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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Coming Soon: A Hard Sell

The competition is intense for studios to get their trailers played. Threats, side deals and spies are part of the plot. Then there's the czar.

November 24, 2004|Lorenza Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Ken Foreman, director of distributor relations for the nation's largest theater chain, has 30 movie executives on his speed dial. Most days, he has those same 30 executives on his back.

Foreman is Regal Cinemas' czar of coming attractions. He decides which trailers will be placed before a runaway hit and which won't run at all. In his office in Knoxville, Tenn., where a map pinpoints Regal's 560 theaters nationwide, Foreman's computer chimes constantly, announcing the arrival of as many as 80 e-mails a day from people who want their soon-to-be-released films promoted on his company's 6,263 screens.

Five minutes don't pass without a nudging phone call from an anxious studio executive in Los Angeles or New York. Some beg. Some plead. Some threaten.

"It goes with the territory," said Foreman, who is pulling 12-hour days this pre-holiday season. His wife knows that until Thanksgiving, she probably won't see him for dinner. "She doesn't complain," he said. "It's part of the business."

Foreman is on the front line of a high-stakes battle over those two-minute snippets that can help make or break a film. Week in, week out, theater owners and movie studios square off to determine whose trailers go where. Distrust is so rampant that studios hire spies to make sure theaters make good on promises.

Movie marketers will tell you that the only place their ads are guaranteed to reach proven filmgoers is not on television or in newspapers but inside a darkened theater -- preferably one where the weekend's hottest movie is reaching the most pairs of eyes. Woe to the trailer that runs first, when many people are buying their popcorn and Milk Duds. The coveted spot is right before the feature, when the theater is full.

At this time of year, as the lucrative holiday movie season gets underway, studios are under even more pressure to get the right trailers in the right spots before the right movies.

"You become nuts," said Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, who for years was a top executive at 20th Century Fox. At Fox, he was known to excoriate exhibitors who didn't run his trailers. "It didn't make me angry. It made me crazy. I would make up words I never heard before. There's a lot of screaming."

When it comes to reaching what's known as a "captured audience," Century Theatres President David Shesgreen said, "the studios have gone from being very passive to becoming interested to becoming manic."

Trailers -- so named because until the 1950s they ran after the feature, not before -- have been around almost as long as movies themselves. But during the last decade, the booking of trailers has become a time-consuming and highly political endeavor.

Consider "Alexander," Warner Bros.' swords-and-sandals epic, which opens nationwide today. Because the R-rated Oliver Stone movie is expected to draw mature audiences and action-hungry young men, more than a dozen trailers have been vying to run with the film -- about twice the number that can be accommodated. Given the competition, distributors -- which do not normally pay theaters to run their trailers -- use various powers of persuasion to get their way.

Three years ago, Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, did what in Hollywood amounted to the unthinkable: He admitted to paying a theater chain about $100,000 to make sure that a trailer for Sony's "The Animal" would precede Universal Studios' "The Mummy Returns." Blake, who declined to comment for this article, was roundly criticized by other studios that feared he had set a costly precedent.

But, in fact, industry sources confirm that many studios find backdoor ways to reward theater chains, diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars of supposed "marketing costs" into a theater's coffers, picking up the cost of newspaper ads, forgiving the cost of replacing broken film reels or giving an exhibitor a bigger slice of gross ticket sales.

"You can see when a [theater] circuit and a studio have a deal," said one top executive who asked not to be named, "because there is an unusually high level of play" of that studio's trailers.

Given the loosey-goosey nature of the system, keeping track of that level of play is a daunting task. So the studios hire private companies -- call them truth squads -- to audit trailer traffic.

Each weekend, outfits such as Los Angeles-based Theatrical Entertainment Services and New York's Certified Reports Inc. dispatch armies of so-called mystery shoppers to theaters. Each studio spends about $3,000 a week to learn which trailers ran in the nation's top 200 theaters. Even more valuable, some executives say, is when the tally reveals which trailer got cut.

This month, for example, Walt Disney Co. attached a trailer for its upcoming animated film "Cars" to all prints of "The Incredibles." On opening day, the "Cars" trailer was missing from several of Pacific Theatres' screens in the South Bay and Sherman Oaks.

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