Sony double-take

For 'Zorro,' studio turns down the hype

Sony Pictures Entertainment seems well on its way to serving up a tale of two movies this summer with the back-to-back releases of “Godzilla” and “The Mask of Zorro.”

For starters, the movies themselves are as different as can be and qualify as action-romantic-comedies (not necessarily in that order).

While everyone now knows “Godzilla” to be a lumbering f/x exercise, one capable of giving claustrophobia even to Hell’s Kitchen denizens, “Zorro” is blue skies and wide open spaces.

Zorro’s real freshness, however, comes from its generating excitement the old-fashioned way. As executive producer Laurie MacDonald summarizes, “In this time of big special-effects movies, “The Mask of Zorro’ seems strangely … new.”

The same might be said of the marketing strategy. SPE is showing remarkable restraint — even with plans to court the Hispanic market.

Aside from running a few commercials in Spanish (“only where appropriate,” said a Sony source) and inviting a few more Hispanics than usual to the press junket, the studio is treating “Zorro’s” core audience no different than any other.

Why? “Because they already get it,” said the Sony insider, feeling compelled to note that Zorro is “the only real Spanish hero Hollywood has ever created.”

Moreover, as core audiences go, Hispanics belong among the most coveted. A recent poll by Univision Communications Inc., the Spanish-language broadcasting company, reveals this group to be more satisfied than the rest of the country with the economy (68%) and with its personal economic situation (78%).

Yet this audience is woefully underserved, especially compared with Hollywood efforts directed at the dinosaur demo. For “The Mask of Zorro’s” marketers, it must be promising to learn from Univision that “over 90% of Hispanics place importance on … preserving Hispanic heritage and traditions.”

All you have to do is release this movie, Hispanics seem to be saying, and they will come. So far that’s exactly what SPE is doing.

But that’s not to say “Zorro” is will escape a “Godzilla”-like buildup. The Antonio Banderas starrer, produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, already has started assuming thousands of billboards currently devoted to “Godzilla.” (“Story Matters, Too” would seem a natural change in themes when the switch is made from the lizard to the fox, which in Spanish is Zorro.)

Another concern is tie-ins, which, in addition to Sprint, include Ford Mustang and E&J Gallo winery. In fact, the Mustang connection generated the first Hispanic commercial to be tied to a feature film (Daily Variety, April 23, 1998).

Ford liked the spot so much — a testament to Zorro’s cross-over appeal — it ordered up an English version for the National Basketball Assn. playoffs. Taken together, these tie-ins could turn a reasonable amount of hype into overkill.

Exhibit A in this regard is the “Summer Move Spectacular” promotion by Sprint long distance. Whereas, commercials for the promo had been featuring “Godzilla,” they suddenly shifted over the weekend to “The Mask of Zorro.”

Then again, there’s talk that SPE’s marketers, putting lessons from “Godzilla” to work, may move up “Zorro’s” opening without all the fanfare — in hopes that the masked man’s “Z” will also stand for sleeper.