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COMPANY TOWN : Majoring in Marketing : Film Studios Find New Ways to Attract College Students

October 06, 1995|SCOTT COLLINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The movie studios keep Teena Touch pretty busy, and she hasn't even graduated from college yet.

As a film critic and editor of the student newspaper at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, Touch sifts through mounds of media packets and screening invitations that arrive on her desk every week. After Christmas break she filled the back seat of her car with promotional mail from studios. She sees 150 to 175 films a year.

"I see far too much," the senior writing major conceded with a laugh. "I'm an addict."

Hollywood increasingly counts on young movie addicts like Touch. With university enrollments near an all-time high, studios this fall are trying new and old approaches to coax college students--long a core movie audience--into theaters.

Recognizing students' affinity for high-technology, studios are plugging films on "home pages" on the Internet. New Line Cinema, for instance, maintained a World Wide Web page for the recent release "Mortal Kombat," although a spokeswoman said students are "talking about [the site] more than using it."

Studios also try to build word-of-mouth by marketing rock or rap soundtracks and hosting free advance screenings in college auditoriums.

"Right now the college market is hot," said Michael Hogan, whose Burbank-based Hogan Communications has pioneered campus screenings as a marketing tool for autos and candy bars as well as movies. "And I don't see any end to it."

According to the Department of Education, about 14.4 million students will enroll in college this fall, near the historic high of 1992. Students tend to be devoted moviegoers; while the 16-20 age group makes up only 8% of the U.S. population, it accounted for 17% of 1993 movie admissions, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

But marketing to college students can prove tricky, as many companies have discovered. Students are highly mobile and lack the discretionary income of their elders. Many students resist the "Generation X" label foisted upon them by journalists and marketers, and their tastes can be difficult to predict.

Touch, for example, balked at seeing "The Brady Bunch Movie," whose marketing campaign she felt pursued the college market too aggressively, yet loved "Babe," a summer sleeper aimed at families with small children.

"It's bothersome to me that [the studios] assume a certain age group will like a certain movie," said Touch, 21. "A lot of college students are beyond that."

Such sentiments haven't stopped the campus juggernauts, though.

For the upcoming futurist thriller "Strange Days," Twentieth Century Fox is planning a multimedia marketing blitz aimed primarily at the college crowd. Besides a Web site and a soundtrack of hard-core and alternative rock, the studio is enclosing a free CD-ROM with music and video clips in 60,000 copies of Rolling Stone magazine. There's even a screen saver program for students' personal computers.

"The goal is to do a [marketing] program so strongly that the word-of-mouth has a multiplier effect," said Jeffrey Godsick, senior vice president of publicity and promotions at Fox.

Studios are also targeting college journalists. Marketers pass out free T-shirts and host screenings at the annual convention sponsored by the nonprofit Associated Collegiate Press, based in Minneapolis. About 500 students turned up for an advance screening of Columbia/TriStar's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" at the 1992 convention. New Line's "Dumb and Dumber" drew well last year.

"It's a real good way for the studios to show something and really get the kids into it," said Tom Keekley, spokesman for the press group.

Hogan Communications organizes free advance screenings for 20 or so movies a year on up to 100 college campuses nationwide. The events are increasingly drawing corporate sponsors--such as Calvin Klein and Nestle Foods--who seize on the opportunity to pass out product samples to a captive audience.

The screenings have proven extremely popular. At the University of Texas at Austin, 100 students stood in line several hours last spring to get free tickets to Disney's "While You Were Sleeping."

But students may resist direct pitches. Hogan also sponsors Preview Theater, a 10-minute reel of movie trailers and 30-second commercial spots. The reels are shown before regular feature films in more than 250 college theaters nationwide.

"Some students feel they're paying $7 for a ticket and it's not right to have to watch commercials," said Hogan, whose firm bills about $3 million annually and employs 10, including several recent college grads. "We expected to meet with some of that resistance."

Before an "Apollo 13" screening at UCLA's Melnitz Auditorium during the summer, a few audience members hissed as a list of corporate sponsors was recited.

A bigger problem for studios, however, lies in determining the entertainment tastes of young people. Sometimes older decision-makers are out of touch with the mood at universities.

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