Come See My Movie Please!

Movie marketers are trying all kinds of novel approaches to lure a distracted audience

Lake Havasu, Ariz. is a nice little resort town popular with college students during Spring Break. This year, there was even more reason than usual to party there. Twentieth Century Fox, looking to promote its upcoming summer flick, Titan A.E., built a 50-foot-long skateboard ramp with the movie's name sprawled all over it. The site of three competitions this spring, the ramp is also where one daring skateboarder set a record with a 56-foot jump. All this just to stoke interest in the animated space adventure among West Coast college-age skateboard enthusiasts.

Talk about niche marketing. With audiences shrinking and the entertainment market splintering, moviemakers are finding it tough to draw fresh crowds. Despite the hot economy and ticket-price hikes that yielded a record $7.5 billion box office take last year, actual ticket sales dipped 1% as 19 million fewer viewers went to the movies.

Hollywood's marketing machine is facing something new. Time was when a good carpet-bombing of TV advertising and a fast-food tie-in were all a movie needed to build a following. But now, movies compete with television, video games, the Internet, and more for consumers' attention. "Every day I come to work, it seems there is one more place that I have to worry about our customers heading off to," says Bob Levin, Sony Pictures' president for worldwide marketing. "The fragmentation of the market is very real."

That has Hollywood executives rejiggering their strategies in anticipation of the crucial summer season, when the industry racks up 40% of its sales. The nine largest studios will release 45 films this summer, reports Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., the biggest summer crop in three years. And what studio executives are all after is a runaway smash, like last summer's huge surprise hit, The Blair Witch Project, a film that gathered most of its early buzz on the Internet, not through TV ads. So this summer, major studios are targeting Web sites, staging promotional events, building skateboard parks, and hiring "street teams" of young marketers to spread the word in urban neighborhoods.

E-MAIL BLITZ. Thanks to Blair Witch, a lot of the studio action this year is Internet-related. Instead of just creating sites for each of its movies, studios are seeking out potential moviegoers even before they start surfing. Sony screened its film Patriot for online film critic Harry Knowles to stoke Internet buzz. Universal Studios Inc. has already sent out more than 100,000 e-mails promoting its Eddie Murphy sequel Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. Addresses were being culled from lists of surfers who logged on to Web sites for American Pie and The Mummy last summer.

Off-line, moviemakers are hunting down potential ticket buyers wherever they hang out. Internet convention-goers got a sneak peek at Dreamworks' Gladiator. Fox Entertainment Group Inc. has hired scores of "street teams" to visit video arcades and comic-book conventions and talk up a summer release based on the comic book X-Men. Artisan Entertainment Inc. persuaded 14 colleges, including New York University and the University of California at Los Angeles, to offer course credit to business students who help the studio market its upcoming film, Cecil B. Demented, on their campus. Colleges go for the scheme because it gives them a popular course offering for which studios pick up the cost of course materials. "Movie marketing is like running a political campaign: You have to shake hands with as many people as possible," says Amorette Jones, executive vice-president for marketing at Artisan.

Plenty of old stand-by marketing techniques will be out in force this summer as well. Paramount's Mission: Impossible 2 will pursue traditional tie-ins. Walt Disney Co. is pushing its Dinosaur with a mix of television ads and an estimated $150 million in tie-ins with McDonald's, Nestle, and General Mills. Dreamworks' claymation movie Chicken Run and a new Pokemon flick will get similar traditional marketing launches.

Increasingly, however, studios are taking a more narrowly focused approach. To promote the spring film Gossip, a murder mystery starring Dawson's Creek heartthrob Joshua Jackson, Sony hired Internet marketing firm Interactive to recruit more than 100 Jackson fans who had logged on to his Web site. The fans were then invited to a screening, and plied with T-shirts, soundtracks, and other goodies to entice them to get on the Internet and talk up the movie.

Such tactics work only if Hollywood delivers the goods, of course. And it remains to be seen how many of its summer movies will live up to all the hype. Even with a small army of Internet marketers trying to stoke interest in Gossip, the film opened at just No. 12 in its first weekend. What was No. 1? An old-fashioned World War II submarine saga, U-571, that was marketed mainly on the tube. So much for chat marketing.

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