Disney preps PR blitzkrieg

No gross for stars, filmmakers until film breaks even

Michael Eisner was never comfortable with mega-budget pics like “Armageddon” in 1998, so he was in no mood to greenlight the $180 million pricetag for “Pearl Harbor” — even if it did come with the same producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and director (Michael Bay).

When then studio topper Joe Roth came up with a plan to trim “Harbor” costs to $135 million and the Disney chairman-CEO OK’d the budget, the filmmakers and studio were then faced with two questions: how to make and how to market the film.

Lensing raised issues such as historical accuracy that would never arise with movies such as “The Rock” and “Armageddon” (see separate story).

Then there was the question of how to turn a movie that clocked in at two hours and 50 minutes and lacked the marquee value of a B.O. name like Bruce Willis into a money-maker.

The pic’s final negative cost came to roughly $140 million, and Disney will incur an estimated $70 million in domestic print & advertising costs and $50 million more for overseas P&A.While the studio would not comment on what the pic needs to break even, it will certainly have to hit $300 million worldwide before the studio can even dream of recoupment.

But the key to profitability lies in the creative model Roth conceived. Neither the stars, Bay, nor Bruckheimer are gross players in the pic until it reaches break-even, however the studio chooses to define it.

With the film unspooling on May 25 on 3,000 screens and a publicity campaign that’s already in high gear, the numbers do not look as worrisome as they did a year ago.

“This is an old-fashioned model,” says Roth, who now runs Revolution Studios. “The break-even point for ‘Pearl Harbor’ is lower than movies that cost $100 million and have large gross participants.”

Past break-even point, the studio gives up a combined total of 15%-17% of the pic’s gross to Bay and Bruckheimer, an unspecified percentage point to star Ben Affleck and all deferred salaries to numerous people. (Talent and crew had agreed to deferments to whittle the budget and assure a greenlight.)

But “Pearl” was never designed as just a movie that would make its money back. This would be a film to break records, at home and abroad.

The studio’s marketing approach was designed to be “subtle and respectful to the event of Pearl Harbor and all that surrounded it,” says one exec. (No one at Disney apparently thinks it’s oxymoronic to use the terms “subtle” and “respectful” when talking about a PR blitz for summer.)

Disney has avoided linking with promotional partners such as McDonalds, which would be a promo windfall, but too touchy: Though the studio has a long history of tie-ins with the fast-food outlet, the Mouse House decided that it would be tasteless to link Happy Meals to an event in which thousands of people died.

Feelings about the pic run high.

Some individuals have complained to the Dept. of the Navy about Disney’s premiere in Pearl Harbor, feeling that the site is essentially a graveyard.

Studio execs didn’t want to go on the record about their marketing campaign, but it’s clear that Disney is focusing on posters, TV spots and trailers.

Setting the tone that the studio sought are the posters, imitative of the widespread 1940s bond effort to join the war. Each poster shows a star — Affleck, Cuba Gooding Jr., Kate Beckinsale — in character, in a re-creation of a recruiting poster.

“These posters cut through to what is distinctive about the movie. There hasn’t been anything like it,.” said one exec.

Bruckheimer told Variety: “Our aim is to appeal to the broadest audience. It is an emotional campaign that we are being careful not to overdo.”

The producer said TV spots have targeted women who watch soap operas, men who watch sporting events and young-adults watching MTV.

“Our campaign really starts next week,” said another source. “Our job is to continue to turn up the heat. Our trailer is nearly three minutes long. Normally theater owners don’t like trailers that long, but they are playing it anyway.”

The trailer is emotional and patriotic. Accompanied by composer Hans Zimmer’s sweepingly romantic score, it is like a musicvid, but evocative of the era.

Kids play on broken down airplanes. A windmill turns. Men and women swing dance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt orates. Affleck departs for war, waving to his sweetheart. A Navy officer, played by Gooding, spars in a ring surrounded by fellow officers. And then battle ships blow to smithereens and the American flag sways.

Taken directly from the movie, FDR’s voice resonates under the images.

“How long is America going to pretend that the world is not at war,” he says. “From Berlin, Rome and Tokyo, we have been described as a nation of weaklings and playboys who hire British or Russian or Chinese soldiers to do our fighting for us …”

PMK publicity maven Pat Kingsley says, “The marketing makes me want to go see the movie. It’s patriotic. It looks exciting. They have hooked me into a movie that I wouldn’t naturally want to see.”

The movie takes a gung-ho approach to the historic events, avoiding such revisionist questions as whether FDR was aware of the attack in advance.

While the trailer pushes all the right buttons, the film still faces many challenges. A key target group is teens/young adults, though most of them have little knowledge of the events depicted.

On the other hand, those who do remember that day bring a wealth of preconceptions to any recreation of such a significant moment in U.S. history.

“I was amazed to see they were making another film about Pearl Harbor,” said David Brown, exec story editor at Fox at the time “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was greenlit under Darryl Zanuck in 1969. “We had a hell of time with this one. It was touch-and-go as to whether we would make the movie, it was considered so risky.”

Brown recalls that a P-40 aircraft actually crashed into the flight line, and that was included in the final pic. But he adds that an upside to making the film 30 years as opposed to 60 years after V-Day was that so many people in the audience had experienced the event first-hand.

For this latest “Pearl Harbor,” one might also ask if the international marketplace will embrace the pic. Similarly American-themed movies tend to be a tougher sell — especially those that portray a global conflict from a distinctly American point of view.

But Disney is confident that its movie will travel.

“We’re releasing the film in 90% of our territories around the world within a month after its domestic release,” says one sutdio exec. “That’s practically day-and-date.”

The marketing campaign abroad will not be dramatically different from that used at home, though the pic will emphasize the romance and relationships rather than the actual attack on Pearl Harbor.

The only sneak so far was a March 1 preview at Denver’s 800-seat Continental Theater, which drew a positive reaction.

After the screening, Eisner took Bay aside. “I don’t know what to say,” he reportedly said. “Magnificent!”

Subtext: “And thank God!”

At this point, the only people to have seen a near-final version are Disney toppers. Other studios are nonetheless giving “Pearl Harbor” a wide berth on Memorial Day.Roth jokes that he hopes “Pearl” won’t have such a lengthy run of the marketplace that it hurts the opening of his own pic “America’s Sweethearts,” due in theaters in late July.