TO SELL A ‘Thief’ : ‘Robin Hood’ and the uncertain science of hype

<i> Joe Leydon is the film critic of the Houston Post</i>

Just a few days before a lavish multimedia press junket for “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” one of the film’s stars, Alan Rickman, wasn’t altogether certain that all the hoopla was really necessary.

Not that Rickman, who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, has some sort of aversion to on-the-road hyping for his pictures. Indeed, at the moment he voiced his ambivalence, he was sitting in a Seattle hotel room, ready to present a film-festival premiere of “Truly, Madly, Deeply.”

“But maybe (‘Robin Hood’) is going to sell itself,” Rickman conjectured, “with no help from anybody.


“I guess everybody will be going there to have a nice time in New Orleans,” where the junket had been set to accommodate Kevin Costner’s shooting schedule on Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” “And I’ll be there, happily . . . if I could just be out on the street, listening to some jazz. That would be fine. Maybe we should all just forget the movie, and go eat and drink and have a good time.

“Oh, God!” Rickman exclaimed in mock terror, considering the subversiveness of his suggestion. “Warners will kill me!”

Well, no, nothing that extreme. But Robert G. Friedman, president of worldwide advertising and publicity for Warners, certainly would suggest that, at the very least, Rickman was misinformed.

Friedman is a man who can look you right in the eye, and maintain a perfectly straight face, when he tells you that “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” perhaps the most eagerly anticipated and certainly the most aggressively marketed film of Summer ’91, “is a movie that’s far from being pre-sold.” He speaks with the voice of conviction, and the knowledge gleaned from dozens of audience tracking surveys.

And he laughs, but does not smile, when he remembers what one of the earliest studio-commissioned surveys indicated.

“The earliest perceptions of a Robin Hood movie,” Friedman said, “were, why? Who cares? Why do we need a Robin Hood movie?”

This was just what Friedman did not want to hear during the late summer of 1990, just when Warner Bros. and Morgan Creek Productions were marshaling their forces for a Sept. 4 start on their $50-million summer 1991 blockbuster-to-be.

“You’ve got to understand--we found that the knowledge of Robin Hood is very, very limited to, basically, older males (age 25 and up). And while there was knowledge with older females, there was no interest. And young people had no interest whatsoever . . . in the early days of our market researching, and our strategizing on how we wanted to deal with this property, and what were our problems and opportunities.

“Now, obviously, when you go into opportunities, you have Kevin Costner. And you have the story itself, which was a unique telling of the Robin Hood myth. On the down side, well, there was only one (group) interested in the Robin Hood myth, the older males. And to a lesser degree, an interest from older females--only because of Kevin Costner, because that’s Kevin’s primary audience.

“So our agenda was, really, to take what obviously could be a nice, solid movie if you had older males who were interested, and older females who would not be resistant, because of the star . . . and, in order to get a big movie, deal with what we call the other quadrants. You had to deal with the younger segments of the audience: the younger males, and the younger females. And, by the way, turn the older female sort of passive interest into active interest. And all the while retaining your primary target, which is your older males.”

Movie junkets are curious events in which dozens of print and electronic journalists are turned loose on movie stars and moviemakers for brief, sometimes heatedly intense periods in lavish settings. The vast majority of junkets are held in New York and Los Angeles, and the journalists (most, but by no means all, paying their own way) fly in from all parts of the United States and Canada. (The larger junkets for the more high-profile films--films like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” for example--also invite U.S.-based members of the international press.) The usual routine calls for print scribes to see the film on a Friday night, then do “round robin” interviews--group interviews, where small clusters of reporters take turns with each notable connected with the film--the following Saturday morning. Electronic journalists see the movie Saturday night; the next day, each TV interviewer gets five to seven minutes with each notable. Sometimes, though, because of the sheer number of TV interviewers, the movie is screened early, just so the TV interviews can begin Saturday afternoon, after the print round-robins.

In other words, if more than 50 TV interviewers show up for a “Robin Hood"-- well, Alan Rickman might not be the only notable who’ll start wishing he or she were out on the street, listening to jazz.

When two movie junkets are “piggybacked,” the scheduling gets even trickier. “Robin Hood” was piggybacked with “City Slickers,” a Castle Rock production released through Columbia, with the two studios sharing expenses and guest lists, and the print and electronic journalists alternating between the two films.

Piggybacking is an even more common practice than it used to be, primarily because travel budgets are tight at many recession-hit newspapers, and print journalists simply cannot take as many trips as they used to. If you piggyback your junket with another studio’s picture, even if it’s not a picture entirely compatible with your own, you greatly increase your chances of attracting the maximum number of journalists.

That’s the upside. The downside is, junketeering critics and feature writers can’t help but make comparisons--between movies, between the studio personnel, between the pre- and post-screening entertainment provided by the studios. For instance, Warners won points with many junketeers by bringing the press to a revered New Orleans restaurant, Brennan’s, and arranging for a mealtime jazz concert, before busing the critics and feature writers off to “Robin Hood.” Columbia lost a few points by bringing the press to a post-screening feed at a trendoid Italian place with all the neon-lit soul of a shopping mall.

But Columbia might have the last laugh: Based on a highly informal survey of journalists in attendance, “City Slickers” seemed to be much more popular as a film, if not as an event, with the junketeers.

This time last year, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” was one of three Robin Hood projects that were in various stages of pre-production. 20th Century Fox was preparing its epic with director John McTiernan (“The Hunt for Red October”); Tri-Star had its own version on the drawing boards.

John Watson, co-writer and co-producer of “Prince of Thieves,” was worried at the time that his film might not get made. But looking back, he now realizes that ironically, the race to be first off the blocks and on track helped ignite the first jolt of want-to-see awareness among moviegoers who read about the competition.

“The publicity just happened, really,” Watson said. “It wasn’t so much of a campaign. But the other projects were out there, and the publicity sort of created itself.”’

It was all over but the shouting as soon as Morgan Creek signed Kevin Costner for the lead role. Fox subsequently announced that its “Robin Hood” would be a TV movie in the United States (but a theatrical feature elsewhere). Tri-Star dropped out of the game altogether.

And Costner became a living, breathing, bow-stringing marketing logo.

Scriptwriters and co-producers Watson and Pen Densham found it worked to their advantage that most moviegoers lacked a sharply defined knowledge about the particulars of the Robin Hood legend. “It was like, we had the chance to create the entire chessboard,” said Densham, who went so far as to invent an entirely new character--Azeem, a bold and wise Moorish warrior played by a scene-stealing Morgan Freeman--to serve as the most prominent of Robin’s merry men.

“It wasn’t like ‘Batman,’ ” said Morgan Creek chairman and CEO James G. Robinson, “where you had characters who were etched in stone--not quite, but almost--with the comic books and the TV show. In the case of ‘Robin Hood,’ while we know there’s probably 20 or 30 films shot about Robin Hood, the fact remains that they were films--they come and they go.”

But marketing any new product requires a specific image to sell, a sharply defined idea to hammer into the public consciousness.

“Recognition is one thing,” Warners’ Friedman said. “But it’s interest that we care most about. I’m sure that if you said the name Robin Hood, yes, people would have some knowledge of what you’re talking about . . . But the younger you got, the clarity there was about what Robin Hood was, and who he was, declined. Especially when you went outside of the larger metropolitan marketplaces.

“So, that’s the thing we wanted to communicate to the audience--Kevin Costner is Robin Hood.”

As far back as Christmas, Warners had a “teaser” trailer in thousands of theaters, showcasing a quick-cut montage of footage from the film, and linking the image with a sort of arrow’s-point-of-view trick-photography shot that was filmed especially for the trailer. (The shot so greatly impressed director Kevin Reynolds, he incorporated it into the completed film.) Here, necessity truly was the mother of invention--there wasn’t any way to be more specific about the plot, because, at the time the trailer was assembled, “Prince of Thieves” had only been shooting a few weeks. What you saw in the trailer was virtually all the completed footage Warners had on hand.

“We were very excited about the trailer,” Friedman said. “But also concerned. Because if it doesn’t work, then you’ve got to start from scratch. And we were on a fast track, with a deadline.”

Just about every junketeer who attended the New Orleans press gathering had some idea of how difficult a shoot “Prince of Thieves” had been. Most of the junketeers gleaned this knowledge from Premiere magazine, which ran a long, detailed on- location article in its June issue. Primed by the Premiere story, junketeers knew how “Prince of Thieves” had been rushed into production (director Kevin Reynolds had all of 10 weeks for pre-production), and what a terrible strain was placed on the friendship of Reynolds and Kevin Costner during the high-tension filming.

A cover piece in Premiere, a magazine that has become almost mandatory reading for film journalists, can play an important role in a studio’s marketing campaign--simply because so many other people writing about a film will do so after reading about it in Premiere. For the people behind “Prince of Thieves,” however, the article by Nancy Griffin was viewed as a mixed blessing.

The worst thing about the piece, Friedman said, was its revelation of a surprise appearance at the end of the film by a popular movie star. “They blew it--maliciously, by the way, because we asked them not to discuss the surprise ending . . . We’re still trying to figure out how they got a color photo of the star in full costume.”

(In the movie’s press kit, Warners specifically requests that journalists “help us keep this very special element of the story a surprise for all audiences.”)

At the interview tables during the round-robin interviews, junketeers often referred to Premiere by name when asking about tensions both on the set and during post-production. Kevin Costner himself allowed how he and Reynolds are no longer as close as they once were. And Pen Densham frankly admitted that Reynolds was “definitely overruled” during the editing of the film, “because he didn’t have a final cut.”

The final version of “Prince of Thieves” that opens everywhere on Friday actually is longer than Reynolds’ cut, Densham noted. Footage that had been deleted for various reasons--including a long, not entirely relevant but ineffably moving childbirth scene--was put back into the film by the producers. “But everything that is on the screen, (Reynolds) directed,” Densham said. “Everything that was in his cut is in the movie.”

What about the rumors that Reynolds was virtually locked out of the editing room? “Absolutely untrue,” said Densham. “Completely false,” said David Nicksay, president and head of production for Morgan Creek.

Kevin Reynolds was conspicuous by his absence from the “Prince of Thieves” junket. “He doesn’t do press junkets,” said Gary Barber, Morgan Creek’s chief operating officer. “He never has. He just doesn’t do that. He doesn’t like talking to the press.”

Even so, Reynolds, who was extensively quoted in the Premiere piece, managed to steal a bit of the junket’s spotlight simply by not showing up. Fortunately for the marketing people, the other Kevin was more than happy to co-operate.

Up to a point.

The teaser trailer has been running since Christmas, the lobby stand-up displays have been around almost as long. Various TV spots, each targeted at a specific audience--younger men, older women, Spanish-speaking moviegoers, etc.--are ready for airing. And on May 16, Warners unleashed “an all-audience trailer,” a 90-second magnum opus that you couldn’t avoid if you were watching network television that night. “Only one other time,” said Friedman, “did you have a commercial that was presented as an event that way. That was for ‘Batman.’ ”

But the licensing experts have been as busy as the marketing honchos, and that means we have seen, or soon will be seeing, Robin Hood T-shirts, mugs, posters, breakfast cereal, paperback novelizations, video games--and yes, “action figures.”

“That was a very difficult thing to mount,” said Barber, “because, usually, the lead time between tooling up and getting the molds and everything ready is a year-and-a-half process. But we went to (Kenner Toys) in September, October. So what they did was, they re-tooled some existing toy lines to fit this film’s characters.’

And how do the actors feel about becoming action figures?

“I’m looking forward to the little dolls,” said Christian Slater, who plays a mercurial Will Scarlett in “Prince of Thieves.” “When I was a kid growing up, I was the kind of guy that, like, bought all the ‘Star Wars’ figures, and all that sort of thing. And so, when they told me there was a possibility of actually being an action figure, I thought, ‘Oh my God! I could actually have Luke Skywalker kill me now!’ I thought that was the greatest.”

On the other hand, Kevin Costner has been able to contain his enthusiasm for the dolls. And, for that matter, for other commercial-tie-ins.

“When it comes to some of the children’s things, I’ve allowed that to happen,” Costner said. “But I’m not on the box of cereal, OK? That’s not me, that’s not my likeness on the box.”

(Costner recalls a time during the selling of “Bull Durham” when Wheaties wanted to promote the fact that, during a key moment in the film, Costner eats the cereal before he ravishes Susan Sarandon. “But then they actually saw the scene . . . And it was so funny to see them gracefully back out. They did, like, the backstroke.”)

Costner has veto power over the way his likeness, and footage featuring his character, is used. And he is not afraid to exercise that veto.

“I didn’t want to stonewall them over some of these things,” Costner said. “But I said ‘no’ probably 80% of the time.” For example, he nixed “a big Pepsi commercial tie-in with Taco Bell, which was a very big way to promote the film.” He hasn’t complained, however, about the action figures.

“There’s quite a bit of merchandising--more than I would’ve liked to have had to deal with. But when you open a door, open Pandora’s Box, you’ve got to deal with a lot of this stuff. And this movie was designed for that kind of thing. You try to cooperate. You try to find the balance between what you’re paranoid about, and what you’re not.

“It’s clear what role I play in the movie. And it’s clear what role I play in the imagination of the marketing of the movie.”

So far, David Nicksay is pleased with the promotional push for “Robin Hood.” He’s especially fond of the poster, which “centers on the image of Kevin Costner with a flaming arrow,” the same image emphasized in the trailers.

Is there anything more Warners or Morgan Creek could be doing to attract audiences? “Well,” Nicksay said, smiling, “we could pick people up off the street, and bring them into the theater. “

“You never take anything for granted,” said Barry Reardon, Warners president of theatrical distribution. “You’re always nervous, I think, right up until opening day. In fact, at one stage with ‘Batman,’ we were afraid we might have oversaturated.”

“We actually cut back a large amount of (‘Batman’) pre-advertising right before opening,” said Friedman, “‘because you just couldn’t get any more awareness.”

“But with ‘Robin Hood,’ ” added Reardon, “I think we’re at just the right level.”

“You’ve got to monitor it,” said Friedman. “The audience is a fickle lot. They will listen to what you’ve got to say, but in the end, it’s their choice. So you have to always be cautious not to presume that you’re getting to them. Or that your message is the only message.

‘You’ve got to be very careful not to oversell something, or to overhype it.’

But you also have to be careful that you haven’t hyped it enough.

“A few years back when I was at Paramount,” Reardon said, “we had a movie called ‘Black Sunday’ (a terrorism thriller starring Robert Shaw and directed by John Frankenheimer). We took it for granted that this movie was going to open and absolutely explode in the marketplace. In fact, I think on the opening weekend, we didn’t even run ads--we just ran the theater times. And we got the shock of our lives. Because we had presumed what it was--and it wasn’t.”

And what is “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”?

According to Alan Rickman--who did indeed show up in New Orleans, talked to reporters, then ducked out for some jazz--the movie “is quite clearly ‘Raiders of the Lost Sherwood Forest.’ ”

For the folks marketing “Prince of Thieves,” just as long as it isn’t “Hudson Hood.”