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Launch Parties Draw Star Power

As game sales eclipse box-office receipts, soirees have become a hot Hollywood ticket.

May 12, 2003|Alex Pham | Times Staff Writer

Bursting through the pulsating electronica music and the invitation-only crowd of martini-sipping young Hollywood, a frantic publicist rushed to a server and hissed, "Joel Silver wants his cranberry juice right now!"

Eyes saucer-wide, the stricken server scurried off to fetch the drink for the thirsty movie producer.

Another Tinseltown opening? Nope. As game sales eclipse box-office receipts, the fussy celebrities, milling entourages and petulant producers who have long been staples at movie premieres are becoming common fixtures at video game premieres.

In recent years, the $25-billion global games industry has been taking on the trappings of Hollywood -- and partying like there's no tomorrow. Game companies now routinely drop hundreds of thousands of dollars to stage star-studded soirees like the one to hype "Enter the Matrix" at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.

The February event, hosted by the game's publisher (which was then called Infogrames Inc. and changed its name last week to Atari Inc.) drew Keanu Reeves and other stars of the film as well as other celebrities such as recording artist Marilyn Manson. Last year, Electronic Arts Inc., Sony Corp., Nintendo Co. and Microsoft Corp. threw similar events that drew such celebrities as Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christina Aguilera.

This week, the industry is revving up the party engine for its annual Electronic Entertainment Expo convention in Los Angeles. Vivendi Universal is hosting an event Tuesday featuring Carmen Electra and the Pussycat Dolls burlesque troupe. Atari, happy with the buzz its "Matrix" party generated, is hoping to put on a repeat show today with Arnold Schwarzenegger promoting the company's upcoming "Terminator 3" game. And Sony is putting on its usual dual parties -- a celebrity event with rap artist 50 Cent on Tuesday and a blowout rave for the masses Thursday.

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Shedding a Stereotype

The companies are eager to shed the video game's outdated but persistent stereotype as a children's toy or geek's hobby.

"The way we promote video games has changed to reflect an evolution in the way people think about this industry," said Jeff Brown, a spokesman for Redwood City, Calif.-based EA. "People used to think of games as toys, like G.I. Joe or Hula-Hoops. That's all changed in the last five years. Games aren't toys. They're mainstream entertainment."

EA, historically loath to spend money on parties, last year threw two in a row. One hyped "The Sims Online" game. The other showcased three titles based on Hollywood franchises -- "James Bond 007: Nightfire," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," and "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

Demographics are a big reason for the shift in marketing. Those who played "Donkey Kong" decades ago as children are now in their 20s and 30s. Appealing to this crowd requires more sophisticated pitches than running commercials between Saturday morning cartoons.

At "The Sims Online" party, held in a swanky Hollywood Hills home, "Lord of the Rings" film actor Elijah Wood met Will Wright, creator of "The Sims" games. Blurted the young actor, "You're a legend!"

Wright, unused to adoration, cringed ever so slightly. The awkward moment quickly passed and the conversation moved on to favorite games.

Wood, 22, grew up thinking games were cool. So did buff action hero Vin Diesel, 35, who plays the fighting game "Tekken." Porn star Asia Carrera, 29, is an ardent fan of "Unreal Tournament." Actor Robin Williams, 50, plays "Counter-Strike."

Games didn't used to be cool. Nerds and little boys were the target audience.

The first company to try to change that image was Sony. The Japanese consumer electronics and media giant launched its first PlayStation console in 1995 with a party that featured Michael Jackson.

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Expensive but Worth It

Every year since, Sony has put on increasingly elaborate parties at the annual E3 trade show. With music performers such as Beck, Sheryl Crow, and the Foo Fighters, Sony's million-dollar E3 soirees have become hot tickets for the beautiful set in Hollywood.

"If we're going to be taken seriously, we need to have visibility in different communities," said Sony spokeswoman Molly Smith. "We're taking advantage of the fact that we have all these famous fans and using that to increase exposure for gaming."

Sony in recent years has ramped up its celebrity events outside of E3, placing PlayStation 2 logos as backdrops for red carpet runways. Paparazzi photos of these events have ended up in trendy magazines, including Rolling Stone, People, Us Weekly and Women's Wear Daily.

Many game executives say the expenses of putting on these flashy parties -- which can cost from $200,000 to several million dollars -- are worth it.

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Building 'Talk Value'

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