Taking the 'Menace' Out of Ad, Poster : Movies: The directors of the film say softer advertising campaign misrepresents their gritty, mean-streets story.

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

With the sleeper hit of the summer on its hands, New Line Cinema is looking to broaden the audience of "Menace II Society" by launching a new ad campaign. But in the process, the movie company has miffed the film's hot young twin directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, who feel the new look misrepresents their dark and gritty drama.

The original posters and billboards for the inner-city film feature a moody blue image of the two principal male characters and their "homeboys." The new, mostly black-and-white print ads show the protagonist, Caine (Tyrin Turner), embracing his smiling girlfriend, Ronnie (Jada Pinkett). The 21-year-old Hughes brothers, for whom "Menace" marks their directorial debut, have told New Line the softer ads are misleading because their movie is a realistic, unflinching look at the mean streets of Watts as told through the eyes of a hustler torn between dreams of a better life, and the evil and violence that pervades his community.

The original art is run with the caption: "This is truth. This is what's real." The line accompanying the new ad reads: "The Most Important Film of the Summer."

Neither of the Hughes brothers would comment for this article, but last week one of the siblings responded to a question by radio host Michael Jackson: "I myself cringed when I saw that--whew!"

Although the low-budget movie, made for $3.4 million, has grossed an impressive $24 million since its release eight weeks ago, New Line officials said they redesigned the campaign three weeks ago to try to broaden the film's appeal to older blacks and attract crossover business outside the black community.

"We changed the ad to make the film seem more accessible to more people," said Mitch Goldman, New Line's marketing and distribution president.

New Line's original (and only formal) research, gathered over Memorial Day weekend when the film bowed, showed that 98% of the audience was black teen-agers. More recent informal exit surveys, done before the new ad campaign began, show the movie's core audience to be about 75% black, equally of both sexes between the ages of 17-24, with the balance being predominantly white. Goldman acknowledged that the new print ad "has done nothing dramatically to help us attract white audiences, but the trend toward more white business is continuing."

Chris Pula, president of theatrical marketing at New Line, who conceived the new look, explained that in trying "to reach beyond the core audience to people in their mid-30s," New Line decided it would help to "put some humanity into the visual," thus the decision to show the couple hugging.

Also, Pula said, "until now, I don't think people were aware there was a strong female presence in the film." Pula--who as a former marketing executive at 20th Century Fox recalled creating seven different print ads for "Home Alone" over 12 weeks--stressed it was not at all unusual to change the look of a campaign during a movie's run.

"I refresh campaigns all the time. . . . We just needed to shake things up a bit," said Pula, noting the movie was going into its sixth week of release when New Line introduced the new campaign.

Acknowledging the Hughes brothers' complaints, Pula argues that the new campaign "does not misrepresent" the movie or is in any way irresponsible, but in fact can raise the level of awareness. "I don't think this is going to turn off the core audience that has already seen the movie or is predisposed to seeing it, and I think it will reach deeper into the older Afro-American (population) and might possibly go into the non-Afro-American audience," he said.

The new ad is running in newspapers and on "wildposting"--the posters pasted up at construction sites and buildings--but is not displayed in movie theaters because it would have cost too much to distribute, according to New Line officials, who said the total marketing budget for "Menace" is around $6.5 million, about average for a low-budget film.

Pula said another impetus for the new ads was to create an image that would break through the clutter of all the competing summer films as well as one that distinguishes the film from previously released urban ethnic action dramas including "Boyz N the Hood," "Juice," "New Jack City" and "Straight Out of Brooklyn."

Says Pula: " 'Menace' is not only in competition with a dozen other big summer movies, but with an equal number of other action movies that can be rented for $2 in the video stores. This is a very violent film and on the surface it could be easily written off as one of those movies."

While "Menace" is considered a sleeper hit--a film that unexpectedly breaks out and does great business--it isn't selling as well as "Boyz N the Hood" did two years ago when it grossed $57.5 million. That John Singleton film, however, had several advantages, perhaps the most important being that it was the first of its genre and was backed by a major studio marketing and distribution plan. Goldman acknowledges that "Boyz" was simply more commercial. " 'Menace' is a much darker and little more depressing film and there's less potential for crossover than 'Boyz' going in."

While it is virtually impossible to draw a correlation between the direct impact of the new campaign and the film's box-office business, "Menace" had a substantially low percentage drop-off over the past weekend--only 2%--the smallest of any movie in the marketplace. It took in $940,000 over the latest three-day period on 392 prints, bringing the film's total to date to $23.8 million.

The Hughes brothers can't complain about that.

However, next weekend, the movie's box office could very well be eaten into by the opening of Singleton's new inner-city film, "Poetic Justice," starring Janet Jackson.

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