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Film Hype: What It Will Get You--and What It Won't : Movies: Spending upward of $10 million to open a film is not unusual these days. That can set it up for a fall, but many believe it's a necessary risk.

August 09, 1994|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Movie-making and hype have enjoyed a long and profitable relationship. Showmen such as "Cleopatra" director Cecil B. DeMille and "Around the World in 80 Days" producer Mike Todd staked out the turf long before studio marketing departments counted on national TV campaigns, licensing, merchandising, soundtrack albums and theme-park rides to help get the word out.

Still, the expanded possibilities of such cross-pollination, coupled with the need to promote more expensive movies in an increasingly crowded marketplace, have resulted in an unrivaled publicity barrage. It's not unusual for studios to spend upward of $10 million on advertising, junkets, press kits and premieres just to get a movie opened and through its first week. And, if the film takes off, so do the marketing costs.

In its biggest and first global tie-in, McDonald's converted franchises in 38 countries into "RocDonalds" to publicize Universal's "The Flintstones." Warner Bros. issued a novelization, a book-on-tape, a collection of photographs and a volume documenting the making of the film to herald the release of "Wyatt Earp." Disney's costliest marketing campaign ever has children showing up to see "The Lion King," Simba dolls in hand, while their parents stock up on "Lion King" bath towels, curtains and rugs.

"Every movie that has a chance in hell of catching fire is sold as an 'event,' " says producer Paul Schiff ("My Cousin Vinny"). "It's a dangerous game. But you have to make as much noise as you can in an extremely noisy marketplace."

Still, if "The Lion King" and "The Flintstones" rode their marketing campaigns all the way to the bank, many more have faltered under the weight. Heightened expectations--whether an outgrowth of star power, subject matter or hype--may not have caused movies such as "Wyatt Earp," "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Hoffa" to crash. But they certainly highlighted the disparity between the promise and the reality.

"It's tough enough to make a good movie," observes producer Mark Johnson ("Rain Man," "Toys"). "To make something more than that is well nigh impossible. Let the audience tell you that a movie 'redefines a genre.' If you stuff it down their throats, they go in with a chip on their shoulders. That's what happened to 'Toys.' With a buildup so great, we had farther to fall."

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Marketing mavens point out that changes in film distribution make it risky, though not impossible, to soft-sell a picture. A major movie breaks in 2,000 theaters and, if seats aren't filled, it is quickly moved out. And, with the weekend's Top 10 films publicized in the press, strong box-office grosses feed the hype by generating "wannasee."

"Theatrical releases are the engine pulling the train in the ancillary markets (home video, cable, pay-per-view, etc.)," observes Barry London, president of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group. "So it's even more important to open big. Though it's not unusual for films to open with 90% to 100% awareness, you don't want to create a backlash in which people say 'enough already!' Or so much artificial hype that a movie doesn't live up to the advertising and merchandising created for it."

Many directors and producers, London's colleagues insist, not only welcome the Big Bang approach but regard the lack of one with alarm. Johnson's own "Bugsy" (directed by Barry Levinson) was said to have suffered because TriStar was busy selling "Hook." And critically acclaimed films like "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Who's Eating Gilbert Grape"--with no star power or obvious marketing hook--frequently get shortchanged by the studio.

"Most filmmakers today not only understand the need for massive promotion, but demand it," notes Sid Ganis, vice chairman of Columbia Pictures. "No matter how delicate or sensitive their work, it has to be presented in a way that's forceful--but appropriate. When you strain as a marketeer, you generally know it. And, most often, it doesn't work."

Ganis knows whereof he speaks. Last summer's "Last Action Hero"--an Arnold Schwarzenegger film the studio hailed as "the movie to beat"--became the most blatant instance of overkill in recent memory. Everything about the picture--from the star to the press battles to studio hyperbole--became larger than life.

"It was like waving a red flag," observes a rival marketing executive. "Even if the movie was good--which it wasn't--it was set up for the kill. Putting the title on a space shuttle that never took off became a metaphor for the entire film."

Whether because of the "Last Action Hero" fiasco or not, 20th Century Fox adopted a relatively low-key approach in its handling of Schwarzenegger's follow-up vehicle, the James Cameron action-comedy "True Lies." The studio kicked off its TV campaign with a full day of commercials and invested in billboards, bus shelter posters and newspaper ads. But, when it came to promotional tie-ins, the cupboard was bare.

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