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Sizzle, for there's a lot at stake

Studios try to wow delegates with action-packed previews, including `Hairspray' and `Surf's Up.'

March 16, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz and Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

LAS VEGAS — Call it sizzle plus. In an effort to shout in the face of the oncoming Mack truck tentpoles "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," director Michael Bay and his "Transformers" hype team treated ShoWest attendees to a tour of a faux mobile government surveillance operation, complete with high definition video monitors.

Actors dressed as G-men from the movie ushered groups of 15 delegates into the facility, installed in a big rig on the trade show floor at Bally's Hotel. Theater owners were given a high-adrenaline taste of "live" robot warfare staged to feel like the action was unfolding in "real time" on a U.S. military base in Qatar.

When dismissed, delegates were warned that government agents "Know where you live and WYA (who you are)." Later that evening, Bay introduced a sizzle reel, roughly 15 minutes of footage from his toy-inspired extravaganza, and begged theater owners to play the trailer in their theaters. The lanky testosterone-meister arrived with a team of trophy girls wearing little black dresses and carrying faux film reels, and a pack of squealing fans who ooh-ed and aah-ed at the reel's action-packed, visually impressive clips.

The annual theater owners convention kicks off the season of the "sizzle reel," 20 to 40 minutes of advance film footage that studios specially cut and preview to seduce the media, theater owners and merchandisers, i.e. almost any potential foot soldier in the war of hype waged by studios. It's like seeing your favorite movies with the boring parts cut out and consequently can be one of the most effective -- and occasionally deceptive -- marketing tools.

As the studios gear up for the important summer months, they've been teasing and targeting the captive audiences at ShoWest this week before hitting the world's movie media and film buyers at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

"I hate when the studios do this," said Linda Zurich, a theater owner from upstate New York. "Yes, it's good to be at a screening with all age groups, but kids right off the Strip aren't a good barometer since they aren't paying customers."

Zurich isn't the only one to feel a tad cynical. Two years ago DreamWorks invited hundreds of media types to a swank cocktail party at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, handed out cool white Puma sneakers, and unspooled a 40-minute preview of "The Island." This version played great and appeared to be a cool sci-fi thriller, not the action disappointment it turned out to be. Conversely, Bay tried a similar trick at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 and showed packed audiences of the journalists and film buyers 50 minutes or so of "Armageddon," which left audiences hooting at the dialogue -- but then the film went on to gross $453 million-plus worldwide.

Taking a page from the "Dreamgirls" play book, a film that DreamWorks successfully sneaked during Cannes last year to drooling journalists, New Line came to ShoWest with a huge "Hairspray" extravaganza. Director Adam Shankman devised a way to morph unfinished footage into live back-to-back musical numbers involving expertly choreographed singing and dancing by "Hairspray's" stars. The whole cast, with the exception of Amanda Bynes, appeared onstage in a Paris Casino & Hotel ballroom decorated with giant pink propellant glue cans.

From the buzz, it was clearly the hit of ShoWest with theater owners saying they were eager to book the film this summer.

Among the handful of numbers performed were "Good Morning Baltimore" sung by Tracy Turnblad (Nicole Blonsky), who stepped onstage at the end of the first clip with backup dancers. After clips and brief renditions of "Nicest Kids in Town," "Ladies Choice" and "Run and Tell," the 20-minute clip-reel-meets-Broadway musical closed with Queen Latifah performing the afro-tastic "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" as the finale.

For a film that the studio says cost $70 million to $75 million to produce, New Line framed "Hairspray's" unfinished footage in the financial equivalent of a gold-plated trussing. It was more of a Peter Luger Steakhouse than a sizzler, but New Line execs said that in a summer filled to the brim with sequels it was worth every penny to convince exhibitors to book the musical amid the tentpole melee.

This is the studio that presented one of the big sizzle fests of all time -- a reported $2.5-million fete, which featured director Peter Jackson, the cast, Hobbit sets that were flown in, and a real French castle. That film also wasn't done at the time, but as New Line's head of worldwide marketing and distribution, Rolf Mittweg, noted, "You have to create a major push for the property in order to make an impact later at the box office."

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