THE MARKETING OF A MECHANICAL HERO
Let’s be blunt: “RoboCop” is a terrible title for a movie that anyone would expect an adult to enjoy.
It sounds like something made up for a line of Garbage Pail transformer toys, like RoboRocker, RoboHunk or Reek the RoboHobo. Wind them up and watch them flash and clank.
“There was, as you say, a certain liability to the title,” acknowledged Charles Glenn, head of marketing for the New York-based Orion Pictures. “It sounds like ‘Robby the Robot’ or Gobots or something else. It’s nothing like that.”
Actually, “RoboCop,” the No. 1 movie on the weekend’s box-office chart, is a little bit like that, except that it has a mind and spirit all its own. It is an exploitation action movie that reminds you of a dozen others, with a hero--half-human, half Hewlett-Packard spare parts--who sounds like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the Six Million Dollar Man.
The character of RoboCop is the result of scientific fiddling that joins computer-driven robotics with the organic remnants of a gunned-down cop. RoboCop is supposed to be emotionally neutral and memory dead, but he gradually regains both functions and heads into the crime-ridden streets of near-future Detroit with the determination of Dirty Harry and the invincibility of Superman.
There are other things going on. The clever script, by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, satirizes the amorality of profit-mongers in the corporate side of the industrial-military complex and mocks today’s pop TV news (“Give us three minutes, we’ll give you the world”) with some hilarious inserts starring real life pop broadcaster Leeza Gibbons.
If you’re not hooked yet, you will appreciate the problems facing Orion’s marketing people. How do you convince wary adult filmgoers that a violent action vigilante movie is smart and that RoboCop is a superhero for all ages?
One of the things Orion did was to fly in the face of the wisdom that you don’t show action movies to film critics. But “RoboCop” had one element that would force most critics to view it with an open mind--it was directed by Holland’s Paul Verhoeven, whose “Soldier of Orange,” “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man” had won favor with both critics and America’s art house crowd.
“We began showing ‘RoboCop’ to critics very early on, before it was rated, before it was finally edited, before it even had a score,” Glenn said. “There were major critics who felt strongly about Verhoeven’s work and we felt strongly they would respond to this.”
There have been some dissenters, but overall, “RoboCop” has been one of the best reviewed films of the year, and Glenn got what he wanted, “early reviews from significant sources that we could have in the newspapers as part of advertising on opening day, particularly those (comments) geared toward an older audience.”
Glenn was also able to insert some of those potent critical endorsements in spot network TV commercials that aired for three days prior to “RoboCop’s” Friday opening.
The work of introducing RoboCop as a hero for the ‘80s began three months ago, Glenn said. There were 5,000 red-band trailers (approved for showing with movies rated R) three months before “RoboCop” opened. Green-band trailers (approved for all audiences) began circulating a few weeks later.
Models and actors wearing fiberglass replicas of RoboCop costumes began appearing in major cities throughout the United States and Canada three weeks before the opening. RoboCop was seen at an auto race in Florida and a laser show in Boston. Kids had their picture taken with him at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, commuters had their pictures taken with him in the graffiti-decorated subways of New York.
Someone said he was even spotted at a Madonna concert.
“There is something very intriguing about RoboCop,” said Orion’s national promotions director Jan Kean. “Kids right through adults love him.”
“RoboCop” grossed $8.1 million in its first three days, meaning that Orion’s marketing campaign--culminating in a national sneak one week before the opening--has given it a chance to become a blockbuster hit. If it is, get ready for a merchandising onslaught.
Marvel Comics has already published a RoboCop comic book and will probably do more. A toy deal is in the works and Glenn says RoboCop dolls will likely be on the shelves by Christmas. A computer game will be available soon on software, with versions in all computer formats. The novelization of the movie is entering its second printing.
RoboCop has even been a hit as a pin-up boy. A special poster of the bioman has apparently been hotter than the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
Sheila Morphew, Orion’s licensing director, said she is currently negotiating for T-shirt deals, coin-operated arcade games, home video games and a variety of other suggestions funneling into her office.
You don’t have to be a cynic to note the irony of all this children-targeted merchandising for a movie that went through the ratings board several times before even qualifying for an R rating.
“It is usually very difficult to (merchandise) R-rated films,” Morfew said. “With ‘RoboCop,’ it has been no problem.”
Obviously, RoboCop is a hero for all ages, even if his violent means of justice is deemed for adult adults.
Orion appears to have hit the home run that all studios try for and seldom achieve. It has created a brand new hero, with a clear track for further exploitation. You don’t even have to ask whether a sequel is being considered.
“RoboCop” may outlive “Rambo.” One can hope.