What's Next, Free Popcorn?

Hollywood is scrambling to find new ways to market its summer blockbusters

The hottest new stop on Hollywood's marketing rounds is a tiny cable channel called G4. Sure, it currently reaches barely one-fifth of households. But studios in search of a big opening weekend for action or science-fiction flicks love the 12-to-34-year-old gamers who tune in to the 24-hour channel; they're twice as likely to see a movie on its opening weekend as the overall population. That fact has helped G4 sign up 70 movie advertisers this year -- twice the total in 2003, says Charles Hirschhorn, CEO of G4 Media LLC (CMCSK ).

For studio execs, attracting first-weekenders has become crucial. If a movie doesn't open big right away, it is quickly muscled out by the next blockbuster. For years, Hollywood has relied heavily on network-TV advertising to bring in the crowds. But that is no longer enough. The under-25s who make up nearly a third of the moviegoing public these days are abandoning the networks for cable, the Web, and video games. The change has left the studios scrambling to find new ways to reach their most avid audience. "People don't sit at home and watch Friends any longer," says Jeffrey Godsick, Twentieth Century Fox's executive vice-president for marketing. "Our biggest job now is to go and find them."

The stakes are always high this time of year, as Hollywood prepares to roll out its biggest-budget flicks for the summer. But this popcorn season looks especially fraught. For starters, the money at stake has soared. The average cost of making and marketing a film now tops $100 million. What's more, studios are cramming the schedule with 44 movies, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., up from 40 last year.

The risks are higher, too. Following a handful of big-time flops in the summer of '03, including Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, the studios are releasing fewer sequels this year. Instead, they're rolling out dozens of original films with lesser-known actors, including Walt Disney Co.'s The Village, which features Joaquin Phoenix. Such films often require heftier marketing budgets than sequels, which feature known characters and themes.

10-MINUTE CLIPS. Against this wildly competitive backdrop, the studios are trying a range of new marketing tactics. When they do turn to TV, they're going well beyond the traditional 30-second trailer. Most studios are offering extensive free footage in hopes of duplicating the success Universal reaped by airing the first 10 minutes of Dawn of the Dead on the USA Network in March. And Hollywood is ramping up its use of special programs. As part of Disney's efforts to promote The Village, director M. Night Shyamalan is hosting a screening of his previous film Unbreakable on ABC and showing clips of the new flick during commercial breaks.

Gadgetry is helping studios reach people, too. Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE ), which gave away 500,000 DVDs containing 10 minutes of its hit film Hellboy to Best Buy (BBY ) shoppers in March, may do the same for summer releases. Research had shown that Best Buy's TV and computer shoppers were likely opening-day moviegoers. To lure teen girls, Fox plans to send out cell-phone ring tones and text messages with theater times for its Will Smith thriller I, Robot and for Dodge Ball, a Ben Stiller comedy.

The studios, following audiences to the Web, have also boosted online ads. Last year, Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO ) put up ads for 131 movies, up from 74 in 2002, according to Jim Moloshok, the portal's senior vice-president for media and entertainment. Yahoo recently launched a major blitz for Shrek 2, including linking the green ogre to ticketing site Fandango.

Will any of this help Hollywood avoid a repeat of last summer's doldrums? That depends on whether it offers up better flicks. Ticket sales are up around 9% this year, but Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ accounts for much of that increase. Mel got those numbers by enlisting churches eager to bus folks to the movie. There's a lesson here: When it comes to filling seats, sometimes you have to go where the audience is.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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