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COMMENTARY : Why Disney’s ‘Cradle’ Rocked the Nation : Movies: Savvy marketing turns films from the big screen into hot topics for the small screen.

NEWSDAY

Last week, a news feature segment of NBC’s “Today” show led in with a brief scene from the current hit movie “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” then cut almost immediately to a real-life home video of a baby-sitter abusing the 2-year-old child entrusted to her care.

The reporter on the story said that the child’s parents, suspecting something amiss with their baby-sitter, set up a hidden video camera and had their worst fears realized. The videotape recorded the baby-sitter, frustrated over the child’s refusal to eat, fly into a rage, slap the child repeatedly over the head, then grab her arm and jerk her off the kitchen counter to the floor.

The sounds and images of that blurred videotape were infinitely more disturbing than anything in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” So were subsequent stories in that same report about babies being left brain-damaged or physically impaired by abusive baby-sitters.

But those events were also unlike anything in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Though the Disney/Touchstone picture quickly made “Child Care or Child Endangerment?” the subject du jour of network morning and syndicated talk shows, the movie isn’t about that. It features a crazy nanny, as advertised, but she isn’t out to hurt the kids in the house, and doesn’t; she’s after their mom.

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It’s great that the risks of hired child care are being examined in these high-profile formats. At the same time, Disney may be up for a 1992 media con-job award (a Connie?) for turning this conventional thriller into some sort of breakthrough social-issues drama. Not on the big screen, but on the little one, where Oprah, Phil, Geraldo, Maury and the others have devoted hours to simultaneously exploiting and promoting this modest little movie.

Those shows and others have missed the point of “Cradle” by a mile. What “Cradle” taps into is the fear of working mothers that their baby-sitters or nannies will, because of their nurturing role and long hours on the job, steal their kids’ affections. Take their place! The clip used in that “Today” show feature on child abuse shows Rebecca De Mornay’s calmly manipulative nanny bonding with the 6-year-old girl and plotting against her mom. But the subject of the news story was out-of-control baby-sitters and the physical harm they do.

Parents have always had horror stories to share about baby-sitters, and that fear has been dramatized in movies many times. What’s new is the predominance of two-income families and single working mothers who need full-time child care. By upgrading the nutty nanny theme and successfully linking it with a genuine concern of a hot demographic group, Disney assured “Cradle” of incalculable free time and space in the media.

The theme seized by the media may not have been the one Disney was pushing, but its goal--to “put the movie into the culture,” as a studio marketing executive said--has definitely been accomplished.

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More than anything, the box-office success of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” shows how completely the news media have been fused to the marketing divisions of the entertainment industries. Not just movies but TV, music, books and the fine arts.

In the case of film, there has always been a bridge between the media and Hollywood. The Dream Factory manufactured the stars and used the media to sell them to the public. With the vast proliferation of specialty entertainment outlets--TV shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and magazines like Entertainment Weekly--the cult of celebrity is alive and more over-exposed than ever. There was simply no hiding last year from Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage, Barbra Streisand’s self-analysis or the blossoming romances between Warren and Annette and Julia and Jason.

But, as we have seen with “Cradle” and such movies as “Boyz N the Hood,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Dances With Wolves,” and--the Mother of All Media-Movie Crossover Obsessions--"JFK,” the relationship between entertainment and the media has gone way beyond the celebrity/filmmaker interview, way beyond the entertainment news medium.

The bridge is now a two-way thoroughfare. The media, desperate to broaden their appeal in the face of declining readership and ratings, are more interested than ever in popular culture, and the rising costs of filmmaking and marketing have forced the studios to look for other ways to promote their products.

For Hollywood, it is this simple:

If all you have to offer the media are stars and filmmakers, your publicity will only be as visible as the people you put on the road, and it will be spent by the time the movie opens. If, on the other hand, the movie’s theme can be sold as a contemporary social issue, one that can fire the imaginations or wrath of lifestyle and political columnists in newspapers and sound at least as promising to talk-show producers as people who shave and tattoo their pets, publicity campaigns can become long-distance runners.

In the Era of Superficiality in the Arts, the connection doesn’t have to be too strong. Last year, financially strapped MGM-Pathe got in the jet stream of free publicity when its female buddy movie “Thelma & Louise” tapped into the anger of American women and prompted months of media debate, culminating with a cover on Time magazine.

In a way, the studio was unlucky; if “Thelma & Louise” had been released after the Thomas-Hill hearings, in the fall instead of early summer, pundits would have had a field day comparing the Neanderthal men in the movie to that slack-jawed bunch sitting on the Senate panel.

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Time magazine, by no means alone in its enthusiasm, also devoted a 1991 cover to Jodie Foster, on the occasion of her directorial debut with “Little Man Tate.” The attention was hardly merited by the movie, but Foster’s saturation sales campaign gave the non-entertainment media a peg upon which to hang stories about the changing role of women in Hollywood. (In this case, the marketing strategy may have backfired; everybody was thrilled for Foster, but few people went to see the movie.)

“JFK,” of course, was destined to be thrashed out by every political writer, columnist and news analyst in the country. And as thoroughly dissected and debated as it has been, we haven’t heard the last of it. With feisty Oliver Stone on the stump, inveighing against the government and the very media he is using to carry the fight, he may actually prompt a new investigation into the assassination and keep “JFK” on the marquee for months to come.

When Stone accepted his Golden Globe Award for best director last month, he told a national TV audience that the award acknowledged the fact that Americans were fed a terrible lie 28 years ago.

Calling the award a referendum on the veracity of his conspiracy theory was presumptuous, to say the least, and placed the Golden Globes in a political-intellectual context they have never been in before. But it also set up another debate, should Stone be overlooked next month by the Oscar voters. (Did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have Kennedy killed? We’ll soon know.)

Disney’s strategy with “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” which has no major stars, was evident from the first press release “positioning” the movie as a “Fatal Attraction” for the ‘90s. There are no plot parallels between the two pictures, other than their revenge motifs, but the comparison suggested another popular thriller “torn from today’s headlines.”

It didn’t matter that critics found it a bad comparison, both in terms of subject matter and quality. To the general-interest media, “Cradle” could be useful in selling news features and TV shows to a broad audience. The attention validated “Cradle” as an important movie in the public mind, and predisposed people to judge it, appreciate it and discuss it as such. Whether it warrants it or not, whether it made it on its own thematic merits, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” has indeed entered the culture.

Its success recalls another family-crisis thriller, “The Stepfather.” That 1986 film, about a sociopath who marries his way into a broken family and terrorizes it from within, was superior in every way to “Cradle” and got rave reviews from critics. But its distributor, New World, couldn’t get people to see it, despite a variety of different ad campaigns.

If “The Stepfather” were coming out now, and a savvy marketing team were handling it, things might be different. Imagine a call from the studio to the “Today” show: “You know that more than 50% of marriages end up in divorce, and that the majority of divorced or widowed mothers remarry. But did you ever stop to think what kind of men they bring home? Boy, do we have a story for you!”

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