Tinkering turns movie into must-see for teens

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Major theatrical releases typically score big money at the box office if they have a familiar title or concept, such as a "Mission: Impossible" or a "Batman." A sellable star also helps. Universal Pictures' "Bring It On" had little of either.

Yet "Bring It On" is already close to pulling in more than $60 million. It raked in an astounding $17.4 million in box office receipts in its opening weekend Aug. 25-27 -- triple what teen movies typically make -- and continues to play well. After five weeks of release, "Bring It On" brought in $3 million for the weekend ended Oct. 1, about what other pure teen-age movies do in debut weekends.

"It's unusual for a film that doesn't have a presold title, or a presold concept or a reasonably good cast to fare well in the marketplace," said Peter Graves, a theatrical marketing consultant. "It's unusual for a film like that to open so large."

So how did Universal bring that on? The studio turned around a soft, unfocused movie about cute cheerleaders and high school teen lives, making it into a tougher, sexually charged film that pumped up the rivalry between two rival cheerleading teams.

NO INITIAL SIGNS

Initial indicators, in late 1999, didn't point to success. It was originally called "Cheer Fever," and in formulating its strategy Universal's marketing team commissioned a survey that showed 62% of its target, teens ages 12 to 17, said they would "definitely not" see a movie about cheerleading.

"The problem with [the title] `Cheer Fever' is that you are leading with the chin, with your liability" said Marc Shmuger, president of marketing for Universal Pictures. With that title, "we are saying, `We are the cheerleading movie, and we know that 62% of you reject us, so now go find something else to do that weekend.' "

Universal had to choose. Did it want to hide the fact that this is a cheerleading movie, keep cheerleading prominent in its marketing materials or change direction?

There were other stumbling blocks as well. The film's star, Kirsten Dunst, had never "opened" a major movie, meaning her movies earned less than $5 million on initial opening weekends. For example, the movie "Dick," in which she starred, took in an initial weekend haul of only $2.2 million.

Moreover, Universal wanted to repeat its summer 1999 success with "American Pie." But with "Cheer Fever" it didn't have the outrageous material to work with that the raunchy, sexual jokes in "American Pie" provided. That kind of edgy content can yield tremendous word-of-mouth marketing among teens.

So in February, Universal decided to flesh out more of the high school experience in "Cheer Fever." First, it renamed the movie "Made You Look" just before the studio showed it to theater owners. The film's one-sheet marketing poster showed cheerleaders in a traditional cheer -- but in street clothes -- kneeling on the backs of other girls in the shape of a pyramid. "We chose to shoot them as human beings, not as cheerleaders," said Adam Fogelson, senior VP-creative advertising for Universal Pictures Marketing.

IT DIDN'T WORK

This strategy didn't work, either. "Our thinking was that it was going to be our best shot at a more strategic positioning for a broader audience," Mr. Shmuger said.

Then on March 4, two other teen movies debuted. "Whatever It Takes," which opened to $4.1 million, and "Here on Earth," which raked in $4.5 million. "This was a wakeup call," Mr. Shmuger said, "because [our movie] was destined to be [only] a $4 million movie."

That's when Universal decided to change its game plan again. Mr. Fogelson, in combing every bit of footage in the movie, identified a somewhat buried subplot about a rivalry between the white cheerleading squad from the suburbs and a black cheerleading squad from the inner city. The film was repositioned around that competition, focusing on cheerleading as a serious sport.

But Universal had a problem here. There wasn't enough material, only about 75%, to complete the movie with its new story line. So more material was filmed, with the help of Mr. Fogelson and the film's director, Peyton Reed.

A new trailer was then built around the competition and the excitement of cheerleading as a sport, including more visuals of the black and white squads squaring off. A key point in the trailer has one a cheerleader saying, "Ever been to a cheerleading competition?" The revised one-sheet poster was set on a black background with two images from the movie placed side by side -- white cheerleaders performing on the left side, and a similar shot of black cheerleaders on the right.

LIKE A REAL SPORT

"Though 62% of teen-agers rejected cheerleading because of its `cutesy' nature, suddenly you are now dealing with it as an Olympic sport," Mr. Shmuger said. The testing levels of the new promos went through the roof, with white, black and Hispanic girls all eager to see it.

"It was brilliant to bring in the black squad with all the whole hip-hop culture," said Justine Lassoff, VP-marketing for entertainment Web site First Look.com.

Universal also took great pains not to promote the film as a "Kirsten Dunst movie," working instead to promote the story line. In publicity shots, Ms. Dunst always appeared with the leader of the black cheerleading group, Gabrielle Union.

Even so, the studio managed to have Ms. Dunst appear as herself, not as her cheerleading character, on the cover of lad title Maxim. "It flew off the shelves," said Michael Moses, VP-publicity at Universal. " `Entertainment Tonight" and other entertainment shows ran pieces just on this," he said.

SPECIAL ON BET

To draw in young African-American females, BET also ran a big special on the movie four times before and once after the movie's opening.

Still, seven days before the movie opened Universal's audience research revealed few young male viewers were interested. So the studio quickly developed a racy spot directed at males and aired it on a preseason "Monday Night Football" game, as well as ESPN 2 programming. Afterward, National Research Group, which tracks potential audiences for studios, found that 10% to 15% of young males were now making the movie their first choice, according to industry executives.

The strategy wasn't without risk. National cheerleading organizations didn't endorse the film because it was too racy. "Instead, we went to local organizations," said Greg Sucherman, VP-field operations for Universal. "And as the summer wore on, we got a list of every single Britney Spears concert and every single Christina Aguilera concert, and did a grassroots marketing campaign."

All told, Universal spent $10 million to $11 million on media advertising leading up to the opening of the film, now renamed "Bring It On."

"It was all completely focused, going after teens in a major way," said Anthy Price, senior VP-media at Universal. "All teens, all the time." Universal, through its media buying agency, bought ad time on programming from the WB, including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," as well as programs on BET, Fox and MTV. It also targeted Hispanic girls with its buys. Ms. Price said the studio ran a heavy radio campaign, because TV viewership, especially among teens, slows during the summer months. Its media effort generated awareness of the movie's release by 82% of the U.S. population under age 25.

ON THE NET

Internet marketing also stirred up interest. Universal relied heavily on Alloy.com, a popular teen site, giving it access to 1.5 million unique users a month with a 60% female/40% male demographic split. Alloy created a microsite for the movie, a sweepstakes and sent out e-zines telling users where and when the film's stars would appear. Ethnic sites were also used, such as 360hiphop.com, BlackVoices.com and Hookt.com.

"Instead of giving people statements and information, we asked questions to create a dialogue and interest," said Kevin Campbell, VP-new media at Universal Pictures Marketing.

That wasn't all. Universal also worked with 25 malls around the country that in August are customarily eager to create unique back-to-school promotions. "They paid for everything -- TV, radio and full newspaper sections," said Beth Goss, senior VP-national promotions at Universal. The malls arranged cheerleading competitions and fashion shows. The payoff: The theaters in malls that carried the movie witnessed box-offices triple those of other summer teen movies.

The cumulative effect of the marketing drew teens in droves. "The target is hard to get," Mr. Graves said, "but on the other hand there are a zillion of them. They are a big and fat, juicy target. And if you get them, [big box office] is what happens."

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