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A look inside Hollywood and the movies : 'SIDEKICKS' SAGA : 'Mattress Mack' Markets a Winner

May 09, 1993|ROBERT W. WELKOS

He had the second biggest grossing movie in America last week, but "Mattress Mack" was doing what he always does at his Houston furniture store: moving sofas around.

"I'm setting up displays," he explained. "Moving furniture. You know, sofas and love seats."

Jim McIngvale, better known to Houston TV viewers as "Mattress Mack" in his zany furniture commercials, isn't letting success go to his head.

McIngvale invested $16 million to make a movie called "Sidekicks" with action star Chuck Norris. And the investment seems to be paying off.

"Sidekicks" grossed nearly $3.8 million at the box office last weekend, its first in nationwide release. The film was second only to Paramount Pictures' big-budget "Indecent Proposal" with Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson.

"Coming in second place is gratifying," said McIngvale. "I figured if we got into the Top Five it would be very respectable given our low budget and grass-roots marketing."

How did he do it? While McIngvale was back in his furniture store, his wife Linda was jetting around the country on a flying whistle-stop tour with Norris, hitting the talk-show circuit from Nashville to New York, and making personal appearances at dozens of theaters.

It was press-the-flesh marketing rarely seen in Hollywood anymore.

McIngvale and Vision International Chairman Mark Damon, a small, independent distributor based in Century City, came up with the strategy. They noticed the success Bill Clinton's presidential campaign had last fall with multi-state bus tours so they came up with a similar idea for Norris--only using a plane instead of a bus.

"We rented a LearJet and started off in Washington, D.C.," McIngvale explained. "Chuck interviewed with all the local TV and radio and newspaper people. Then he goes to theaters at night. We advertise what theaters he'll be in and he signed autographs for people who come to watch the film.

"I think in Nashville he signed 1,000 posters and shook 2,000 hands," McIngvale said.

The filmmakers attribute part of the film's success to the fact that Norris--whose prior films have usually been rated R--is in a PG-rated film that children can come watch. The movie is about a boy who is picked on at school and who fantasizes that he is with Chuck Norris, who plays himself.

McIngvale decided to invest in the movie after meeting Norris two years ago in Houston. The star was having difficulty raising money for an anti-drug program he sponsors for children and McIngvale's wife wrote out a check for $50,000. Later, when Norris mentioned that he was having trouble getting a movie off the ground, she wrote out a check for $250,000.

When it was all over, "Mattress Mack" had bankrolled the movie to the tune of $9 million for its production budget and $7 million for prints and advertising.

Instead of taking his project to a major studio to distribute, however, McIngvale decided to go with Vision International, whose prior films include "The Gate II" and "Wild Orchid." "We promised him we'd live and breathe 'Sidekicks,' " said Damon.

The movie was opened successfully in Dallas and Houston, then moved to Los Angeles before opening last weekend in over 1,200 theaters across the country. In addition to Vision International, the film is being released domestically by Triumph Releasing, a low-profile subsidiary of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Now Norris is on a city-per-day schedule, making more TV and radio appearances and signing even more autographs.

"Like furniture, you've got to market your product and get the most for your advertising dollar," McIngvale said.

McIngvale estimates he needs to make $20 million at the box office and have a strong showing at video stores to break even. But it appears that is within reach.

"Mack will end up making a healthy profit on this picture," Damon said. "He courageously took a big gamble and it paid off."

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