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Focus on the Eyes

Movies: Several current advertising campaigns feature eyes prominently. Just what kind of message are the studios trying to convey? Or hide?

January 29, 1999|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul. So there must be a lot of soul-searching going on in Hollywood, judging from the--dare we say it--eye-popping abundance of eye imagery in this season's movie posters. A quick scan of a recent issue of Sunday Calendar turned up four such movie ads, each sporting a distinctive, eye-centric design.

"The eye is one of the seminal graphic images throughout history," says Mark Schmuger, president of marketing at Universal Pictures, which found the image so arresting that it used it in two current ad campaigns, one for "Virus," a poorly received new thriller, and "The Mummy," a high-tech remake of the classic thriller that is due May 7.

"If you look back in the annals of cinema, you see eyes everywhere, it's a ubiquitous image. When you're advertising a film, especially one involving fear and drama, there's no more emotive part of the human anatomy."

Of course, for all the eye's potency as an advertising image, it could never match the instant recognizability of a movie star image. But since none of these films have an A-list star in a leading role (the stars who populate "The Thin Red Line" are in supporting parts), the eyes remain front and center.

"If you had Tom Cruise in any of these films, you'd see him, bigger than life, on the poster," one marketing executive says. "It's when you don't have a big star that you use some other image to attract attention."

Here's how the image of the eye was used in four recent movie ads--and the reasoning behind each campaign:

"In Dreams": To market "In Dreams," DreamWorks used a stylized shadow-play image that recalls the theatrical flourish of "The Phantom of the Opera" and the stark lighting of film noir. "It's a very icon-driven image," DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press says. "Since our film is about dreams, the eye seemed especially appropriate, the eye being the window into your dreams and nightmares. Of all the images we looked at, it was the most simple, the one that cut through the clutter. It reminded me of a '60s horror poster, like something from a Roman Polanski movie."

"The Mummy": With "The Mummy" still several months away, Universal wanted to keep audiences in suspense, so it conceived a teaser ad that wouldn't reveal the look of the Mummy character, which is largely computer-generated. "For now, we just wanted to convey the promise of what it might be like to see the Mummy, without giving it all away," Schmuger says. "For us, the eye was the most singular part of the character. It's incredibly powerful. Whenever we're retouching art, the eyes are the most difficult to fix; if the eyes don't look just right, the image doesn't feel real."

"The Thin Red Line": With a large ensemble cast and a complex story line, "The Thin Red Line" presented a marketing challenge: how to capture the spirit of the film in one vivid image. "We always felt that since this wasn't a conventional movie, we wanted an image that would be open to many possible interpretations," 20th Century Fox marketing chief Bob Harper says. "The whole idea was to draw you in and make you look twice, because it's a movie where you want to take a second look to absorb everything it has to offer." The eyes of the soldiers belong to three actors in the film: top, Sean Penn; right, Woody Harrelson; left, Jim Caviezel.

"Virus": Universal didn't want to show the monster in "Virus" either, so it opted for the image of an eye, highlighted by a bolt of lightning. The eye with a lightning flash was first used in the film's TV ad campaign; when the studio got a good response, it adapted the image for its print ad. "It's a way to show the merging of the human and the technological, which is the threat that the virus represents in the movie," Schmuger says.

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