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'Stargate': The Creative Selling of a Surprise Hit : Marketing: How to attract moviegoers without star power or name recognition? Hint--sci-fi fans have computers.

November 02, 1994|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By last Saturday morning, "Stargate" was the talk of the Internet. Sci-fi fans were digitally discussing the heretofore unheralded film almost as if it was the latest installment in the "Star Trek" series. And that was just the way MGM/UA had planned it, according to studio marketing chief Gerry Rich.

Timing is everything. And MGM/UA has the numbers to prove it. "Stargate," which the company acquired in February after production was completed, shocked the industry when it debuted to a stratospheric $16.7 million its first weekend--the biggest fall opening ever and the long-troubled studio's best showing in almost 10 years.

It is certainly the best box-office news to come out of MGM/UA since the studio was revitalized under former Paramount Pictures Chairman Frank Mancuso, who came aboard in July, 1993. Since that time, the studio has released about half a dozen titles, and its first produced movie under the new regime, "Speechless," starring Michael Keaton and Geena Davis, will hit theaters in mid-December.

Even MGM/UA executives were surprised at "Stargate's" impressive bow. They hadn't dared to hope for more than a $10-million to $12-million opening, especially because weekends close to Halloween are usually packed with costume parties and other seasonal distractions that traditionally lead to a lackluster box office.

With Kurt Russell and James Spader starring in the futuristic, special-effects-laden movie, "Stargate" was regarded in the industry largely as a footnote on the fall release schedule. It lacked not only box-office names, but also a pedigree, such as comic book, novel, TV or sequel recognition. So the $60-million French-financed production had been waging an uphill battle for awareness.

Rich decided to turn proactive by going interactive. Besides a promotional tie-in with the computer service CompuServe, the marketing chief made the "Stargate" trailer available on-line, a strategy already in use in the recording industry, but less so in film marketing.

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"It's a captive audience of 20 million home computer owners," Rich said. Many of those users are teen-age males, a primary target for the PG-13 movie, who are usually hard to reach because their TV viewing habits are erratic, he pointed out.

And Rich didn't stop there. To build word of mouth, there were 200 screenings for college students and radio promotions. While most studios produce five or six TV ads, "Stargate" had 15--all aimed at different demographic groups. The diverse spots emphasized the film's various elements: science-fiction, adventure, romance.

Oct. 28 was chosen as the launch date, said MGM/UA distribution head Larry Gleason, because it was the only fall weekend with no other big releases. Since fall of an election year is the most expensive time of year to buy advertising, the studio wanted to be certain that every dollar spent had impact.

"Stargate" is a crucial first step for MGM/UA to move out of the box-office cellar. The film's executive producer, Carolco Pictures' principal Mario Kassar, showed about 20 minutes of footage to studios last February in trying to secure a distributor.

"To his credit, Frank Mancuso grabbed it," said Kassar, who helped the film's financiers, Studio Canal Plus, orchestrate a country-by-country advance sale on the movie.

"We needed a film for fall," Gleason said, "to fill in until the new regime's first (produced) movie 'Speechless' opens at Christmas."

MGM/UA owns only domestic theatrical and cable/television rights for "Stargate," an investment that, according to one well-placed source, is in the range of $25 million to $30 million, including its print and advertising commitment.

Since Live Entertainment bought the U.S. video rights, MGM/UA had no fall-back position if the film didn't work in theaters. "We wanted to separate the rights," Kassar explained, to ensure top dollar. For MGM/UA, it could turn out to be money well-spent, giving the studio a viable presence with theater owners for the first time in years.

"Based on the opening weekend results," Gleason said, "we could end up doing $60 million or more." The ultimate outcome will depend on how "Stargate" fares under the heated competition from two ballyhooed holiday releases: "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" this weekend and "Interview With the Vampire" on Nov. 11. Since those releases are R-rated, Gleason hopes to hold with $10 million to $12 million in the second weekend. And exit polls tell him that "Stargate" has done well with a wide demographic--and there was already evidence of repeat business during the opening weekend.

"We'll keep checking in every Saturday morning," said Kassar, who is thrilled about the opening weekend results since domestic box office can only have a positive impact on "Stargate's" overseas openings starting in December.

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