Idea of the Day: Using News Archives to Plug a Movie

How Paper's Stories About 'Black Dahlia' Murder Became Part of Ad Campaign

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LOS ANGELES (Adage.com) -- There's nothing like a gruesome mutilation murder of a wanna-be starlet to generate headlines and heat.
Newspaper ads have taken their hits lately, with some film studios cutting back on their spending, but Universal executives believe it's a viable medium, especially if it's wrapped in an innovative idea.
Newspaper ads have taken their hits lately, with some film studios cutting back on their spending, but Universal executives believe it's a viable medium, especially if it's wrapped in an innovative idea.

That's the strategy behind a promotional partnership between The Los Angeles Times and Universal Pictures that culled stories and photographs from the newspaper's archives about the notorious Black Dahlia slaying and put them into a special section hyping an upcoming drama based on the case.

Four-page section
The four-page section, with a full-page ad for the Brian De Palma-directed film, wrapped around the Sunday entertainment sections of the Times and its sibling papers The Chicago Tribune and Newsday. Circulation of those papers is nearly 2.7 million.

The ad insert is one of the ways the Times and Universal are working together on a monthlong program to promote the movie, which stars Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank and launches Sept. 15.

The paper's advertising team created a web microsite that contains the film's trailer, an interview with author James Ellroy, who wrote the book on which the movie's based, and archived news stories from the 1947 murder that captivated Los Angeles. There also are promo cards on 23,000 news racks, using the now iconic black-and-white images of victim Elizabeth Short.

Newspaper ads have taken their hits lately, with some film studios cutting back on their spending, but Universal executives believe it's a viable medium, especially if it's wrapped in an innovative idea.

Improving an 'unnecessary relic'
"There are times when print is an unnecessary relic of a bygone era," said Adam Fogelson, Universal Pictures' president of marketing. "Then there are times when it's an extremely powerful and effective tool."

Because of the fascination with the Black Dahlia murder, which is still unsolved, Universal executives wanted to reprint the actual stories written at the time. The case quickly turned into a media circus in Los Angeles in the late '40s, staying on the front page for nearly two months, with every development closely dissected. Using those news accounts was a good way to frame the historic basis for the movie, Mr. Fogelson said.

"That way, the subject matter bubbles back into the popular culture," he said.

The case quickly became part of local lore but fascinated people well beyond Los Angeles' borders because of its grisly details -- Ms. Short's body was cut in half, her blood drained and organs removed. It served as a cautionary tale for those who, like Ms. Short, came to Hollywood from the Midwest with illusions of stardom.

Reaching out to Hollywood
The partnership with Universal is one way the Times is reaching out to Hollywood with new ideas to keep them coming back. A link with Paramount Pictures for this summer's "Mission: Impossible III" had the well-known theme music embedded into newspaper racks through a sound chip. It played when someone opened the rack for a paper.

Earlier this year, Universal worked with the Times on a bright yellow wrap-around ad for the family flick "Curious George," and various studios have stuffed movie-themed trick-or-treat bags into the paper around Halloween.

"Studios are trying to do new and innovative things," said Lynne Segall, Times VP-entertainment advertising, "and we're trying to come up with ideas that will help drive awareness and box office."

Ms. Segall and her team needed permission from the paper's editors to use the archival stories, which they gave with one important caveat. The insert had to be labeled "Advertisement -- excerpts from Los Angeles Times archives sponsored by Universal."

The Times is running teaser ads in its print edition and on its website to drive traffic to latimes.com/theblackdahlia. Visits have been brisk, though no specific numbers were available.

The cost of the promotion wasn't disclosed, but Mr. Fogelson said that it "reflected a mutual benefit" for both partners.

Universal has reached out to TV, in addition to making significant buys there, prompting some networks to run programming about the decades-old case. CBS this week re-aired a "48 Hours" show dedicated to the murder and the intense speculation that still goes on about the identity of the killer. The news magazine incorporated footage of Mr. Ellroy and others involved in the film. A&E, Court TV, TNT and possibly ABC's "Nightline" plan to run programming about the case in the coming weeks.
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