Superstar Marc Shmuger: 'Grinch' nothing but smiles for Universal

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Universal pictures' Marc Shmuger had a lot of numbers to keep track of last year. There were the five consecutive films that opened at No. 1 and the $55.1 million debut of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

The studio also claimed a billion-dollar box-office year as the year ended; Mr. Shmuger's work to help attain these numbers earned him a new title: vice chairman. A stellar 2000 followed what had been a record-breaking 1999 for Mr. Shmuger, previously president of marketing, and earned him an Entertainment Marketing Superstar nod two years in a row.

"It was this extraordinary confluence of great movies, precise and effective marketing and the perfect release dating," Mr. Shmuger says of a year in which Universal had 18 weekends in which the studio won the box-office battle. Last year provided a textbook case of how the gambles can pay off.

"He's galvanized an entire marketing group to strive in every campaign for excellence, for originality, for innovation, for flexibility. His work is tireless," says Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal Pictures. "Ninety percent of the time, when it comes to the direction of the campaign, I tell them I'm nervous, but we're all going to link arms and we'll leap off the cliff together because he's been right every time."


Studios don't get it much more right than "The Grinch," which became the year's most successful movie, pulling in almost $260 million at the box office, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., tracker of box office receipts. Every nuance of the $40.8 million marketing campaign was attended to in exacting detail. Quickly, the title was boiled down to "The Grinch."

"A 15-year-old boy from Chicago was not about to see `Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' yet we had the potential to get his interest because it was subversive and it [had one of teen-agers' favorite stars, Jim Carrey]," Mr. Shmuger says. "We did something that was a little risky and in hindsight worked for us. We created an edgier first impression through the trailer. The point was it would feel just scary enough to pique everybody's interest. Had we created such a young feeling trailer, we would have immediately limited the universe we'd appeal to."

To then broaden the potential audience and win over skeptical parents, the first waves of TV spots came across as family fare.


Appearances by Audrey Geisel, widow of Dr. Seuss' creator Theodor Geisel, and director Ron Howard on the publicity circuit acted as stamps of approval, as did the $80 million in support from consumer product partners such as Kellogg Co., Wendy's International to Toys "R" Us. And by negotiating the first-ever promotional tie-in with the U.S. Postal Service, signage, merchandise and even cancellation stamps reminded consumers of Whoville.

Universal handles advertising creative and promotions in-house.

"Understanding how to sell a movie at its essence has to do with the idea of why people will see a movie," says Josh Goldstine, senior exec VP at Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group and a protege of Mr. Shmuger since their days together at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

"Marc just has a tremendous rigorous mind in terms of figuring out first the intellectual problem and then translating it into the advertising materials. He's rigorous about the strategy and the idea, and then tireless about bringing the work to the creative level."

A hit earlier in the year, "Erin Brockovich," proved a different challenge. The marketing quandary was obvious: how to get the public to say, much less remember, the title. Mr. Shmuger's right-on call was to use the phrasing "Julia Roberts is Erin Brockovich."

"We made a mnemonic out of the name until it was said in so many ways that it was like a mantra," Mr. Shmuger says. Sneak previews also were used to spread word-of-mouth advertising because the film was not a typical Julia Roberts vehicle, and Universal didn't want it construed as a "chick flick."

The pitch worked "Brockovich" pulled in $125.5 million last year, according to Exhibitor Relations. A third film, "Bring It On," would not have been the surprise hit it became had it not been for a dramatic reversal in the marketing. Originally titled "Cheer Fever," then "Made You Look," it began as a suburban cheerleader movie and the idea did not test well with potential audiences. The marketing team retooled the movie into an edgier piece pitting white cheerleaders from the suburbs against their inner-city African-American counterparts. The $14.6 million marketing push yielded $68.4 million at the box office.

Mr. Shmuger "has a phrase, `Let's not dance on the 10-yard line,' to refine the message of our movies," Ms. Snider says. In his new role, a position created for him, Mr. Shmuger will oversee all marketing as well as Internet activities, international distribution and business development. With the release this year of sequels to three big hits for the studio-"The Mummy Returns," "American Pie 2" and "Jurassic Park 3"-those who have watched his career expect him to remain knee-deep in the day-to-day marketing process.

"For many years, Marc Shmuger has talked about being more hands off," Mr. Goldstine says. " We're still waiting."

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