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Universal Studios not content to park at No. 2

PEPSI, BURGER KING AND AVIS — in advertising lingo, these are known as challenger brands: They lag behind market leaders Coke, McDonald’s and Hertz, but each has made a virtue of being No. 2. For years, the slogan at Avis was “We try harder!”

Such modesty might seem a smart advertising gambit for Universal Studios Hollywood, which has long been Southern California’s second most popular theme park. Universal Hollywood attracted 4.7 million visitors in 2005, a 3.6% drop from the previous year, while attendance at Disneyland jumped 6.5 % to 14.5 million.

But Universal prefers not to see itself as an also-ran, and it’s about to embark on a major ad blitz to prove it. The studio has hired ad agency David and Goliath (a Brentwood boutique known for its edgy campaigns for challenger brands like Kia Motors and LA Gear), and is expected to spend about $10 million over the next few months on TV, radio, outdoor and Internet ads promoting its attractions throughout the region.

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The message, Universal Studios president and chief operating officer Larry Kurzweil told me: “Universal Studios Hollywood is the entertainment capital of Los Angeles.”

THAT MAY BE A TOUGH SELL. The studio is a spectacularly valuable 400-acre wedge of real estate. But it’s also long been a white elephant to its corporate owners.

Assembled piecemeal by Lew Wasserman, who once referred to Universal City as “my Erector set,” the studio is a physically imposing, expensive to maintain relic of 1960s-style urban planning, by which the city’s chief cultural institutions (think Dodger Stadium and the Music Center) were built on isolated hilltops.

After Seagram’s bought the studio in 1995, Edgar Bronfman Jr. set out, with limited success, to overhaul the property. The studio even commissioned a documentary about the lot from Trey Parker and Matt Stone (this was years before “South Park”). It’s a bizarre piece of studio propaganda now available in all its glory on Youtube.com.

There are cameos by Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Misher and Traci Lords, most of them drinking Seagram’s wine coolers and offering suggestions for beautifying the lot. One idea: paint the Black Tower white or plaid. 

In one scene, Spielberg appears dressed as a tram operator as jaded tourists doze through the “Jaws” ride. “If we don’t keep in touch with the times,” a voiceover intones, “Things that once were neat and thrilling can become old and stupid.”

OLD AND STUPID IT’S NOT. But today, Universal Studios remains a curious commercial hybrid: a theme park, studio tour, amphitheater and 1990s-era concrete-and-neon shopping colossus (the CityWalk) all rolled into one. It doesn’t have the cultural cachet of Disneyland, the upscale shopping traffic of the Grove or the singular commercial purpose of a pure-play theme park like Six Flags or Knott’s Berry Farm.

Kurzweil sees all these facets as an asset: “There are incredible choices — dining, shopping, thrill-seeking, family fun — that no other place in southern California can fulfill,” he told me. The goal, he said, is to make Universal Studios as much of a cultural icon to the city of L.A. as Fenway Park is to Boston.

All this brouhaha comes at a pivotal moment for Universal. There’s a new regime in charge whose success will be judged, at least in some small part, on its ability to generate intellectual property for the global G.E. marketing machine.

Like Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood is an interactive promotional environment for the studio. But its success hinges on the movies on which its rides are based.

With U.S. tourism on the rebound, Disneyland is already reaping the benefits of its $7.4 billion marriage to Pixar. There’s a new “Toy Story” ride at Disneyland and a new “Monsters, Inc.” ride at its sister park, California Adventure. If “Cars” is half as successful as “Finding Nemo,” the theme park possibilities are virtually limitless.

Universal Studios Hollywood, with its “Jurassic Park” and “Shrek” attractions, was once a symbol of the studio’s happy, symbiotic relationship with DreamWorks.

Now that that relationship has soured, you can expect the focus to shift to the G.E. empire: There’s a “Fear Factor” ride and a Skull Island set from Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” And, opening soon: a ride based on “Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”

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