or “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

But those quadrants are splintering in the face of new demographic and socio-economic trends, and marketers say they are now relying less on demographics than on psychographics, which reflect tastes, social class and cultural preferences.

Exit polls on “Seabiscuit” showed the core audience was significantly older than 25. And one year earlier, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” found a huge, loyal audience among moviegoers more than 40 years old.

Last week Business Week ran a front-page story, “Unmarried America,” on U.S. Census figures showing the new demographics of non-traditional families. Married households, it reported, have slipped from 80% to 50% today.

“You used to buy for four quandrants,” says one studio marketing exec. “Now the onion is peeled back so many different ways.”

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