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When X Equals $ : Spike Lee's New Film Creates an Instant Icon

November 03, 1992|BRUCE HOROVITZ

The film "Malcolm X" wouldn't seem to have much in common with "Batman." But image experts say the "X" that symbolizes the "Malcolm X" movie may already be among the most recognized film logos of all time--rivaling even the eerie black bat that was used to market Gotham City's caped crusader.

Now, Warner Bros. marketing executives--who turned "Batman" into a $250-million box office hit--are trying to make the omnipresent "X" also represent the almighty "$" symbol. The carefully planned marketing and public relations campaign by Warner, the film's distributor, is unlike that for any previous movie from a black filmmaker, industry executives say.

In part, they say, that is because "Malcolm X"--Hollywood's depiction of the life of the slain Black Muslim leader--is expected to be of wide interest to audiences of varied races, ages and income levels.

In fact, because the film, which opens Nov. 18, cost so much to make--$34 million--it basically must be marketed to everyone. But painstakingly so.

Until now, Warner executives have refused to discuss the marketing of the film--a campaign whose price tag is expected to reach nearly $10 million by opening day. But in interviews with The Times, two top marketing executives at Warner revealed how carefully--over the last 18 months--each phase of the marketing strategy was planned.

In a highly unusual, multi-pronged campaign, Warner Bros. is relying heavily upon trailers that portray Malcolm X as a relatively moderate man in order to attract older people and whites to see the film. "If people think that the film 'Malcolm X' stands for anger and fists in the air, it will be harder to market," said Joel Wayne, executive vice president of advertising at Warner.

Warner has also taken pains to separate "Malcolm X" from its previous efforts at marketing a black movie. "New Jack City," a film about the violent rise and fall of a Harlem drug lord, opened in 1991 to violent incidents in a handful of cities nationwide, including Los Angeles' Westwood area.

"The material in 'Malcolm X' is much different from that," said Robert G. Friedman, president of worldwide advertising at Warner. "It is epic in its look and dramatic in its feel. I don't think there is anything inflammatory in the movie."

While trying to make whites comfortable seeing the film, Warner Bros. acknowledges that the success of the film depends greatly on its appeal to blacks. It has also undertaken an extensive public relations campaign to draw a black audience--especially young blacks--to the box office.

"We have set out to position it as a movie for everyone," Friedman said. "We assume the film will first appeal to adults over 25, who have more of a knowledge of who Malcolm was. But we also have to find ways to make the film skew younger."

Perhaps the fastest way to appeal to crossover audiences of white and blacks is to first target teen-age black culture, said John Singleton, director of the film "Boyz N the Hood."

"Young black culture has such a profound effect on America at large. It permeates the media. But you have to do your homework. You have to be careful not to insult your core group," he said.

"Malcolm X" is one of the first black films with "multi-generational appeal," said Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a newsletter about black consumers. "The film studios have minimum experience in this area. Perhaps the best way they can get an edge on the learning curve is to draw on the experience of African-Americans."

That may be why one of the nation's largest black advertising firms, Uniworld Group, was brought in more than a year ago by Warner Bros. to help it figure out how to reach black consumers. The agency chose black-oriented magazines, newspapers, radio stations and TV stations for the film's ads. And it has also pieced together a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign that began nudging the opinion leaders of the black community months ago.

"We know that we need a groundswell of positive word-of-mouth opinions about this film," said Byron E. Lewis, chairman of Uniworld. "So we're trying to touch all the bases in the black community."

Over the last year, the agency has brought director Spike Lee--and cast members from the film--to a series of gatherings of influential professional blacks. They showed up at this summer's annual gathering of the National Assn. of Black Journalists in Detroit, where Lee suggested that African-Americans take the film's opening day off to see the film. He also met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Premiere week screenings for black opinion leaders are scheduled in a half dozen major cities.

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