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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Selling a Stern Image to Reluctant Filmgoers

March 07, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

How do you market a film that stars, and is about, someone who is reviled by a large portion of the moviegoing public?

Nobody doubts that Howard Stern's die-hard radio fans will turn out in droves this weekend for the opening of the shock jock's movie debut, "Private Parts." Some 40,000 of them filled the bleachers outside the Paramount Theater for its premiere in New York a week ago. His devotees have also sent the film's soundtrack album to the top of the charts, just as they did the best-selling book the movie is based on.

Getting people who are offended by Stern's crudeness and outrageous brand of humor to queue up at theaters is another matter. The self-proclaimed "king of all media" is nothing if not controversial. People either get him or they don't. Love him or hate him. Nobody feels indifferent about Howard Stern.

Therefore, executives at Paramount Pictures, the film's distributor, are faced with one heck of a marketing problem in trying to convince those who loathe Stern that they should shell out hard-earned dollars to go see an autobiographical movie about him. Even Stern himself is puzzled about it, and has said so on his radio show.

Robert Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount's Motion Picture Group, says the film's tracking--the polling done before a movie opens--with fans has been "off the charts," but he acknowledges that among Stern's non-fans there is "a high incidence of 'definitely don't want to see.' "

Paramount's job, says Friedman, "is to try to convert them."

How to do that?

"The big key is the movie," notes the executive, which depicts the private Stern as a loving, devoted husband and family man, and the public Stern as an acerbic social satirist who has the ability to offend every kind of man, woman, child or beast roaming the planet.

"You see beyond the act and you like him," suggests Friedman, explaining that in the studio's efforts to sell audiences on the movie, "we're taking advantage of the positive critical response we've received and using it in our ads."

The movie received two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert and positive reviews in a number of magazines, including Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, People and Us.

Paramount has also been "screening the hell out of this movie," says Friedman, in hopes of generating strong word-of-mouth. In the last month, he said, there've been four and five showings in 65 cities around the country. In addition, it actually opened in some theaters (on 671 screens) Thursday night, before its official opening today on 2,600 screens. Studios only screen a movie that aggressively when they believe audiences will love it and tell others to see it.

Paramount's hope is that non-fans "can put aside their biases and go see the movie," adds Friedman. "Private Parts" was directed by Betty Thomas and produced by Ivan Reitman and took four years to make because of continual script revisions.

Stern and the studio, which receives a sizable fee to market and distribute the picture, aren't the only ones hoping the movie is a hit.

Rysher Entertainment, which entirely financed the $26-million comedy, is sorely in need of a hit. The film and television company, owned by Cox Enterprises, has had a rough time entering the high-risk motion picture arena over the last two years, financing a string of duds including "Evening Star," "Turbulence" and "Three Wishes."

It's difficult to forecast how Stern's popularity will translate into box-office dollars, because there's no way to know just how big his fan base really is. "It could be 1 million or 10 million," says a top Paramount executive. "We just don't know."

Stern's radio show is broadcast in 38 markets, out of hundreds, across the country, and a video version of his program appears on cable TV. But his high exposure (so to speak) in the media has ensured that even non-listeners know who he is.

Beyond his fans, how many people will show up?

The film's tracking with mainstream moviegoers has been relatively soft. Based on the latest tracking by the National Research Group (the firm most of Hollywood relies on to predict opening box-office figures), the film is estimated to take in from $8 million to $10 million its first weekend.

However, many industry insiders who have seen the movie think it will do much better--perhaps more than $20 million.

In a town where competitors routinely root for one another's failure, it is unusual that Paramount's rivals are buzzing--in a positive sense--about "Private Parts."

It's also true, as Stern has been telling his radio listeners for weeks now, that "Private Parts" is Paramount's third-highest-testing movie ever, behind "Forrest Gump" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

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