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How to Make or Break It at Box Office

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Godzilla vs. Jim Carrey.

As movies go, audiences just might flock to a spoof about an oversized comedian with big teeth who does battle with a giant lizard with even bigger teeth in the streets of New York.

But Godzilla vs. Jim Carrey isn’t a movie; it’s a story about how Hollywood studios market movies and the fickle nature of the film business.

On one side is Sony Pictures Entertainment, which roared into this summer’s movie season with what many believed would become the year’s biggest blockbuster, “Godzilla.” With the catchy phrase “Size Does Matter,” the studio blitzed America with clever ads that attracted a level of attention that was the envy of rivals.

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On the other side was Paramount Pictures, which had a bankable star in Carrey starring in “The Truman Show,” but which realized the movie was far more complex and message-infused than most of Carrey’s previous films like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Dumb & Dumber.”

When the dust settled, however, it was Paramount that reaped widespread praise for how it marketed “The Truman Show,” which took in $31.5 million on its opening weekend and an estimated $20.1 million in its second weekend, in both cases the nation’s No. 1 movie. (See related story Page F2). Meanwhile, Sony was left with lizard egg on its face, trying to explain why “Godzilla,” even though it debuted with $55.7 million in box office in its first four days, has failed to live up to its potential.

To be sure, the two films have nothing in common thematically. “Godzilla” is a popcorn movie about a monster running amok. “The Truman Show” is a cautionary tale of an ordinary man who discovers that his whole life has been a lie.

Nevertheless, Sony and Paramount faced similar challenges: attracting audiences that would not normally see films featuring either Godzilla or Carrey.

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The reason Sony stumbled was twofold, according to executives at Frank Magid Associates, a Universal City-based firm that conducts consumer research on movies, TV shows, videos and the Internet. The film was sold as a single concept--the monster--and it didn’t live up to the expectations created by the intense marketing effort.

“ ‘Godzilla’ stopped at one notion,” said David L. Smith, president of the Magid group’s entertainment division. “We believe the ‘Godzilla’ campaign sold the horror movie angle and missed the ability to sell a second story.”

Smith noted that another film, “Titanic,” was able to draw fans from across the spectrum because it not only sold the action aspect--the sinking of the ocean liner--but also the romance between the lead characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

“ ‘Titanic’ sold the story about a ship that sinks, and ‘Godzilla’ is about a monster who comes to New York,” Smith said. “Those are both givens. But what ‘Titanic’ had was a secondary story line, so you could broaden it beyond young male fans. Otherwise, you are in a limited marketing corridor.”

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While “Godzilla” enjoyed a big opening weekend at the box office, ticket sales decreased steadily, dropping 45% by the second week and 46% in its third week.

“You don’t get that type of drop-off unless you disappoint people,” said Michael A. Vorhaus, Magid’s managing director.

Both consultants questioned Sony’s decision to tease the public by not revealing the monster’s appearance until the movie opened.

“By not showing the monster, people expected to come in and see the best monster ever,” Vorhaus added.

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“Studios create different expectations,” Vorhaus said. “This was going to be a blockbuster. That creates a lot of expectations about the quality of the movie and the characters, etc., whereas ‘The Truman Show’ carefully didn’t create much in the way of expectations.”

Paramount, by contrast, not only marketed Carrey but also the story behind his character, Truman Burbank, who lives in a make-believe world in which everyone around him is an actor, and his life is being played out before hidden cameras and broadcast to millions of television viewers.

“ ‘The Truman Show’ was a very interesting new concept tied to a star,” Smith said, “so you had more than one notion [to market].”

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Before summer arrived, it was hard to find anyone in Hollywood who doubted that “Godzilla” would approach, if not eclipse, the Memorial Day weekend box-office record of more than $91 million set last year by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

Going in, Sony enjoyed key advantages: There was already built-in public awareness of “Godzilla” born of all those 1950s Japanese sci-fi films, and the men putting together the new creature, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, were the same partners who created the wildly successful 1996 sci-fi saga “Independence Day.”

But the movie did not come together until late April, when the filmmakers dropped in the final special effects and sent the movie off to make prints. That late completion--almost the norm in today’s Hollywood--left the studio only time to screen the film for exhibitors and two last-minute screenings for the press in New York and Los Angeles.

Neither the filmmakers nor Sony would comment for this story.

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Paramount, meanwhile, had one sizable advantage over Sony. “The Truman Show” was completed in late January. That gave the studio marketing team months to screen the film with journalists and other opinion makers and gradually build word of mouth.

“We all look, in this town, for that mysterious element called ‘buzz,’ ” said Paramount vice chairman Rob Friedman. “None of us knows how it gets generated, but it does.”

Friedman said Paramount’s challenge was to hold onto Carrey’s core fans while reaching out to those who never see a Carrey film.

“We felt it was important from our perspective to bring other voices into the process to say, ‘This is different,’ ‘This is special,’ ‘You need to pay attention,’ ” Friedman said. “If we’re the ones talking, people are quite cynical about that.”

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Paramount had the luxury of screening “The Truman Show” more than 300 times. Critics soon fell all over themselves raving about the film. Magazines like Time, New York, Entertainment Weekly and Movieline all featured Carrey on their covers.

“We kept rolling sevens with the press,” recalled Paramount marketing chief Arthur Cohen. “We’d show it to somebody hoping they’d like it, and they loved it. We’d show it to the next group hoping three out of four liked it, and got all four--then seven out of 10.”

All along the way, good fortune seemed to smile on Paramount.

Esquire magazine pronounced “The Truman Show” “the movie of the decade"--weeks before it opened. The studio blew the story up into a 6-foot-tall poster and placed it in 1,200 theater lobbies.

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Another piece of good fortune then fell into place when Paramount found that its TV commercials came during a spike in viewership as the networks began airing season finales of such hit shows as “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You.” The studio bought time during a “Seinfeld” retrospective preceding the final show.

All the while, Paramount was changing the mixture of its ads.

The first advertising “one-sheet” showed an image of Carrey composed of hundreds of scenes from the film. Later, the studio placed the image of a sleeping Carrey inside a television set with the words “On the air and unaware.”

“We kept adjusting the blend of those,” Cohen said. “Ten days before the movie opened, the tracking was huge. We knew it was working.”

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The studio also put the sleeping Carrey on an electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square. “We had 15 minutes of Jim Carrey sleeping that kept rerunning,” Friedman said.

Carrey and director Weir also worked the publicity circuit, getting the message out about the film, while the studio kept in contact with producer Scott Rudin twice a week, to let him know how the campaign was proceeding.

“Scott was a very active part of this whole campaign,” Friedman said.

Sony, meanwhile, was steaming ahead with its “Godzilla” marketing efforts.

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A team of media buyers scoured the country choosing locations to erect billboards that would carry ads tailored to that specific location. In Chicago, for example, one ad read: “His footprint is as big as Wrigley Field.”

The studio received rave notices for a memorable TV commercial that appeared on New Year’s Eve. In the commercial, Godzilla (never fully revealed) shows up in Times Square and knocks the ball ushering in the new year off its stand and into the crowd.

The movie was also hyped through commercial tie-ins with Taco Bell, Sprint, Duracell, Swatch watches, Kirin beer and Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream.

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Executives at Magid say despite the media blitz, the “Godzilla” ads did not seem to be targeted at any specific audience.

“They seemed to rely heavily on outdoor advertising for awareness,” Smith said. “That’s not very targeted. It just builds general awareness.”

“I didn’t see any ‘Godzilla’ ads that would be considered a female draw,” Vorhaus said. Indeed, Godzilla’s foot stomping down on terrified people is a male draw.

“Building awareness with outdoor advertising is not necessarily a bad thing,” Vorhaus said. “But awareness is only a small thing in a campaign. You also have to sell the benefits [of the movie].

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“They never sold the deeper message about what the film was going to do, like, ‘Do we kill [the monster]?’ They just left it as Godzilla. They got the name out there and never got out the message of what the deeper notion of the film would be.”


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