Marketing The Leading Lady in Sony Movie Boom

New Ad Chief Helps Turn Studio From Flop Shop in '05 to Hit Factory in '06

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After a slate of 2005 big-budget bombs in "Stealth," "Bewitched" and "XXX: State of the Union," what looks like a marketing-driven turnaround is starting to take shape at Sony Pictures Entertainment, which so far this year has had four No. 1 openings, more than any of its competitors.
Horror movie 'Silent Hill' is one of the suddenly-hot properties that is breathing financial vitality back into Sony Pictures.
Horror movie 'Silent Hill' is one of the suddenly-hot properties that is breathing financial vitality back into Sony Pictures.

The success of its "The Pink Panther" remake, vampire thriller "Underworld: Evolution," and two horror movies, "When a Stranger Calls" and "Silent Hill," represent a hit-the-ground-running start from Valerie Van Galder, named president-domestic marketing for the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group about five months ago amid an executive shakeup that saw marketing chief Geoffrey Ammer leave after disastrous duds from "Lords of Dogtown" to "Rent."

Sony's uptick comes as the box office finally starts to show signs of life-numbers have increased 4% year-over-year. For five straight weekends, the ticket tally has been up compared with the comparable weekends last year. For all of last year, box office was down 7%.

Ms. Van Galder, who previously headed marketing at sibling TriStar Pictures, said her reliance on research has helped position this year's slate. "You have to find the particular assets of your property and maximize them," Ms. Van Galder said.

Case in point: Sony, which inherited "The Pink Panther" when it absorbed MGM, repositioned the comedy as an all-family movie. Media tactics ran the gamut, from Steve Martin hosting "Saturday Night Live" around the film's release to him working with on a kid-centric campaign.

Ms. Van Galder and her team have focused on streamlined, stark images to sell their successful thrillers. For "Silent Hill," the posters and outdoor ads of a child with her mouth missing appealed to amateur artists and graffiti taggers around the country who've added giant red lips and toothy grins. A flood of publicity followed.

The studio heavily courted online press and hard-core gamers for that film, which is based on a successful video game. It also aimed at women by drawing out the storyline about a mother searching for her daughter.

Research showed that Kate Beckinsale was the strongest selling point for "Underworld: Evolution," so Sony's marketing team homed in on her in the ad campaign instead of a more typical approach of emphasizing the special effects and battle scenes.

befriending jill

And for "When a Stranger Calls," Ms. Van Galder's team, including Screen Gems' marketing head Marc Weinstock, created a MySpace profile for the babysitter character, Jill, to appeal to young girls, who've become a strong audience for horror movies. There were 770,000 hits to the page, and Jill racked up 109,800 friends.

Sony, however, still has to prove itself going into summer, when studios generally pull in 40% of their annual take. Not that there aren't potential hits in the pipeline: The much-anticipated "Da Vinci Code" launches May 19 and its first computer-generated family movie "Open Season," hits in fall. "Casino Royale," the next installment of the billion-dollar James Bond franchise, launches later in the year. Sprinkled in between are comedies including "Click" with Adam Sandler.
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