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TO SELL A 'Thief' : 'Robin Hood' and the uncertain science of hype

June 09, 1991|JOE LEYDON | Joe Leydon is the film critic of the Houston Post

NEW ORLEANS — Just a few days before a lavish multimedia press junket for "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," one of the film's stars, Alan Rickman, wasn't altogether certain that all the hoopla was really necessary.

Not that Rickman, who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, has some sort of aversion to on-the-road hyping for his pictures. Indeed, at the moment he voiced his ambivalence, he was sitting in a Seattle hotel room, ready to present a film-festival premiere of "Truly, Madly, Deeply."

"But maybe ('Robin Hood') is going to sell itself," Rickman conjectured, "with no help from anybody.

"I guess everybody will be going there to have a nice time in New Orleans," where the junket had been set to accommodate Kevin Costner's shooting schedule on Oliver Stone's "JFK." "And I'll be there, happily . . . if I could just be out on the street, listening to some jazz. That would be fine. Maybe we should all just forget the movie, and go eat and drink and have a good time.

"Oh, God!" Rickman exclaimed in mock terror, considering the subversiveness of his suggestion. "Warners will kill me!"

Well, no, nothing that extreme. But Robert G. Friedman, president of worldwide advertising and publicity for Warners, certainly would suggest that, at the very least, Rickman was misinformed.

Friedman is a man who can look you right in the eye, and maintain a perfectly straight face, when he tells you that "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," perhaps the most eagerly anticipated and certainly the most aggressively marketed film of Summer '91, "is a movie that's far from being pre-sold." He speaks with the voice of conviction, and the knowledge gleaned from dozens of audience tracking surveys.

And he laughs, but does not smile, when he remembers what one of the earliest studio-commissioned surveys indicated.

"The earliest perceptions of a Robin Hood movie," Friedman said, "were, why? Who cares? Why do we need a Robin Hood movie?"

This was just what Friedman did not want to hear during the late summer of 1990, just when Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek Productions were marshaling their forces for a Sept. 4 start on their $50-million summer 1991 blockbuster-to-be.

"You've got to understand--we found that the knowledge of Robin Hood is very, very limited to, basically, older males (age 25 and up). And while there was knowledge with older females, there was no interest. And young people had no interest whatsoever . . . in the early days of our market researching, and our strategizing on how we wanted to deal with this property, and what were our problems and opportunities.

"Now, obviously, when you go into opportunities, you have Kevin Costner. And you have the story itself, which was a unique telling of the Robin Hood myth. On the down side, well, there was only one (group) interested in the Robin Hood myth, the older males. And to a lesser degree, an interest from older females--only because of Kevin Costner, because that's Kevin's primary audience.

"So our agenda was, really, to take what obviously could be a nice, solid movie if you had older males who were interested, and older females who would not be resistant, because of the star . . . and, in order to get a big movie, deal with what we call the other quadrants. You had to deal with the younger segments of the audience: the younger males, and the younger females. And, by the way, turn the older female sort of passive interest into active interest. And all the while retaining your primary target, which is your older males."

Movie junkets are curious events in which dozens of print and electronic journalists are turned loose on movie stars and moviemakers for brief, sometimes heatedly intense periods in lavish settings. The vast majority of junkets are held in New York and Los Angeles, and the journalists (most, but by no means all, paying their own way) fly in from all parts of the United States and Canada. (The larger junkets for the more high-profile films--films like "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," for example--also invite U.S.-based members of the international press.) The usual routine calls for print scribes to see the film on a Friday night, then do "round robin" interviews--group interviews, where small clusters of reporters take turns with each notable connected with the film--the following Saturday morning. Electronic journalists see the movie Saturday night; the next day, each TV interviewer gets five to seven minutes with each notable. Sometimes, though, because of the sheer number of TV interviewers, the movie is screened early, just so the TV interviews can begin Saturday afternoon, after the print round-robins.

In other words, if more than 50 TV interviewers show up for a "Robin Hood"-- well, Alan Rickman might not be the only notable who'll start wishing he or she were out on the street, listening to jazz.

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