PRINCE FOR A DAY IN WYOMING

Times Staff Writer

The Centennial Theater here is about the last place in America you would expect to see the world premiere of Prince's new movie "Under the Cherry Moon."

This town of 10,369 in north-central Wyoming is composed mainly of cowboys, coal miners and retirees. Just a handful of blacks live here.

But Hollywood and the media descended upon Sheridan earlier this week when 20-year-old hotel worker Lisa Barber--the lucky 10,000th caller in a contest sponsored by MTV and Warner Bros.--won the premiere and a post-premiere party for her town. She got to invite 200 of her closest friends to The Event attended by Prince and his Hollywood entourage and another 300.

"This is the biggest thing that's ever happened here," said an excited Barber at the post-premiere party. "I love Prince. I saw 'Purple Rain' 13 times."

In fact, the Sheridan premiere marked the first opportunity for virtually anyone outside the studio or a San Diego test preview to see "Cherry Moon." Warner Bros., which is releasing the movie, refused to schedule any advance press screenings, and refused comment on the decision.

While the Centennial Theater audience cheered Prince on in several scenes, there didn't seem to be overwhelming enthusiasm for the film itself. The packed audience for the concert that followed the movie seemed to find the 45-minute set that featured "Delirious" and "Purple Rain" far more appealing.

But nothing dimmed the thrill of the rock-star-turned-movie-star coming to Sheridan on Tuesday. The contest and its aftermath was a classic example of hype meeting the hinterlands.

There was Prince, stepping off his private jet and onto a slightly soiled 25-foot red carpet, then hurling his black silk sport jacket to the frenzied crowd of 700 that arrived at the airport's one runway to greet him.

There were eight equestrians atop horses with MTV bumper stickers on their flanks accompanying Prince and a glitzy contingent of stars, studio executives and publicists to the premiere. The procession of limousines had to be brought in from Billings, Mont., the closest city with cars appropriate for such an evening.

There was Martha Quinn, the cherub-faced MTV veejay hosting the post-screening party at the local Holiday Inn where Prince and his band, the Revolution, performed on an enormous stage that took up half the ballroom floor space. The live broadcast over MTV was seen by an estimated 2 million subscribers across the country, according to a high-ranking MTV executive.

The June 21 contest represented the inevitable marriage of MTV and the movies. MTV has become the latest marketing tool in studio promotions of their films. In recent weeks, MTV has helped launch a variety of films, including Orion's "Back to School," Lorimar's "American Anthem," Disney's "Ruthless People" and Columbia's "Karate Kid, Part II."

"Our target audience (12-to-34-year-olds) is the heart and soul of the movie-going audience," said Tom Freston, MTV senior vice president and general manager. "And it's a perfect marriage. With this kind of event Warner Bros. gets a splashy premiere, Prince gets exposure for his movie and his record ("Parade"), and it's a great promotion for us."

This sort of high-profile, pricey debut is unusual for Warner Bros. While the studio has controlled the largest share of box-office receipts of any studio in the past two years, Warner Bros. hasn't been known as a big spender when it comes to movie promotion.

It has rarely opened its movies with the lavish benefit premieres common at other studios. "The only time they really spend big money like this is on a movie with a music tie-in," said a high-ranking marketing executive at another major studio.

According to a source at the studio, who insisted on anonymity, Warner Bros. spent more than $500,000 in the making of the Cyndi Lauper video for the film "Goonies." The studio reportedly spent more than $200,000 for the San Diego premiere of Prince's first film, "Purple Rain," the first film opening covered live by MTV. But those are the exceptions.

"We're very efficient in the way we spend our money," said Rob Friedman, vice president of worldwide publicity for the studio. "We wouldn't do it if we weren't maximizing the benefits of reaching our target audience."

Sheridan turned out to be an ideal city for the promotion. It's just far enough away from a major city--Billings (pop. 67,000) is 128 miles northwest--so that the legitimacy of the contest couldn't be questioned. (The 9,999th call in the contest came from New York City.)

Of course, the town's remoteness complicated the logistics and sent costs skyrocketing.

How expensive was it? "Let's put it this way," said MTV's Freston. "We had one budget and then we had our worst-case-scenario budget in which we projected costs if the call came from Nome, Alaska. This place exceeded that budget." The tab for the evening was shared by MTV and Warner Bros.

While no one from Warner Bros. or MTV would give specific costs, sources estimated that the promotion ran a minimum of $250,000, although several put that figure higher.

All of that mattered little, of course, to Lisa Barber and the people of Sheridan. This wasn't the town's first premiere. MGM's "Endangered Species" and a Kenny Rogers TV movie were made here but the stars of the films failed to show up for the premieres. In addition to Prince and co-stars Jerome Benton and newcomer Kristin Scott-Thomas, Rosanna Arquette, Joni Mitchell and singer Ray Parker Jr. all made the trek to Sheridan for "Cherry Moon."

It was the event itself and the sudden media attention that seemed to spark the city, which has been economically depressed in recent years. "We needed something like this to give the place a lift," said Dudley Browne, owner of the Trading Post, an antique shop on Main Street. "Some of the older people were saying, 'What's the big deal?' But I guarantee you if they could find tickets, they were there."

Tickets were scarce indeed in the last few days. Barber said she received one call from a Prince fan offering her $1,000 for a pair of tickets. (She declined the offer.)

"Heck, I've even got relatives now that I never knew I had before," Barber said. She also said that she wants to study music and eventually go to Los Angeles to become a singer.

The media spotlight shined hardest on Barber, who lives with her mother in a trailer park and has rarely ventured outside Sheridan. USA Today, People magazine, "Good Morning America" and the wire services all conducted interviews with Barber, and she introduced Prince on MTV.

But the real star of this event was Sheridan.

"It's amazing, but this contest put Sheridan on the map in one night," said Ross Campbell, owner of the Centennial Theater. "Even if it was just for a brief moment, America was watching us."

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