Movie marketers stick to the script

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In recent TV commercials for movies, bullets fly, bombs explode and people are taken captive. Still, Americans are going to the movies.

Perhaps more than any other consumer product, Hollywood movies were sensitized to the events surrounding Sept. 11. The image of the fallen towers had the surreal look and feel of a movie-and executives initially expected massive changes in movie marketing as a result.

But in somewhat of a surprise, that didn't occur with the majority of movies marketed since September. Apart from two-the terrorist-themed "Collateral Damage" and Touchstone's "Big Trouble," which featured a bomb on a plane, had their opening dates moved-very little has changed.

For many moviegoers, violence is just the ticket. Since Jan. 1, six of the nine top weekend movies featured a war theme, hostage drama or terrorist action. Sony Corp.'s Sony Pictures Entertainment won three of those weekend dates with "Black Hawk Down." "Collateral Damage" from AOL Time Warner's New Line Cinema, "John Q" from Vivendi Universal's Universal Pictures and "We Were Soldiers" from Viacom's Paramount Pictures each won one weekend.

To many movie-market watchers, this says the moviegoing public is back to normal, looking for escapism-"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings"-or straight-ahead drama or comedy-"Monsters, Inc.," "Ocean's Eleven," "Vanilla Sky" or "K-Pax."

ACNielsen EDI found 2002's U.S. box office up 3% through March 3 to $1.38 billion. The weekend of March 1-3 was up 17% to $104.7 million vs. the same weekend a year ago. Some dollar gains reflect price increases.

small adjustments

After Sept. 11, movie studios could do little to adjust fall and winter movies that were completed and ready for release. What could be adjusted was the marketing. But even then, most executives didn't do all that much.

"Don't overthink it," said Jeff Blake, president-worldwide marketing and distribution for Sony Pictures Entertainment. "Market the movie according to its content, and release it in a window which gives it its best advantage vs. the competition."

For instance, "Black Hawk Down," a movie about the U.S. Army disaster in Somalia, didn't avoid Sept. 11. Sony, in fact, moved up its original release date to late December 2001/early January 2002 from March 2002. Studios routinely move up release dates to qualify for Academy Awards consideration, but this move was seen by some as particularly risky given the content of the film.

Not only was there no backlash, the movie actually soared, winning three weekends in a row and to date grabbing a healthy $104.5 million in U.S. box-office receipts-as well as Academy Award nominations.

Now studios move into the next phase post-Sept. 11: Some upcoming movies will include details-either verbally or visually-about specific terrorist acts.

Said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures: "All of those themes will eventually percolate their way into the creation of art and ultimately into the marketing and distribution of it."

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