The Biz: 'Alamo' will try again in spring

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Three words strike fear into Hollywood filmmakers and the executives who market their movies: bad early buzz.

When word gets out, as it invariably does, that a movie needs extra work, has talent issues or has busted its budget, the negative mill starts churning.

Walt Disney Co. executives say they were willing to risk that when, at the 11th hour, they switched the release date of "The Alamo" from Christmas Day to spring. The trailer for the movie, starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton, had been in theaters for the month of October.

Disney executives say "The Alamo," now at nearly three hours, needs to be cut and shaped and that it would be a disservice to try to rush the release. Some early reviews of the unfinished product were mixed, and there have been budget concerns.

Disney's president of marketing, Oren Aviv, says he looks at the date change as a positive, in spite of the potential for bad buzz.

"We knew we'd take our shots, but there's no reason to put yourself out there at an extremely competitive time if the movie isn't ready," he says. "We've said we're going to do what's best for the movie."

Public opinion

The proliferation of movie coverage in the media-the Internet, entertainment TV shows, magazines-can quickly, and sometimes unfairly, taint public opinion, said Paula Silver, former president of marketing at Columbia Pictures who is now a marketing consultant. It hurts the creative process, she said, and takes a business toll.

"It's a huge marketing obstacle," Silver says, who recently helped guide the grass-roots campaign around "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," distributed by IFC Films.

"PR has to overcome bad word-of-mouth. You have to try to get enough of a mass of people who've seen it to say good things about it. And you can't speak to the rumors. You just have to talk about the positive aspects of the movie."

boost awareness

Pragmatic and aesthetic considerations surround the decision to move a movie's release date, said Nancy Utley, president-marketing, Fox Searchlight, who spearheaded the "Bend it Like Beckham" campaign. Consumers might be confused if they've already seen trailers or other materials with the original date. It can be difficult or impossible to change media schedules once they've been set.

And it's necessary to generate a positive message about the change "so the press doesn't assume there's a problem with the movie," Utley says.

Disney marketers will be able to spend more time on the creative campaign, screen the film more widely, play the trailer in front of more movies, and perhaps produce making-of TV specials to boost its awareness. The studio has already bought two ad spots during the Super Bowl, and could use one of those for "The Alamo," though that decision hasn't been made.

"Since marketing is always working against the clock, a move like this is a good scenario," Aviv says. "It offers opportunities to get the movie out there in different ways."

In addition to using its own TV family, Disney also could switch its media buying on other channels from expensive November sweeps to thriftier early spring.

Fourth quarter, especially holiday time, is packed with big budget, highly anticipated movies, many of them with A-list stars, released late in the year to be fresh in Oscar voters' minds. This year, that field includes the third "Lord of the Rings," "The Last Samurai" with Tom Cruise, "Cold Mountain" with Nicole Kidman and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" starring Russell Crowe. Spring, meanwhile, isn't known for its serious adult-targeted movies, and "The Alamo" will have little head-to-head competition in its genre.

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