Ads for Choice Hotels International Inc. have often featured such real-life celebrities as former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill popping out of a suitcase. But this summer, Choice has tied up with Batman Returns, the Warner Bros. sequel to the 1989 extravaganza. So the Silver Spring (Md.) hotel group has produced tie-in commercials promoting its "Kids Stay Free" deals. One spot features penguins--the stubby-winged progeny of Batman's enemy--popping out of a valise. And that's not all, bat fans. The day before opening night, Choice will also host kids' Batman parties at most of its 2,200 U.S. locations.

The Summer of Hype is almost upon us, and this year, movie-marketing execs are practicing their craft under a lot more than the usual pressure. First, many studios are cutting back on marketing budgets or expecting a lot more for what they spend. Even movies with big ad budgets are trying to squeeze more from their marketing. Warner is spending $20 million on ads for Batman Returns, about 70% more than it did on Batman, but the producers of Batman Returns are counting on an additional $60 million in cross-promotions--with nearly all of that from participating merchants. McDonald's Corp., for example, will give away discount coupons good for Batman merchandise at J. C. Penney's.

SPOTTY RECORD. Budget pressures are just part of the problem. Hollywood generates as much as 40% of its annual box-office take between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day. But many of this season's hoped-for hits--Batman Returns, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, Lethal Weapon 3, and Alien 3--are sequels, which have a spotty record of duplicating their originals' success. And many of these movies open between mid-May and mid-June, earlier than usual. Standing out in this crowd will be tough.

More important, no one wants a sequel of last summer, a box-office bomb. True, two hits, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood, picked up $370 million in ticket revenue. But the blockbusters didn't perform their usual job of luring viewers back to see lesser movies.

Hard times hurt, too. "When people don't have as much money, they get pickier, and last year, they just didn't want to see anything but the big pictures," says John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which publishes a newsletter for movie-theater owners. Last year the number of movie tickets sold dropped 20% from 1990. Says Tom Sherak, executive vice-president of Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.: "Are we worried? We'd have to be foolish not to be."

Hence, the Dream Factory's need for better marketing, especially since traditional advertising alone won't do. "Now, we can't throw a ton of money at television and get results," says Robert Levin, president of marketing for Walt Disney Studios. Since 1987, when more than half of U.S. households had videocassette recorders and cable television, the audience for movie marketers has been too diffuse to reach with network TV ads only. So ingenious ploys are the order of the day.

BALLPARK PRANKS. Studios are branching far beyond the toymakers and fast-food chains they've traditionally teamed up with. Columbia Pictures and Major League Baseball will probably soon announce a deal to promote A League of Their Own, about a women's baseball league during World War II. The plan is to let Columbia run trailers of the film on more than a dozen giant TV-style scoreboards nationwide. And the movie's stars--Madonna, Tom Hanks, and Geena Davis--could be throwing out the first ball at some games.

Then there's cable TV. Since a recent one-hour MTV special helped make a blockbuster out of Paramount's kids-oriented Wayne's World, other studios have scrambled to produce their own cable offerings. Columbia is planning an MTV special on the making of the soundtrack for its upcoming Mo' Money, starring Damon Wayans. Fox has a special for Home Box Office on the gruesome special effects of Alien 3. Warner is teaming up with the relatively small Black Entertainment Television channel on a special promoting A Class Act, a comedy featuring rap stars Kid 'N' Play.

Theater-chain operators, who have glutted the market with thousands of new screens, are also stepping up their marketing. To attract the MTV crowd, Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon Corp. is experimenting with screening rock videos before many of its showings. This summer, Cineplex employees will also hand out hundreds of thousands of trailer-jammed videocassettes to patrons, hoping they will view them at home and return soon. And AMC Entertainment Inc., a Kansas City (Mo.) theater chain, has moved to counter grumbling about hefty ticket prices. AMC's schedule of early-evening showings now offers tickets at half price.

Hollywood is counting on such marketing, and on the cyclical swing of its business, to banish its doldrums. After previous box-office slumps, audiences have flocked back on the strength of a Raiders of the Lost Ark or a Batman. Maybe this summer's unexpected hit will be The Return of the Viewer.

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