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Sucked In by the Force : ‘Twister’ Has Been a Monster at the Box Office, Thanks, in Part, to Millions Worth of Free Publicity From Newspapers, Magazines and Television Shows

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It is a runaway force that, like the weather event that inspired it, seems to know no boundaries: the “Twister” marketing phenomenon.

This whirling maw has broken out of the movie pages, touching down in news sections, features sections, on evening newscasts from coast to coast, on “Oprah” and even on the cover of this week’s Time magazine--helping to spew millions of dollars into the coffers of Warner Bros., the studio that owns the domestic rights to “Twister.”

It is the ultimate TV-friendly story: a hot movie about a frightening force of nature--one that just about every local TV station in America has on tape in this era of the amateur videographer.

Such footage, combined with shots from the movie eagerly provided by Warner Bros., has prompted stories about “real-life storm-chasers” and “what it’s really like in twister country,” providing a marketing bonus for the $70-million special-effects-driven movie.

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You might say “Twister” has become the F-5 of movie marketing.

Ad industry experts say the studio has received millions of dollars in free publicity beyond that normally generated by a movie of this type.

“I’ve got to think that the exposure is worth double their advertising budget,” said Jack Trout, who heads a marketing strategy firm in Greenwich, Conn. “Let’s say they spent $5 million on advertising. They’ll get another $5 million in free space easy. Just Time magazine and the TV shows connects in the mind. That is the beauty of it.”

To be sure, Warner’s marketing campaign has been a key to the film’s success. Movie trailers and TV commercials have emphasized the menacing nature of tornadoes while also trumpeting the fact that “Twister” is the product of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (“Jurassic Park”) and action director Jan de Bont (“Speed”).

The payoff for Warners and Universal Pictures, which co-financed the film, has been enormous. With Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton starring as tornado-chasers in America’s heartland, the movie grossed more than $41 million on its opening weekend, the biggest non-holiday opening ever in May.

“A movie of this sort is like a twister, knocking down everything in its path,” said Paul Schulman, whose New York firm purchases network television commercial time for major companies from Ralston-Purina to ITT-Sheraton.

“Helen Hunt is ubiquitous,” Schulman added. “Everywhere you look, you see Helen.”

The filmmakers also timed their release date for the spring--twister season in the Midwest--when TV newscasts across the country are airing footage of real-life tornado touchdowns almost nightly.

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In the last two weeks, more than 900 programs have been seen across the country on the topic of twisters, said Stan Landsman, account representative for Radio and T.V. Reports, a company that monitors broadcast and cable programs nationwide. And, in the last month, there have been 1,156 twister-related programs and segments.

“There have been other films that are big, but this is huge,” Landsman said. “The amount of coverage is phenomenal. It’s getting a lot of attention, probably because it’s relevant to people. The tornadoes are current and they’re happening now and there are people who actually chase these things for the government, so it’s not just some fluff movie.”

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Nationwide, newspapers have also grabbed hold of the subject of tornadoes.

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Tuesday’s Dallas Morning News had a story on tornado-chasers headlined “Twisting Reality,” inspired by the movie, and the Des Moines Register wrote this week about the state’s own real-life tornadoes alongside a story about a man who owned a Victorian house used in a climactic scene of the movie (and his plans to turn it into a tourist attraction and R.V. park).

“There’s been a lot of coverage on it,” said Des Moines Register reporter Tom O’Donnell, based in Ames, Iowa, where some of the movie was shot. “The weekly papers in central Iowa where ‘Twister’ was being filmed went berserk on it. And on TV recently there was a University of Iowa psychologist talking about storm phobia. He said people who have this problem should probably not go see this movie.”

Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times ran a first-person account of a reporter who recalled what it was like to be raised in Iowa, where tornadoes often strike unexpectedly.

The release of “Twister” has only served to whet the public’s appetite for tornado coverage.

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Time and Entertainment Weekly magazines--both owned by Time Warner, the parent firm of Warner Bros.--have cover stories this week related to the film. Time’s cover is headlined “On the Trail of Twisters” and gives an account of real-life storm-chasers. Entertainment Weekly’s cover has a photograph of Hunt and Paxton, with ample coverage inside.

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Local television newscasts have been filled with “Twister"-related stories, with affiliates providing real-life tornado footage and Warner Bros. supplying scenes from its movie.

At KNBC-TV Channel 4 News in Los Angeles, for instance, last week’s newscasts included several stories tied to the movie, including segments on real-life storm-chasers, the film’s special effects, towns where the movie was filmed and extras involved in the film.

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“We anticipate the public’s tastes and try and put stories on that people will find interesting and compelling,” said Bill Lord, vice president and news director of Channel 4 News. He added that if there is compelling video of a tornado “viewers will tune in.”

Throughout May, cable’s Weather Channel is airing a tornado documentary and has rushed into print a 184-page book filled with photos of lightning and tornadoes titled “Storm Chaser,” by photojournalist Warren Faidley.

A Weather Channel spokeswoman said of using “Twister” as a peg: “Any network that has something related to tornadoes is airing it now.”

Meanwhile, PBS aired a new series called “Savage Skies” with an episode called “Riders on the Storm,” which looked at storm-chasers and re-created the fatal day in 1991 when a family of twisters wiped out a Kansas town.

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Before “Twister” reached the theaters, Fox television aired a made-for-TV movie called “Tornado!,” which was seen in about 9.8 million homes--the best rating for a Fox Tuesday night movie since “The O.J. Simpson Story” on Jan. 31, 1995. Warner Bros. bought commercial time in “Tornado!” to hype its film.

And last week, CBS aired the classic 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz,” in which a frightening tornado transports Dorothy (Judy Garland) to the magic land of Oz. Far from the computer-generated effects of today, that twister was created on a sound stage out of twirling nylon.


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