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`Transformers' has taken shape

The movie has molded its target audience to prepare for its opening.

July 02, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

The fireworks start early when armies of robots go to war tonight on the big screen with the opening of the expected sci-fi hit "Transformers."

But leading up to the Fourth of July-week release, the marketing troops at Paramount Pictures have been engaged in their own guerrilla war trying to get more than young males interested.

The Michael Bay-directed film is based on shape-shifting characters from the popular 1980s toy line and cartoon TV series. Costing about $150 million, the DreamWorks-Paramount co-production excited pop culture junkies long before cameras rolled.

For Paramount, the challenge was to keep the testosterone-heavy crowd stoked by first establishing that the film would be a unique event. Then, the studio had to reach out to mainstream moviegoers to prove it wasn't just another action film, or a follow-up to a past hit.

"We wanted to show that this is the freshest movie of the summer," said Rob Moore, Paramount's president of worldwide marketing and distribution. "The message is that it's unique and different from all the sequels -- huge in scope but with a human story and a surprising sense of humor."

Bay, whose films range from hits such as "Armageddon" to the bomb "The Island," wasn't a popular choice among hard-core "Transformers" fans. Bay's frenetic action style isn't always big with critics.

"We were guilty until proven innocent," said Brad Weston, Paramount's president of production.

The studio started winning them over last summer at San Diego's annual Comic-Con International -- the Woodstock for comic geeks -- when it announced that Peter Cullen from the old TV series would be the voice of Optimus Prime, leader of the good-guy Autobots.

Paramount also took a darker approach to its marketing, seeking to establish the film as an edgy invasion tale. Additionally, the studio teased fans by holding back on tantalizing robot footage. Part of the reason was practical: Special effects take a long time.

A brief announcement trailer in theaters last summer alluded to a threat from space. December's teaser trailer showed glimpses of the robots changing shape. The full trailer in May offered the most robot action.

"It took a long time to get the special effects ready," said DreamWorks' production head Adam Goodman, "but we also were careful to not give away too much."

Paramount also used what it called "subversive" tactics online to stoke interest.

"The idea was: 'What if Transformers are real?' " said Amy Powell, who heads the studio's 20-person interactive marketing group.

The team produced and let loose 14 low-budget, anonymous "viral videos." In one, shot from the point of view of a parking garage security camera, a car suddenly transforms into a robot and walks away. The vignettes were released on YouTube, along with video-sharing sites in Russia, Sweden and other countries.

"No one knows that Paramount is behind these videos," Powell said.

The studio built a fake government website, SectorSeven.org, to look as if the user has stumbled on a bureaucrat's desktop with access to secret information about the invading robots.

The site's address was hidden in a single frame of the high-definition teaser trailer. The staff held an office pool on how long it would take for the first fan to freeze-frame through the trailer and click on the site -- 37 seconds, as it turned out.

In March, the studio first screened a 20-minute reel for influential Web-based movie buff Harry Knowles of AintItCoolNews.com in Austin, Texas, before it was shown at the industry's ShoWest convention in Las Vegas.

Knowles, his father, his fiancee, Powell and the Alamo Drafthouse theater owner watched the footage -- after the studio flew in a Dolby surround sound system and digital projection equipment per Bay's specifications.

But Paramount stumbled at times with online fans.

Last summer, Paramount inadvertently angered the blogging community when Canada's John Campea of TheMovieBlog.com posted a seemingly innocuous photo of cast members hanging around off-screen. The studio's legal staff fired off a cease-and-desist letter to his Web host, which briefly shut down his site.

Campea, an early champion of the film, blasted the studio in an open letter, pointing out the free publicity he and other bloggers provide Hollywood. MovieMarketingMadness.com and other fan sites took up Campea's cause, in some cases vowing to boycott the film.

Sensing the studio overreacted, Powell interrupted her beach vacation to phone Campea and make peace, calling the shutdown a mistake. The studio later flew Campea and other bloggers to Los Angeles for an on-set visit, and he has been posting clips from the movie ever since.

"Nothing beats the authentic enthusiasm the online community can provide," Campea said. "The studios are only starting to get that."

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