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Blast Off!

Who needs a PR agency when there's Hollywood? Premiere of 'Armageddon' at the Kennedy Space Center is the latest example of NASA getting a boost.

June 27, 1998|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The United States Congress created NASA in 1958 to send men to the moon. Forty years later, the folks at Disney want NASA to help send Americans to the movies--specifically, to "Armageddon," the $100-million asteroid-threatens-Earth saga that is the studio's most expensive film ever. And NASA seems eager to comply.

In what is assuredly one of the most lavish premieres in motion picture history, Disney's Touchstone Pictures is throwing an invitation-only "Armageddon" bash Monday night at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where much of the movie was shot. The 570-person guest list is A-caliber: In addition to most of the movie's stars (including Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler and Steve Buscemi), Kevin Costner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cuba Gooding Jr. have RSVP'd "yes."

And thanks to Liv's dad, rock star Steven Tyler, the movie will not be the evening's only entertainment. That's right--after dining on grilled Atlantic salmon, chocolate-dipped strawberries and Apollo beer, guests will be treated to a live concert by Tyler's band, Aerosmith, followed by a fireworks show. The goal: One large party for "Armageddon," one giant leap for Disney's promotional machine.

"Once or twice a year, it's great to figure out a way to make a little noise," said Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth, who has made a tradition of kicking off Disney's biggest films with this kind of glamorous outdoor extravaganza. "This is the real deal. It's different. It's not like just having 800 people on the back lot."

The average movie premiere, held in Los Angeles on a studio back lot or at an existing theater, costs about $350,000. Disney won't say exactly what this is costing, though Richard Cook, chairman of Disney's Motion Picture Group, insists it is "not even close" to the $5-million range that some at rival studios have speculated. Aerosmith, which has four songs on the movie's soundtrack, is playing for free, Cook said. The TV satellite hookups are already in place for use during space shuttle launches. Of the fewer than 200 guests whose expenses Disney is paying, most are flying commercial airlines (not company jets) and being put up at hotels at DisneyWorld, an hour west.

Whatever the price, however, everyone at Disney agrees that the publicity generated by the expected media throng--80 television crews, 20 print journalists and scores of photographers--will be worth it.

"You pay a fortune to have these things. But Disney wouldn't do it if it weren't cost-effective," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose two previous films--"Con Air" and "The Rock"--had similarly extravagant premieres. (Bruckheimer, whose mother, agent and lawyer will also be attending the party, is one of the few guests who will fly a Disney jet to Florida--such first-class travel is written into his contract.)

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Even after "Armageddon's" biggest star, Bruce Willis, decided earlier this week that he would not attend the premiere because of his impending divorce from actress Demi Moore, Disney publicity chief Terry Curtin sounded confident that the combination of rock and movie stars would draw enormous attention to the movie's July 1 opening. She called the value of such press coverage "incalculable."

"This is clutter-busting," she said of the party's attempt to set the movie apart. "If you're not going to treat your film like an event, who is?"

The surprising answer, in this case, is NASA. Over and above the fancy festivities, what is most striking about the "Armageddon" premiere is how closely Disney and NASA are working together to pull it off.

The biggest thing NASA is providing is access. Armed with special security badges, guests will be delivered by bus to the Banana Creek Viewing Site--the closest the public ever gets to the space center's launch pads--and will enter a state-of-the-art theater Disney has constructed just for the event. They will dine underneath an actual 363-foot Saturn V rocket that is suspended inside NASA's visitor center, and they will hum along to Aerosmith while seated on the very same VIP risers where astronauts' families usually view the space shuttle launches.

NASA has hooked Disney up with the caterer it uses for other events. And in preparation for the party, the space agency has even spent the last six weeks trying to eradicate the mosquitoes that swarm in the hot, muggy wetland area.

"They've gone on this enormous mosquito abatement program just to get ready for us," said Cook, who said exterminators from DisneyWorld are also working on the effort. "Everyone's gone out of their way."

This is by no means the first collaboration between NASA and Hollywood. The feature films "Contact" and "Apollo 13" were both shot partly on location at Kennedy as well as the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Tom Hanks' recent HBO series, "From the Earth to the Moon," shot at the Florida facility, as did the syndicated TV series "The Cape."

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