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Sigourney Goes Ape : An Eager Weaver and Her Cohorts Go All Out to Promote ‘Gorillas’

Sigourney Weaver told Parade magazine about the time she lived in a kibbutz in Israel because she was thinking about “becoming Jewish . . . I dreamed we’d all be working out in the fields like pioneers, singing away. Not at all. We were stuck in the kitchen. I operated a potato-peeling machine.”

She joked with Premiere magazine about her debutante days: “My parents just thought that in case Prince Charles was interested, I should have had every advantage.”

With Vanity Fair, she made an entrance a la Gloria Swanson. “I’m ready for my interview,” she hissed, wrapped in a huge shawl and brandishing three unlighted cigarettes.

She revealed to USA Today that her dad “always said I should read a script and if it takes place on the Riviera, I should say yes and if it takes place somewhere unpleasant, I should say no.”

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She told the New York Post that she doesn’t just go out and pick roles as strong willed women: "(But) it’s very hard to play a person who screams and runs around in high heels and completely stops thinking whenever there’s a problem.”

Weaver covered the landscape--but common to all her recent interviews have been gorillas and anthropologist Dian Fossey, central subjects of her current film, “Gorillas in the Mist.”

Weaver was out beating the drums, Hollywood-style, in the ritual known as movie promotion.

She may not have achieved a Guinness-sized world record, but she definitely logged an impressive number of interview hours: She gave some three dozen one-on-one interviews. A mouthful.

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(She even interviewed herself--doing a bylined Life magazine cover story based on her diaries written during six weeks with gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of the African country of Rwanda.)

One-on-ones are tough enough, but consider her killer press meeting at the Regency Hotel in New York City. Over two days, Weaver was confronted by 59 print journalists and 55 TV journalists from across the world in a fierce round robin of interviews.

And she’s still speaking up for the film--and its message. Earlier this week, she was named honorary chairman of the Digit Fund--dedicated to the survival of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. At that time Weaver announced a gorilla “adoption” program. (For a fixed fee of $1,000 to $10,000, a gorilla may be “adopted.” Adoptive “parents” will receive a photo of “their” gorilla, genealogy record and quarterly reports.)

Now, in olden days it wasn’t unusual for a star to campaign for his/her film and, in fact, it’s still common for TV actors to stump the country for their big-budget miniseries like so many candidates on the campaign trail.

But in recent times, the care and maintenance of the star image has become an art form practiced by publicists who tend to believe that less may well be more.

Some stars just don’t do interviews. Then there are those who do interviews only for carefully selected publications/shows. Often the interviewers themselves must pass muster. And sometimes there are even rules about what can or cannot be asked.

All of which is to say it’s not usual for a movie celebrity of Sigourney Weaver’s level to engage the press on such a broad front. One Weaver interviewer admitted: “I wonder why I even got to do Sigourney. She’s a big star and we aren’t that big a newspaper.”

Weaver did her duty with freshness and spirit. Little wonder that the Universal Pictures publicity executives have seemed almost giddy over her cooperation.

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Universal assisted Calendar in the chronicling of the Weaver/"Gorillas” campaign after Calendar spotted a curiously large number of cover stories on her. Not so anxious to assist was Weaver’s P.R. agency, PMK, which had worked closely with Universal on the campaign. “Who cares! Can’t you just let the publicity speak for itself?” said a PMK publicist.

Weaver’s rep later called back to to say that the star “does interviews about her work, but not about her publicity.”

(Ironically, PMK co-owner Pat Kingsley, who normally stays well behind the scenes, was herself the subject of a recent cover story in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in which she discussed publicity.)

Whether all this coverage adds up at the box office remains to be seen.

“We never kidded ourselves about this movie. We didn’t have an Eddie Murphy or a Tom Hanks. We knew this wasn’t something we thought we could open wide on 1,500 screens,” admitted Tom Pollock, chairman of the MCA Motion Picture Group (MCA Inc. is the parent company of Universal).

“Gorillas” opened in only 15 theaters, on Sept. 23, then widened to 550 theaters in Week 2. As of last weekend, “Gorillas’ ” grosses were $15.6 million. That’s not a hefty figure, given the number of weeks at the box office (five), the current number of theaters where the film is playing (1,085) and the production budget of $24-million.

(Co-produced by Universal and Warners, “Gorillas” is being distributed in the United States and Canada by Universal; Warners is the foreign distributor.)

Pollock acknowledged, “It’s definitely not blockbuster business, but it’s not disappointing either. Not when you consider what we’re up against: It’s much easier to sell films to younger moviegoers than to older moviegoers.

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“You can sell an ‘Alien Nation’ with a 30-second spot. You can’t sell a ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ that way. It’s an entirely different kind of movie. For a different audience.

“Older audiences can’t be sold on an ad line or a concept. They’ve got to think they’re going to see a good movie. And you can’t fool people about being good.”

Pointing out that today’s TV spots for network TV shows look much like movie spots (“They’re quoting the critics, too. ‘Best new show of the year . . . ' "), Pollock added, “I think people are tuning out TV advertising to some extent. And I think (personal) publicity is coming back as a tool.”

In the case of the “Gorillas” campaign, Weaver made that tool work.

“What she did on this movie,” said Pollock, “is more than any other actor or actress has done on a film for us in the last several years. She worked her tail off. You could not buy that kind of publicity for any amount of money.”

Couldn’t all this coverage, combined with largely positive reviews, result in Academy Award nominations?

“I don’t think anybody can ever safely predict what the Academy is going to do,” said Pollock. “Let’s just say that publicity has certainly put our movie out there. We aren’t in the habit of second-guessing the Oscars.”

Nonetheless, early reviews (see accompanying story) indicate an Oscar nomination could be in Weaver’s future. (It would be her second, following a nod for “Aliens.”)

All this coverage could also result in financial gain for Weaver--if she has “points” in the film and its profits. A representative for her agent, Sam Cohn, said he wouldn’t discuss his client’s contract. “He never discusses contractual matters. But he thanks you for your interest.”

Longtime industry analyst Art Murphy emphasizes that “Gorillas” could do well internationally, largely because of its appeal to animal/nature lovers and because of Weaver’s status as the no-nonsense star of the movie “Alien” and its sequel, “Aliens.”

(Murphy reminded that a film travels through eight markets, during a period of about four years, to earn its money. And he pointed out that “this is the kind of movie the TV networks will love.”)

As for domestic box office potential, Murphy predicted $20 million to $30 million. “You aren’t talking about a ‘must-see’ kind of picture. This movie doesn’t have immediate gut appeal, and it’s not aimed at kids.”

Another marketing challenge, according to Murphy: “The target audience has already ‘seen’ this movie.” He was referring to television viewers who have seen the 1976 National Geographic Special “Search for the Great Apes,” about Fossey and her commitment to the gorillas.

Making a Difference

Publicists for “Gorillas” found a willing reception among the media. “We didn’t seek out all this press. “ They called us,” said Pat Newcomb. It was Newcomb who coordinated the publicity between Universal P.R. staffers and Weaver’s rep at PMK and kept Warner Bros. informed about strategies.

(A one-time partner in PMK, Newcomb later specialized in film campaigns at Rogers & Cowan and was an MGM production vice president for two years. She has a reputation for working only on projects in which she believes, and with stars/film makers the likes of Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand and Mike Nichols.)

“We had a movie that was about something,” Newcomb says of “Gorillas.”

“And we had a performer with a high likability factor--there’s something about her.” With a nod toward Weaver’s gutsiness, both on screen and off, she said: “I mean, what other actress would go through something like this? She went up 10,000 feet to live with gorillas for six weeks. And she came away fascinated with her subject--and feeling that the movie might, in some way, continue Fossey’s work.”

If there is a common thread in the many interviews, it is Weaver’s stated belief in the movie and its message--about one person who made a difference.

As Weaver reported (many times over), she came to share the late Dian Fossey’s passion for the gorillas of the Virunga Mountains. (The movie was filmed in and around Fossey’s actual research center, and “stars” some of Fossey’s gorillas.)

Weaver also told of developing a link to the woman she portrayed. “I do think Dian was sending down vibes to us as we shot, and perhaps I communed with her, in my own way,” she said to the Chicago Tribune.

The “jungle girl” theme was not lost on headline writers across the country. (Nor were some bad puns.)

Note some of the headlines:

“GORILLAS OF MY DREAMS"--New York Daily News

“THE BEST FRIEND A GORILLA EVER HAD"--Philadelphia Daily News

“QUEEN KONG"--Life

“SIGOURNEY GOES APE"--New York Post

“BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS"--Newsday

“HELP ME, RWANDA"--Premiere magazine

The most popular visual image turned out to be a Universal-supplied photo of Weaver cradling a fetching baby gorilla. Vanity Fair, meanwhile, opted for animal instinct with its smoldering cover shot--by Annie Leibovitz--of Weaver emoting in a $3,200 Bob Mackie leopard cut velvet dress. The headline: “SIGOURNEY WILD.”

Perfect Hybrid

Many male reporters took note of Weaver’s statuesque appearance (and four-inch spike heels) in their articles.

(To hear Weaver tell it, to Parade magazine, of all her leading men, only Chevy Chase, 6-foot-4, was put off by her height, 5-11: “I’d come on the set with my high heels and he’d say, ‘Should I get up on a box?’ ”)

The Miami Herald’s Ryan White waxed: “The makeup--dove-gray eyelids, rosy lips and cheeks--is sheer innocence. The legs--done up in black silk hosiery . . . --sheer sex. Dian Fossey said she wanted either Elizabeth Taylor or Brooke Shields to play her. . . . In Weaver, they’ve found the perfect hybrid.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s David Kleinberg, who surmised Weaver might be “too beautiful” for the role of Fossey, marveled: “One of the most attractive women in the business, she has hardly a line on her face at age 38.”

Not that Weaver was the only one out stumping for “Gorillas.” “Keep in mind that everyone involved with the movie did interviews--not just Sigourney,” said publicist Newcomb.

Along with a slew of stories about cast and crew, “Gorillas” generated numerous articles on animal rights--and travel. Interested in tracking gorillas? See the October issue of Travel & Leisure--the one with the cute “cover gorillas.”

Director Michael Apted’s appearance at a Toronto film gathering resulted in a flurry of interviews in the Toronto press. (Apted participated in the Cineposium of the Assn. of Film Commissioners. “Gorillas” was screened for the Cineposium, held in conjunction with the Toronto Film Festival and the Ontario Film Development Corp.) And he was central to numerous stories about the making of the movie.

Handsome leading man Bryan Brown did about 14 one-on-ones, in addition to the junket.

Producers Arnold Glimcher and Peter Guber, director Apted and John Omirah Miluwi, a member of Mt. Kenya’s mountain rescue team who portrayed Weaver’s animal tracker-friend, also participated in the New York press junket. (Later, the “Gorillas” gang was reunited for a Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. conference.)

As befits a film about a woman who fought to save an endangered species, “Gorillas” was kicked off by premieres that benefited animal organizations. Those premieres--especially the starry East Coast and West Coast galas--grabbed column inches too.

The world premiere in New York--followed by a party at Tavern on the Green--was for the benefit of the African Wildlife Foundation. (The affair held its own in the society columns, despite being on the same night as the New York Philharmonic’s season opener, the Amethyst Ball for the Alcoholism Council of Greater New York, a Bloomingdale’s store party to benefit the Creo Society for Children With AIDS and the premiere of the movie “Bird” at the Museum of Modern Art.)

The premiere in Los Angeles, followed by a party held in the partially tented parking lot next to the Cineplex Theater complex, benefited the Digit Fund. The latter was established by Fossey, who was slain in African in 1985, to help protect the endangered mountain gorillas. (The fund was named in honor of a favorite gorilla that was beheaded by poachers.)

Both bashes found columnists oohing and aahing Weaver’s performance. And quoting guests who offered their own “reviews.” (According to USA Today’s Jeannie Williams, premiere attendee Diane Sawyer, “who’s been to Kenya,” thought Weaver was “terrific” in the film.)

Well, guests got mentions, too. (Michael Douglas and his shoulder-length hair.) And fashions--including the sizzling red Geoffrey Beene gown that Weaver wore to the L.A. premiere. The gathering was also notable for its supper party menu of shrimp, pastas, chicken, Caesar salad, sundaes, brownies and chocolate-dipped strawberries. And MCA chief Sidney J. Sheinberg’s revelation that the film “made me cry, and I’m not known as a softie.”

Furry Friendships

Animals--and the animal rights issue--grab at a lot of people. As such, “Gorillas” generated a number of stories that concentrated on critters. (In fact, last April the syndicated wildlife/outdoor series “Spirit of Adventure” had the first footage from the film, in an episode about gorillas.)

The Science & Medicine section of the Detroit Free Press did a lengthy examination of “Protectors of the Apes"--focusing on a University of Michigan researcher who works with gorillas.

The New York press got James Stewart to talk about his fondness for furry friends when he attended the film’s New York benefit premiere, with wife Gloria (who’s on the board of the African Wildlife Foundation). In fact, he told the New York Post that he knew on his very first date with Gloria that if he was going to win her over, he’d also have to win over her German shepherd. “I got the girl.”

In the case of actress Betty White--whose name has been linked to animal causes since 1971 (when she wrote, produced and hosted TV’s “The Pet Set,” featuring celebrities and their pets)--it was she who called the film’s publicists to see if she could be of any assistance in the P.R. campaign.

She wound up doing print interviews--as well as chatting with “AM Los Angeles” hosts Steve Edwards and Cristine Ferrare and swapping jokes with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.”

Along with the usual electronic press kit made available to television (such kits are composed of assorted “spots” and “featurettes” about movies), “Gorillas” generated a specially made documentary.

The half-hour “Taking It to the Gorillas: The Making of ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ ” intercuts film footage with actual newsreel footage of Fossey. Narrated by Jason Robards, it details the making of “the remarkable story of an American hero.”

As for commercial plugs, along with prime-time spots (a one-minute, action-packed ad aired on the opening night of the Olympics), a “Gorillas” spot was created for viewers of the daytime soaps. Its emphasis: Fossey having to choose between love and career goals!

The word on the movie reached the schools too. Specifically grades 7 through 12--as targeted by Lifetime Learning Systems (which works in conjunction with studios and networks on study guide teaching kits).

The “educational program” sent to an estimated 10,000 junior and senior high school teachers consisted of six glossy pages about the movie, a small poster for the film (with the fetching pose of Weaver and the baby gorilla) and four “activity” pages. One of the activity pages stresses that Fossey put her life in jeopardy to save the mountain gorillas, then asks students to ponder the causes and sacrifices of other well-known people “who have fought for their causes.” (The names: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Pasteur, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela.) Another activity page asks students to compare how they would cope with a foreign culture with the ways that Fossey coped with African culture.

One Los Angeles reporter said he had hoped to have an early morning interview with Weaver. As it turned out, “She had already been booked to talk to some other people. I wound up getting a 4:30 slot.” When he got to the Bel Age Hotel, where Weaver was ensconced in an interview suite, “she was beat.”

He recalled: “She was sort of slumped back on this couch. She said she felt like she had done 40,000 interviews.”

Still, Weaver played the Movie Star. “She was very professional--and answered everything. I think it helped that I had a couple of questions that she hadn’t been asked before.

“When our photographer showed up, she even flashed this glamour-girl smile.

“I have no complaints. Hell, she was a sport.”


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