Holiday movies ride on stories, not star power

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Sell the story, not the star.

Successful big-star holiday season movies, driven by younger audiences, have forced studios to use more "concept" or story advertising rather than focusing on big-name talent.

Hits such as MGM Distribution Co.'s "The World Is Not Enough" and Paramount Pictures' "Sleepy Hollow," as well as the newer Universal Pictures' "End of Days" are being pitched to consumers that way.

"There is a recognition, finally, in Hollywood [that] younger consumers want originality," said Chris Pula, a former Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. film marketing executive. "You are talking about a consumer that has been raised on a 100-channel cable spectrum and the Internet. Their idea of a star is much more nebulous."


"End of Days," for example, is a story about the devil and the end of the millennium, with Arnold Schwarzenegger looking to save the world. But much of the advertising isn't focused on him or his character. Rather, current TV commercials were produced on the concept, featuring explosions and some terror-horror images.

A similar strategy has been employed by MGM in its latest James Bond movie, "The World Is Not Enough," marked by chase scenes and infernos. And Paramount pushed the legend of the classic story by Washington Irving that inspired "Sleepy Hollow," as well as the movie's famed director, Tim Burton, rather than stars Johnny Depp or Christina Ricci.

"As in `Sixth Sense' we sold the concept before the star," said Mr. Pula, who presided over the campaign that showed a young boy uttering the line: "I see dead people."

"Sixth Sense" star "Bruce Willis is good and a well-liked actor, but frankly, he is not as original as the concept," Mr. Pula said. "If the star overwhelms the concept, then it's only seen as another Willis vehicle or another Schwarzenegger vehicle."

Sometimes marketers use both concept and star to market.

"The perfect combo is to use a great concept and a big actor," said Peter Graves, a former Polygram Films marketing executive. Studios have been attempting to do this for some time, but Mr. Graves says it doesn't always work.


In the next couple of weeks, major star vehicles will hit the ground running with big advertising campaigns: Warner Bros.' "The Green Mile," starring Tom Hanks, and "Any Given Sunday" with Al Pacino; Touchstone Pictures' "Bicentennial Man" with Robin Williams; and Universal's "Man on the Moon," starring Jim Carrey.

As is their pre-debut custom, studio executives are keeping these marketing efforts close to the vest, fearing competing studios could take advantage by quickly shifting their marketing strategy.

Still, marketing hints are being revealed, and it looks like stars will be prominently flagged.

In outdoor and poster campaigns, Warner Bros., Walt Disney and Universal have initially pushed films with single images of their major stars.

Mr. Hanks can be seen, alone, in his prison guard uniform. Mr. Williams is also the center of attention in a blue-tinted robotized form for this futuristic role. Mr. Carrey appears onstage-and off-center-for his role as renegade comic TV performer, Andy Kaufman.

"Some films just don't translate into concepts that easily," said Mr. Graves. "You can't tell all stories in 30 seconds. So you are left with the idea, `Hey, there are real big people in this movie. Come and see it.' "

Mr. Graves says this doesn't mean that a film won't succeed; it just won't get all the different segments of the moviegoing audience, which is the ultimate aim of all major studio marketers.


MGM's James Bond franchise has become even more successful because it increasingly pulls in new audiences. In the case of "The World Is Not Enough" that means young males. To bolster its push for this demographic, MGM worked a major worldwide promotional/advertising deal with youth-skewed MTV Networks, in which MTV carried programming related to the Bond release.

Creatively, reaching out to males means producing more TV commercial eye-candy-in Bond parlance, big explosions, beautiful women and fast cars to target young men. It doesn't mean focusing on the film's major star, Pierce Brosnan, for very long.

Concept selling is gaining favor at a particularly crucial time of year for film releases.

Boutique and small film companies, such as Miramax Films and others, often release their best movies at this time of year to showcase them in hopes of qualifying for the Academy Awards next spring. Over the last few years, Miramax Films, with a comparatively small ad budget, has built a business by releasing movies in the winter holiday period, also the busiest moviegoing season. That strategy has paid off for Oscar-winning hits such as "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love."

So far "The World Is Not Enough" and "Sleepy Hollow" are posting good to great box office numbers, with "Toy Story 2" and "End of Days" expected to become major hits.

But the rest of the holiday films may find it tough to gain major box office revenue in the coming weeks because both Christmas and New Year's Day fall on a Saturday. During holiday periods, studios depend on long, multi-day weekends so moviegoers have the chance to see their wares.

"The dates are definitely going to be a problem," Mr. Graves said. "Good product can always change the marketplace-but just the way Christmas and New Year's fall, and the fact that there's the millennium thing, people will be distracted."

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