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'Trapped' in an Uneasy Moment

Movies* The new thriller, about the kidnapping of a child, opens this weekend; the studio is scaling back advertising, promotion.


Columbia Pictures' thriller "Trapped," which centers on the abduction of an 8-year-old girl, has proved too close to real life for the studio's comfort. The movie bows this weekend, only days after a jury recommended the death sentence for David Westerfield in the murder of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam, culminating what seemed like an endless summer of child kidnappings and murders.

In response to the news environment, the studio did an about-face on its initial ad campaign and adopted an unusual marketing strategy to open a film: imposing a media blackout and keeping its stars off the normal promotional circuit.

Billed as a thriller, "Trapped" stars Kevin Bacon and Courtney Love as kidnappers of an 8-year-old asthmatic girl and Charlize Theron as the mother who defies the FBI and tries to save her daughter's life.

The film was directed by Luis Mandoki, whose track record includes "Angel Eyes" and "Message in a Bottle," which received tepid reviews and were not standouts at the box office.

Concerns over the quality of the film could be an issue. Its only audiences so far have been made up of film buyers for the nation's theater chains.

In an effort to throttle any chance of negative reviews or news reports, nervous studio executives kept film critics and media from seeing the film before its release. There was no press junket for "Trapped," and the studio asked its actors not to talk about the film.

"We didn't want Jay Leno looking at Kevin Bacon and saying, 'What the hell were you thinking in making a film like this right now?' " said one studio insider.

Even as books on the topic, such as Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," remain popular, and television dramas continue to embrace the theme, the movie studio remains steadfast in its silent treatment, declining to comment for this story, and lobbying principals involved in "Trapped" to keep quiet.

Columbia also restricted its ad spending to television and print, forgoing other media such as outdoor and radio.

Usually when a studio adopts such a strategy, it's a sure sign that the movie is a dud.

However, the response was not so dour from theater film buyers who saw the film in an exhibitor screening Sept. 6. "It was an intense thriller with a really great payoff. It was a quality film," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations.

The film is opening on 2,000-plus screens. Also coming out this weekend are Warner Bros.' sci-fi action movie "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," which debuts on roughly 2,500 screens; Fox Searchlight's "The Banger Sisters" on 2,700 screens; and Paramount Pictures/Miramax Films' period drama "The Four Feathers," on 1,800.

"I hope this doesn't set a precedent," said Peter Rainer, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics. "If they start shutting down the media entirely because of a sensitive subject matter, they will presumably do it with other films. Usually the reason to keep the media out is that the film doesn't live up to expectations. If the name of the game is cutting your losses, you may feel that you have less to lose keeping it from journalists than opening it up for scrutiny."

Exhibitors who saw the film were critical of the first 30 minutes, calling it "very intense." One noted that, as a parent, it was "disturbing" for him to watch.

And therein lies the problem.

When the initial trailer for "Trapped" appeared in mid-May, the kidnapping theme was a central component. It had four clips of the little girl and direct statements from the abductors such as "Your daughter was kidnapped three hours ago," "You're never going to see your kid again" and "I'm the one who decides whether she lives or dies." It ended with Theron's character pointing a gun and saying, "Give me back my daughter, you son-of-a ... "

As the release date approached, though, television commercials for "Trapped"--based on "24 Hours," the bestselling book by Greg Iles--did not include scenes with the little girl. Menacing statements from kidnappers were excised. The commercial now sells the thriller aspect of the film and only implies an abduction, with Theron screaming into the phone "bring her back" at the end of the ad. A new TV ad for the film that broke this week includes mention of a kidnapping but once again leaves out shots of the little girl.

The print campaign for "Trapped" has no mention of an abduction. Instead, ad copy reads: "It was the perfect crime until she refused to be the perfect victim," referring to Theron's character.

"It's really a parent-empowerment movie," said one person involved in the production of the film. "The woman is the hero. It's like 'Ransom.' "

In fact, early on in the "Trapped" campaign, Columbia's marketing team was using a marketing strategy similar to that for "Ransom."

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