While millions of moviegoers were in theaters over Memorial Day weekend watching "Pearl Harbor," top studio executives were also keeping their eyes on the 5,000-or-so screens playing Michael Bay's big-bang retelling of the Japanese attack that brought America into World War II.
But the executives weren't interested in the movie. They wanted to know what previews of coming attractions were shown before the playing of the Disney blockbuster. If I were a movie executive, I'd want to know too. In a business where an expensive John Travolta film can flop and a low-budget Julia Stiles drama can make $90 million, the most reliable barometer of success is often a well-received trailer.
"No matter who's sitting in the studio chairman's chair, the first thing they say on Monday morning is, 'What was the No. 1 movie of the weekend and was our trailer [for our next movie] on it?' " explains Oren Aviv, Disney's head of marketing. "If you get your trailer [preview] played early and often, it makes all the difference. When we've had a trailer play for six months in the theaters before a film's release, we've always had a hit movie."
By that logic, Aviv's boss, studio chief Peter Schneider, has to be the happiest man in the business. If there were ever a safe bet in Hollywood, it's that Disney's trailer for its upcoming animated film, "Atlantis," was seen by more people than any other preview this past weekend. That's because the trailer was physically attached to each of the thousands of "Pearl Harbor" prints that played across North America this weekend.
The studio releasing a new film--let's call it the host studio--also gets to place a second trailer for one of its future releases in the film canister that goes out to theaters every time a new feature opens. That's why you can bet that "Crazy/Beautiful," another upcoming Disney release, will probably rank as the second-most played trailer of the weekend--just as when Universal released "The Mummy Returns" earlier this month, its upcoming films, "The Fast and the Furious" and "Jurassic Park 3," were the most consistently played trailers of the week.
The exposure is invaluable. Studios reach both a target audience--people who are there because they see movies--and a captive audience, since no one can change the channel or zap past your commercial, as they do when it's on TV. As MGM marketing chief Gerry Rich says: "It's like a giant free Super Bowl ad. You get to show the best possible version of your movie to a 100% universe of people who've paid money to see a movie."
Since movie exhibitors customarily play only five trailers before each feature, the real drama centers on the horse trading between studios and exhibitors--and often between the studios themselves--in picking the three other trailers in the canister. In the past, the fierce competition for trailer placement has been one of the best-kept secrets in the movie business. But that all changed last week. That's when the news broke that Sony Pictures had quietly made a deal paying four major theater chains to guarantee they would play a trailer for the studio's upcoming Rob Schneider comedy, "The Animal," before showing "The Mummy Returns."
From Sony's point of view, it was a good deal. As the first big hit of the summer, "The Mummy Returns" was a crucial launching pad for any youth-oriented film to come. Sony had already arranged to get a trailer for another Sony movie, "Final Fantasy," inserted into "Mummy" film canisters. But exhibitors balked at showing a second Sony trailer, even though Sony cut a 60-second version of "The Animal" trailer, hoping exhibitors would make room for both. So, offering to pay--studio sources say Sony paid roughly $100,000 in total to the exhibitors--was the only way to ensure blanket play for both trailers.
Jeff Blake, Sony's head of marketing and distribution, said the deal represented a "unique opportunity" to get a key studio trailer played "in front of what was the biggest movie of the summer." It was also welcomed with open arms by cash-starved exhibitors who've been lining up in bankruptcy court for the past year. However the move--a classic example of what Al Gore would call a risky scheme--caused an industry uproar. Sony's rivals made such a stink that exhibitors quickly backed away from pursuing any similar ad buys with other studios. One studio executive offered a hypothetical scenario: What if an exhibitor took money from MGM and guaranteed play for the studio's "Rollerball" trailer in front of "Planet of the Apes," a 20th Century Fox film? Why shouldn't Fox demand a piece of the fee too, since it's Fox's film that's being used as a drawing card?