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Hollywood make-believe crashes into real life in 'Confessions of a Shopaholic'

It may seem like the worst possible time to release a movie about overspending, but Disney marketers and the film's producer believe the bleak economic climate could work to its advantage.

February 03, 2009|Claudia Eller

Walt Disney Co.'s upcoming comedy "Confessions of a Shopaholic" is a movie about a young woman whose compulsive shopping habit plunges her into debt and a financial crisis.

Talk about timing.

The movie, which debuts over Valentine's Day weekend, is opening at a time when consumers are drowning in credit card debt and suffering through what may be the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Based on the bestselling novels by Sophie Kinsella and starring up-and-comer Isla Fisher, "Shopaholic" could be viewed as a parable for present times. Fisher's fashion-obsessed character, however, eventually digs out from under her misguided ways and learns what's important in life.

Call it Hollywood make-believe slams into real life. The lag time between when a film is conceived and developed and when it rolls into theaters points up how the selling of movies can be complicated by the turn of current events.

Although it may seem like the worst possible moment to release a movie -- even a comedy -- about overspending, Disney marketers and "Shopaholic's" producer believe that the bleak economic climate could work to the PG-rated film's advantage.

"The timing for this movie couldn't be better," producer Jerry Bruckheimer said. "This is the journey of a young girl who has a problem and she turns her life around. It's a tale the whole world can learn a lesson from," added Bruckheimer, who had the project in development for eight years before it was made.

When Disney gave the green light to "Shopaholic" 12 months ago, the world looked a lot different. The Dow Jones industrial average was still over 12,000, only four months from its peak, and many economists had predicted that the worst of the mortgage crisis was behind us. Despite warning signals, few were paying attention to the nearly $1 trillion in consumer credit card debt.

Much has changed. "Shopaholic's" theme of overindulgence and unmitigated spending comes just as consumers are tapped out on their credit cards and feverishly pinching pennies. Retail spending is in free fall and shopping malls are virtually empty.

Those are rough realities to square with much that is depicted in the film. A shopping gallery of designer brands such as Prada and Marc Jacobs is prominently featured, and high-end stores like Barneys New York and Henri Bendel have costarring roles.

The movie's trailer, depicting Fisher's character on a shopping rampage, includes a scene in which she gets into a catfight over a pair of half-price Gucci boots. "Shopaholic's" poster shows Fisher weighted down with shopping bags, with the caption "All she ever wanted was a little credit. . . ."

Some observers worry that those images may not sit well with potential moviegoers who are having a hard time making ends meet.

"The recession is catastrophic for many, many people," said Mark Young, who teaches entertainment business at USC's Marshall School of Business. "Even though it's supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, if you just lost your home and can't pay your bills, the last thing you want to see is someone representing greed and excess."

Bruckheimer and Disney, however, say that "Shopaholic" is not a celebration of the joys of shopping and that the film's protagonist, Rebecca Bloomwood, eventually sees the light and reforms her ways. The movie's trailer makes a reference to Bloomwood's transformation when, asked how she plans to pay off $9,412.25 of credit card debt, she replies, "I know I've made some mistakes, but I'm turning my life around."

Directed by P.J. Hogan, who made the 1997 romantic comedy hit "My Best Friend's Wedding," the story follows the adventures of a young journalist in New York who yearns to work at a fashion magazine but instead is hired as a financial advice columnist for a sister publication.

The current TV spots emphasize how after meeting the man of her dreams -- her boss at the money magazine where she works (played by Hugh Dancy, another rising star) -- Bloomwood realizes that true love means more than a relationship with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

Jim Gallagher, president of marketing at Disney, said he was confident that "Shopaholic" would play well with audiences who were looking for a light diversion amid these dreary times. It could also be helped by the built-in "chick lit" readers -- the book series has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide -- who have made films like "Sex and the City" a hit.

"I can't think of a time where people are more in need of laughter and entertainment more than they do right now," Gallagher said. "This is a great story about empowerment and transformation."

There is some evidence that people want to see escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. During the Depression, for example, some of the most popular movies were madcap comedies and musicals like "Top Hat," with elegant couples such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers decked out to the nines.

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