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Is It a Health Hazard--or Just Good Marketing?

March 30, 1997|Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Exhibitors showing Universal's "The Lost World" trailer, with its specially rigged strobe lights synced to surround sound, received instructions on studio stationery requesting that they, for legal reasons, post the following notice:

"This theater is showing a trailer for one of the most anticipated movies of 1997.

"This Trailer Is Intense.

"If you are sensitive to strong flashing light or sound effects or if you are attending this theater with children who may be sensitive to these effects, we strongly recommend that you leave the auditorium when this trailer is being shown.

"Thank you--The Management and Universal Pictures"

Legitimate concern for patron safety (intense flashing light has been known to trigger epileptic seizures) or a bit of old-fashioned midway ballyhoo? A studio exercising the same caution it exercises with its theme-park rides or a P.T. Barnum-type ruse to get people talking about the sequel to "Jurassic Park"? Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Crichton's "The Lost World" is being readied for a Memorial Day release. (The trailer is being replaced this week with a more traditional one showing dinosaurs.)

As any armchair psychologist will tell you, the fastest way to get someone to do something is to tell him it's bad for his health. Which is why the 70-second spot, playing in theaters throughout the United States and Toronto, including Cineplex Odeon's Universal City complex, has been dismissed in some quarters as "crass showmanship" and "a cheap box-office ploy."

Universal and exhibitors insist the posted warnings--repeated verbally before the show--are a simple precaution and "legal protection." The six rear-mounted strobes, triggered by encoded CD-ROM discs, is the handiwork of Digital Theater Systems, which, understandably, is staying neutral in the debate. The ultra-realistic thunder and lightning, which will not be utilized by the completed feature, set studio and exhibitors back $14,000 per site.

"When there's something unusual, you want to warn people," says Nancy Klasky of Century Theatres in San Francisco. "This was not done as a Smell-O-Vision thing [a la 1960's "Scent of Mystery"]."

"The warning is along the same lines as those used at our tour attractions," explains Alan Sutton, vice president of publicity for Universal. "You know, those notices for people who can't handle jarring movements or who are pregnant."

Veteran practitioners of promotional gimmicks say that Universal's warning is but the '90s spin on William Castle's insurance policy against "death by fright" and American International Pictures' ambulances and nurses, standing by to minister to "the faint of heart." But with upward of $100 million now riding on Hollywood's B-pictures, who's going to own up to such influences?

"They don't want to be compared to the Castles and the Arkoffs; they want to set themselves up as pseudo-intellectuals," grouses Sam Arkoff, co-founder of AIP, which churned out such low-budget hits as "I Was a Teenage Werewolf." "It [the "Lost World" campaign] is on a bigger, more expensive scale, but no matter what they say, it's still carnival time. What is it to do if not to sell tickets?"

"It's a cheap ploy to get them in," agrees Andre de Toth, 84, best known for "House of Wax," starring Vincent Price and released in 3-D. "It's all been done; it goes back to the beginning of motion pictures."

Universal's Sutton shrugs off all talk of ulterior motives. "Reverse psychology?" he says. "Geez, it's only a trailer. There was no intent to do any sort of William Castle stuff."

Art Murphy, industry analyst for the Hollywood Reporter, gives Universal the benefit of the doubt, dubbing the trailer "cyber-hype"--half promotion, half public service announcement. It was Universal that patented the wall-shaking Sensurround (for "Earthquake") in the mid-'70s, Murphy says.

DTS President Bill Neighbors chooses not to speculate on Universal's motives. It's enough, he says, that the spots proved "a very successful marketing tool." He adds: "I don't believe [reverse psychology] was their intent, but if it worked that way, I'm sure no one minded."

Intense movie effects are hardly new. "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Cruising" and "Alien" all made heavy use of flashing strobes.

"Where were these people when they released the movie 'Alien'?" asks Frederick C. Clarke, editor-publisher of Cinefantastique magazine. "If [at-risk patrons] didn't go into epileptic seizures during that one, they never will. That had more flashing strobe lights than anything I can remember."

Clarke lumps Universal's warning with recent disclosures on concession snacks: "This is PC run wild. First, they took the butter out of popcorn. What next?!"

The question remains: Does the indisputably intense "Lost World" teaser pose a risk to anyone with epilepsy or a heart condition?

Dr. Martha Morrell, director of the Stanford Epilepsy Center, assesses the risk from brief strobe flashes as "minimal to insignificant--light- or photo-sensitive epilepsy, which exists in 1% of epileptics, is triggered by repeated flashes at a certain frequency--10 to 50 flashes per second.

"It sounds like [the studio] is exaggerating the risk, like producers did with heart attacks in the old horror movies."

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