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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Hits and Ms.'s: Duo Has Universal Marketing Touch

August 06, 1996|CLAUDIA ELLER

Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones are hardly household names to the common moviegoer.

But as Hollywood knows, over the last two decades the marketing duo has sold audiences many of the movie industry's biggest hits, including "Top Gun," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Look Who's Talking," "Philadelphia," "Apollo 13" and "Babe."

The co-marketing heads of MCA's Universal Pictures--who have been in a rare position of working as a team and being among the highest-ranking women executives in the business--say the key to their success and longevity in a tough industry is keeping their sense of humor about themselves and what they do.

In a high-stakes world of skyrocketing marketing costs and increasing pressure on studio executives to figure out how to sell their movies to the public in a crowded field, that's not always easy.

But Shutt and Jones like to think of themselves as TV's Lucy and Ethel.

"We have fun and we do a lot of scheming," Shutt said. "You've got to scheme to figure out how you're going to get these movies open. We're always in some dilemma. . . . 'Ohhhh, Lucy! Ricky'll kill us!' "

Ricky, Shutt said, could be a boss, a filmmaker or a journalist--all of whom marketing executives have to grapple with and often placate during the course of business.

Not that they're complaining.

"We sell movies, that's a pretty great thing. We're pretty lucky. It's not like we're selling bombs," added Shutt as she burst into laughter at the double meaning.

As they see it, their primary job as marketers is to create the visual and verbal vocabulary to introduce a movie to the public. That's accomplished through movie trailers, TV spots, posters, radio and newspaper tie-ins and other promotional gimmicks used to get audiences to buy tickets.

But also essential to their jobs is holding the hands of stars, directors and producers--who for sure are always hyper about how well their movies will do--not to mention their anxious studio bosses who are under pressure to deliver hits.

"In our business--where you're working with artists--emotions and feelings are the core of what make people act and respond in a certain way," Shutt said. What's important, added Jones, is to "recognize that what these filmmakers are putting together has a life of its own and they are allowing us into the process and basically handing us their baby."

Shutt, a perky and pixieish 45-year-old, and Jones, 46, the more retiring and admittedly less quick-tempered of the two, may be a contrast in looks and style, but the partners say they never fight, rarely disagree and always try not to take things too seriously.

In a recent interview at the Universal office they share, Jones said, "We laugh at ourselves a lot . . . and we both have mediating personalities." Shutt concurred: "We want to make the peace, not take people on."

This doesn't mean the two aren't opinionated or afraid to say what they think.

"We've always worked for people who had opinions and demanded you give them one," said Jones, recounting how in their first job together at Paramount Pictures, sitting in a room with such "big personalities" as Barry Diller, Frank Mancuso, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Simpson, "you'd better know what your point of view was. . . . You had to hold your own even if they disagreed with you."

Said Michael Rosenberg, executive vice president of Imagine Films ("Apollo 13," "The Nutty Professor"): "These are two people you can always count on for a point of view, which is really important because you're always insecure about how people are going to get a handle on your movie and know how to market it in this competitive environment."

Considered even among their competitors to be the best in the business, Shutt and Jones said that while they often get credit for the successes, they're the first to get blamed when pictures bomb.

In presenting the duo with a recent industry award, Diller teasingly reminded audience members that the two have worked on their share of flops, including "Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood"; "Popeye"; and "Hudson Hawk."

Said Diller: "If you can survive that, you have more talent than you know."

Diller was chairman of Paramount in the '70s when Shutt and Jones first met. Shutt joined the studio in 1974 as a secretary in the publicity department, and Jones came aboard in 1977 as a senior publicist in the field marketing area after working at an advertising agency in Dallas.

The two rose through the ranks, and Shutt became the first woman ever to become a studio marketing president. Throughout their careers, which included running their own New York marketing firm and co-heading marketing for Columbia and TriStar Pictures, Shutt and Jones have worked on hundreds of campaigns.

"I think what good marketing is supposed to do is take a salable movie, something that has an appealing, attractive concept, and maximize it," Shutt said.

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