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How 'Sleepless in Seattle' Slew 'em : Movies: TriStar's postponement of the romantic comedy's release is called key in making the film a surprise hit during an action-filled summer.

July 02, 1993|TERRY PRISTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If "Sleepless in Seattle" seems like the sleeper of the summer, that's hardly an accident. It's an image TriStar Pictures worked hard to create, even though for many months the studio has had high expectations for the Nora Ephron-directed romantic comedy.

Those expectations were borne out last weekend when the film took in $17.2 million, the best opening gross ever for that genre.

TriStar's marketing team "somehow managed one of the most amazing sleight-of-hand tricks," Ephron said by telephone from East Hampton, N.Y. "We were perceived as an underdog. The title helped--it was practically 'sleeper.' "

The film has continued to do strong weekday business, even on Wednesday, when it took in $2.3 million while "The Firm" opened to a staggering $7.2 million.

Key in "Sleepless' " strong opening, both Ephron and producer Gary Foster believe, was the decision to postpone the film's release from March 26 to June 25, giving the picture the advantage of "counter-programming" to the traditional summer offerings.

Used for "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," the 1989 hit romantic comedy also written by Ephron, this strategy has become something of an industry convention.

Changing the date also took the picture out of direct competition with "Indecent Proposal," another so-called date movie whose stars, Robert Redford and Demi Moore, might have been a bigger draw than "Sleepless' " Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Ryan plays Annie Reed, a Baltimore newspaper reporter who pursues Seattle widower Sam Baldwin (Hanks) after his son tricks him into baring his soul on a nationally aired radio talk show.

More important, in Ephron's view, a spring release would have diminished the film's long-term potential because theater owners would have had to free their screens for the expected summer blockbusters. "We would be losing our theaters to Stallone and the dinosaurs," the director said.

Waiting until late June posed a risk, however, that the film might get lost in the glut of 60 summer releases. Although no other major romantic comedies are scheduled for this summer, competition was expected from "What's Love Got to Do With It," the Tina Turner biography, as well as "The Firm," based on John Grisham's best-selling novel. Instead, the Walt Disney Co. may have reduced the long-range prospects for "What's Love Got to Do With It" by "going wide"--doubling the number of theaters showing the film--on the same weekend "Sleepless" opened.

But the delay also boosted the film in other ways. It gave national magazines time to respond to the film's strong showing at a January research screening. Cover stories turned up in Premiere, Redbook, Allure and Movieline. Having the film available early also enabled Ed Russell, senior vice president of publicity, to arrange a number of "word-of-mouth" screenings, including a May 16 showing in San Diego at a conference for editors of romance novels and magazines.

The TriStar team, which also worked together on "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," is getting high marks for specifically going after female moviegoers by, for example, heavily advertising the film on daytime programs. "It was very wise to beam a very specific target to a very specific audience," said "Sleepless" executive producer Lynda Obst.

The opening-weekend audience was 60% female and 40% 30 years and older.

They are also being praised for well-designed posters, trailers and television spots, and for the decision to hold sneak previews in 750 theaters the Saturday before the opening in order to heighten the pre-release buzz. The sneak previews drew a very high 80% capacity audience, according to Bill Soady, the studio's distribution president.

The posters and print ads, showing Hanks and Ryan on opposite ends, gazing into space from different time zones, were built around a carefully crafted message, inspired by a line from the movie in which Ryan tells her friend, Becky (Rosie O'Donnell), "What if this man is my destiny and I never meet him?" said TriStar marketing president Buffy Shutt. The ad copy read: "What if someone you never met, someone you never saw, someone you never knew was the only someone for you."

"The ad gives a sense of what the film is about," said independent publicist Harry Clein. "You just want those two people to meet in the middle of the page."

Although the target audience for the movie was primarily female, the trailer and television spots were designed also to appeal to men by featuring Hanks and Rob Reiner, who plays a cameo role as his buddy, Jay, delivering some of the film's best one-liners.

In a summer of hyped would-be and actual blockbusters, the TriStar team, also including Kathy Jones, executive vice president for marketing, also looks smart for not raising expectations, thereby giving the film--which cost a not-insubstantial $27 million--what Ephron calls "That Little-Engine-That-Could" feeling.

But by running a spot during the televised Inaugural Gala last January, TriStar sent "a signal to the rest of this industry that 'Watch out, we believe in this movie and we're not afraid to do anything. We're not afraid to spend money,' " producer Foster said.

Foster and Ephron say they would not be surprised if TriStar's marketing budget is as high as $20 million. Responded Russell: "We spent substantially less than that, although we ran a very competitive campaign, but if our producer and director think that's how much we spent, then we did our job."

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