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Video Publicity Machine in High Gear

5 Dec, 2002 By: Stephanie Prange

A parade of camels stops traffic in Los Angeles for the video launch of The Scorpion King.

Flying Elvises drop in on a luau to announce Lilo & Stitch.

Sardines are served up in popcorn buckets at a red-carpet penguin premiere for Ice Age.

Spider-Man makes a Web-slinging entrance at the U.N. in New York City.

And John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John reunite on the Paramount lot to serenade partygoers with hits from Grease.

It's event season on video, and studios are turning up the publicity noise to attract holiday shoppers in the fourth quarter.

While some video industry observers say the stunts and premieres are merely making a comeback, others say the business is entering a new era, with the publicity machine in overdrive to push more sellthrough product -- especially DVD -- to the consumer.

"Unprecedented" Promotion
“We're at an unprecedented time,” said Universal Studios Home Video marketing VP Ken Graffeo, who said marketing spending at studios has taken off as video launches begin to mirror theatrical.

“The first-week period could represent 30 percent to 50 percent of your business,” he said.

“The growth of DVD has really increased the size of the marketplace, retailer involvement and, certainly, from the studio standpoint, we have invested in this product,” said Buena Vista Home Entertainment SVP of marketing Gordon Ho.

The amount of spending and the number of events has “absolutely increased because of DVD,” added Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment SVP of international marketing Lexine Wong. “We are treating it more like theatrical marketing. Publicity is even more important. It's important to us, because we are marketing directly to the consumer.”

“The objective is to maximize your consumer awareness,” said Warner Home Video marketing VP Mike Saksa.

While no one would quantify that spending and no one seems to track it, many said anecdotal evidence and studio logic seems to support an increase.

Analyst Tom Adams, of Adams Media Research in Carmel Valley, Calif., said studios, in part, are spending more to market titles because they are getting a bigger piece of the pie. DVD is a sellthrough product that offers suppliers more “participation in the consumer dollar,” he said.

According to his research, of the 2001 $10.3 billion rental take, studios realized only about $2.9 billion. But the studio take of the $10.3 billion sellthrough business was three times as much, at $8.7 billion.

“They think they make more money selling more copies,” added Bob Alexander of Alexander and Associates, noting rental never attracts the same studio interest.

Still, there are some that contend the hoopla has always been a part of the business, even if the volume has changed over the years.

“Prior to DVD, I was at Disney, and they did huge stunts behind major releases,” noted Matt Lasorsa, now New Line Home Entertainment's SVP of marketing.

“There was a slight dip [in such activity] as consumers adjusted to the new format, but now studios have gone back and said ‘I think we can go back and create more awareness.’

Fox VP Steven Feldstein, also a Disney alum, agreed event marketing has long been a part of the business. “It never went away,” he said.

Capturing Media Attention
While observers may differ on its history, what isn't in dispute is that video event publicity has one aim: garnering media attention.

“That's really the goal,” said Artisan Home Entertainment SVP of marketing Hosea Belcher.

“If you're doing a publicity stunt, the whole goal is to get the most coverage you can get,” added Kelly Sooter, domestic head of DreamWorks Home Entertainment.

One important element to garner coverage is a strong visual.

Universal SVP of publicity Vivian Mayer knew she'd done her job for The Scorpion King launch when motorists were on their cell phones as far as the eye could see, gawking at camels.

“Every single person in their car was on their cell phone, saying, ‘Honey, you won't believe why I'm late. There are camels on Sunset Boulevard,’ Mayer said. The media took notice.

“It's key to have a visual that describes a compelling story.”

Sometimes, fans will provide that visual. For its launch of the extended version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, New Line invited fans to come in costume to special “marathon” screenings of the entire content of the DVD and receive free copies of the DVD.

“It wasn't the first time these people had worn these costumes,” noted publicist Amy Gorton, commenting on the avid Lord fans.

Fox's Feldstein, who staged the penguin premiere at Sea World Florida for Ice Age, said even a shameless stunt can do the trick, “if you feel you have a compelling visual that is clean and clear.”

“We've done a lot of nutty things,” he said. “I'm not happy until we get the clips back and the news stations are saying it's an absolutely shameless stunt and still cover it.”

But the event can also have undeniable class. Paramount VP of publicity Martin Blythe, who staged the Travolta/Newton-John reunion, said, “The core for determining a successful event is authenticity. The event needs to mean something to be effective. Nostalgia is very, very powerful.”

He said it's no accident that Paramount's other large event took place to launch another classic, last year's Godfather Trilogy. Director Francis Ford Coppola attended the street party held outside his pasta factory in New York, and friends, family and street inhabitants were invited.

“When Coppola got up and talked honestly and frankly about the Godfather DVDs, there was no question in anyone's mind that that was a magical moment,” Blythe said.

Talent is often key, said Artisan's Belcher, who lined up Michael Madsen for a recent Reservoir Dogs 10th anniversary launch screening and party in New York. “When you get talent, you get more coverage.”

The talent doesn't even have to be from the film being launched. For instance, video event marketing pioneer Disney has long held premieres for its classics and direct-to-video animated titles that are attended by stars and their kids.

“We have a wonderful turnout from press and celebrities,” said Buena Vista's Gordon Ho.

For a recent launch of Barbie as Rapunzel at FAO Schwarz in New York benefiting “Barbie Cares: Supporting Children in the Arts,” pregnant “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon attended and lent the event some star power, said Artisan's Belcher.

Sending a Message
Events can also send a message.

When Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange to launch Men in Black II, “it was a message to the financial community” about the importance of the video product, said SVP of worldwide publicity Fritz Friedman.

Another consideration is whether the title warrants an event.

“We certainly always try to be very prudent,” noted Ho, adding the event needs to provide a good return on investment.

Many events are held on the studio backlot, a free staging area.

“An event can be a cost-effective way to build awareness,” noted Warner's Saksa.

And the entertainment media is ripe for the picking. “What you've seen in the last 10 years is an insatiable demand for knowing about the entertainment industry,” he said.

“There are whole TV shows and a network dedicated just to that,” added Fox's Feldstein.

Perhaps one of the most crucial elements in planning an event is timing. A slow news day can mean a big story.

Saksa said Warner considered the slow news cycle when planning a recent Scooby-Doo “Escape From Spooky Island” event on Roosevelt Island in New York. “We had the opportunity that not a lot was going on in the entertainment world,” he said.

But, conversely, the most well-planned event can be trumped by big news. Many plans were cancelled after 9/11, said several marketing execs. Artisan had been planning a bigger launch party for Barbie as Rapunzel, but cancelled it when 9/11 happened. “We just didn't feel comfortable having a party,” noted Belcher.

Fox's Feldstein recalled a Cinderella event that went awry when O.J. Simpson decided to take a drive on the streets of Los Angeles in a white Bronco.

“It's a calculated risk,” he said, adding the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana put a damper on a Fox event.

Meanwhile, the retailer sees the benefit in the store.

Dave Karraker, director of marketing and communications at Kmart, agreed.

“Anytime you have a large launch, any type of publicity that reminds the consumer why they like a film or why they might want to see a film, it goes a long way to helping out the retailer,” he said.

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