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Marketing of a Star After Death

Film and record executives face a delicate task of promoting works by Aaliyah.

September 24, 2001|ROBERT W. WELKOS and JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Her name was one of those buzzing in the Hollywood pipeline: Aaliyah.

It was the same pipeline that knew--just knew--that a sexy, young actor with a boyish grin named Brad Pitt was destined to become a movie star long before he appeared in "Legends of the Fall."

The same pipeline that predicted stardom for a fleshy-lipped seductress named Angelina Jolie after she appeared in the HBO movie "Gia."

The same pipeline that today predicts a golden future for a Dublin lad named Colin Farrell, who wowed critics with his performance as an American soldier preparing for duty in Vietnam in "Tigerland."

But Aaliyah's story didn't fulfill any of the predictions. It dissolved amid swampy brush on Aug. 25, when a chartered, twin-engine Cessna 402 crashed on takeoff from Abaco Island in the Bahamas, killing the 22-year-old Grammy-nominated singing sensation and eight others.

While the film and music industries continue to mourn her loss and ponder how big her dual-track career might have become had fate not been so cruel, the reality for Hollywood is that the show must go on.

The question faced by film and record executives when a marquee star dies unexpectedly is, how? A star's death naturally places their work smack in the middle of public view, potentially attracting a bigger audience at that moment than at any time while he or she was living. There is always a temptation to release new movies or records to capitalize on that publicity, but if studios and record labels do this, they risk alienating the public and even their credibility with artists.

In film, Warner Bros. faces two significant hurdles. This fall the studio must wrestle with how it plans to market "Queen of the Damned," a youth-oriented, rock-driven horror film that features Aaliyah in the title role. Based on the Anne Rice novel of the same name, the $15-million to $20-million picture directed by Michael Rymer features Stuart Townsend as the vampire Lestat, who becomes a rock star and wakes up the queen of all vampires with his music.

Meanwhile, directors Andy and Larry Wachowski and producer Joel Silver are grappling with whether to recast Aaliyah as Zee in "The Matrix Reloaded," the highly anticipated sequel to their 1999 blockbuster "The Matrix."

The filmmakers remain tight-lipped about their secret project. Silver, through a studio spokeswoman, declines to discuss how they will deal with Zee. A decision to recast the role of Zee would be a sensitive undertaking if, for no other reason, than any false step could alienate her fans.

Indeed, the pressure on the studio is already evident by a petition by some of fans posted on the Internet. The petition, addressed to Warner Bros., states:

"In the wake of the tragic death of R&B Singer/Actress Aaliyah, Warner Bros. is rumored to be cutting the scenes Aaliyah has already filmed for ['The Matrix Reloaded'] and recasting the role. We would like to urge WB to honor the memory of Aaliyah's life and keep her scenes .... "

While certain scenes have already been shot in the U.S., filming is scheduled to resume in Australia today). Silver told The Times shortly after Aaliyah's death that the actress was not scheduled to go before the cameras until late October.

The mere possibility that such a choice part might be recast obviously has Hollywood's agents and managers primed.

"The reality is, there's a role available that a girl who was on her way to superstardom [was going to do]," said veteran manager Dolores Robinson. "Somebody is going to get that job. I don't think there is anything wrong with this. It's not a wait-and-see business. It's a business where you have to make decisions quickly."

Warner Bros. had big plans for Aaliyah. After "Queen of the Damned" and "The Matrix" sequel, the studio hoped to cast her in an updated remake of the 1976 musical "Sparkle."

Aaliyah and her mother had each read the script, studio officials said, and Aaliyah was passionate about playing the lead role of a young singer in a girl group like Destiny's Child, who steps forward and becomes a singing sensation.

When script rewrites weren't ready in time, however, production executives opted to wait until she had completed her work for the Wachowski brothers. The "Sparkle" project is now on the back burner, according to studio executives.

Howard Rosenman, who produced the original "Sparkle," said he and producer Linda Obst also had their eye on Aaliyah for their own project called "Ghetto Fabulous," which tells the story of a singer from small town America who wants to make it big.

"Her management called me about it and I think she even read the project," Rosenman recalled. "We were interested in her, yes. She had that thing, that dual talent that is so hard to find. She could sing and act. She had a powerful career arc. And she was very beautiful and young--all those star qualities."

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