BLAST OFF!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The United States Congress created NASA in 1958 to send men to the moon. Forty years later, the folks at Disney want NASA to help send Americans to the movies--specifically, to "Armageddon," the $100-million asteroid-threatens-Earth saga that is the studio's most expensive film ever. And NASA seems eager to comply.

In what is assuredly one of the most lavish premieres in motion picture history, Disney's Touchstone Pictures is throwing an invitation-only "Armageddon" bash Monday night at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where much of the movie was shot. The 570-person guest list is A-caliber: In addition to most of the movie's stars (including Billy Bob Thornton, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler and Steve Buscemi), Kevin Costner, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cuba Gooding Jr. have RSVP'd "yes."

And thanks to Liv's dad, rock star Steven Tyler, the movie will not be the evening's only entertainment. That's right--after dining on grilled Atlantic salmon, chocolate-dipped strawberries and Apollo beer, guests will be treated to a live concert by Tyler's band, Aerosmith, followed by a fireworks show. The goal: One large party for "Armageddon," one giant leap for Disney's promotional machine.

"Once or twice a year, it's great to figure out a way to make a little noise," said Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth, who has made a tradition of kicking off Disney's biggest films with this kind of glamorous outdoor extravaganza. "This is the real deal. It's different. It's not like just having 800 people on the back lot."

The average movie premiere, held in Los Angeles on a studio back lot or at an existing theater, costs about $350,000. Disney won't say exactly what this is costing, though Richard Cook, chairman of Disney's Motion Picture Group, insists it is "not even close" to the $5-million range that some at rival studios have speculated. Aerosmith, which has four songs on the movie's soundtrack, is playing for free, Cook said. The TV satellite hookups are already in place for use during space shuttle launches. Of the fewer than 200 guests whose expenses Disney is paying, most are flying commercial airlines (not company jets) and being put up at hotels at DisneyWorld, an hour west.

Whatever the price, however, everyone at Disney agrees that the publicity generated by the expected media throng--80 television crews, 20 print journalists and scores of photographers--will be worth it.

"You pay a fortune to have these things. But Disney wouldn't do it if it weren't cost-effective," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose two previous films--"Con Air" and "The Rock"--had similarly extravagant premieres. (Bruckheimer, whose mother, agent and lawyer will also be attending the party, is one of the few guests who will fly a Disney jet to Florida--such first-class travel is written into his contract.)

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Even after "Armageddon's" biggest star, Bruce Willis, decided earlier this week that he would not attend the premiere because of his impending divorce from actress Demi Moore, Disney publicity chief Terry Curtin sounded confident that the combination of rock and movie stars would draw enormous attention to the movie's July 1 opening. She called the value of such press coverage "incalculable."

"This is clutter-busting," she said of the party's attempt to set the movie apart. "If you're not going to treat your film like an event, who is?"

The surprising answer, in this case, is NASA. Over and above the fancy festivities, what is most striking about the "Armageddon" premiere is how closely Disney and NASA are working together to pull it off.

The biggest thing NASA is providing is access. Armed with special security badges, guests will be delivered by bus to the Banana Creek Viewing Site--the closest the public ever gets to the space center's launch pads--and will enter a state-of-the-art theater Disney has constructed just for the event. They will dine underneath an actual 363-foot Saturn V rocket that is suspended inside NASA's visitor center, and they will hum along to Aerosmith while seated on the very same VIP risers where astronauts' families usually view the space shuttle launches.

NASA has hooked Disney up with the caterer it uses for other events. And in preparation for the party, the space agency has even spent the last six weeks trying to eradicate the mosquitoes that swarm in the hot, muggy wetland area.

"They've gone on this enormous mosquito abatement program just to get ready for us," said Cook, who said exterminators from DisneyWorld are also working on the effort. "Everyone's gone out of their way."

This is by no means the first collaboration between NASA and Hollywood. The feature films "Contact" and "Apollo 13" were both shot partly on location at Kennedy as well as the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Tom Hanks' recent HBO series, "From the Earth to the Moon," shot at the Florida facility, as did the syndicated TV series "The Cape."

And earlier this week, Oscar-winning director James Cameron ("Titanic") revealed that he has approached NASA about making a movie about the building of the international space station, the first module of which will be launched in November. NASA has yet to respond to his request.

But the "Armageddon" bash is the first bona fide big-screen movie premiere being held on NASA grounds, and employees of the space agency sound pretty tickled about it.

"Under the National Space Act, we're supposed to disseminate information about NASA's programs to the largest extent possible. A feature film with space themes reaches a lot of viewers," explained Lisa Malone, chief of media services at Kennedy Space Center, who said that no federal money will be used for the Disney party.

Malone acknowledged that many things in the film--in which a team of oil riggers rides a rocket into space to save the planet from doom--are not technically correct. Two space shuttles have never taken off simultaneously, for example, as they do in the movie. And the movie astronauts attempt a slingshot maneuver around the moon that NASA has never tried with the shuttle.

But the movie captures the NASA spirit, Malone said.

"In 'Armageddon,' as I remember the script, we sort of save the planet," she said. "We at NASA team with the oil drillers for the good of the planet. That's not fiction. That sort of thing NASA is known for: overcoming obstacles, teaming up together.

"We can't go out and create our own feature film," she said. "This engages the public in the possibility of the future, keeps the public interested. That's always something we're trying to do."

Disney's Roth was still a producer when he realized the benefits of throwing spectacular premieres. In 1994, his film "Angels in the Outfield"--starring Danny Glover and Tony Danza--premiered outdoors at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh for an audience of 30,000.

"[The marketing] people were nervous: 'Is it going to rain? Will [the audience] be able to relate to the screen?' " Roth recalled. "But people reacted as one. That gave us confidence."

Since then, Disney has regularly held its premieres in big outdoor spaces. "Pocahontas" (1995) debuted in Central Park, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996) screened at the Superdome in New Orleans after a televised parade in the French Quarter, "Hercules" (1997) was unveiled after a parade down New York City's Fifth Avenue. This year's "Mulan" premiered at the Hollywood Bowl.

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But for sheer audacity, there's nothing like the premiere of a Bruckheimer film. For "The Rock," the 1996 action flick set on Alcatraz, Disney flew 500 Hollywood insiders to San Francisco and ferried them to the island that once housed the famous maximum-security prison. For "Con Air," the 1997 thriller about brutal convicts hijacking an airplane, Disney flew an equal number of people to Las Vegas on commercial commuter airlines and bused them in "prisoner transports" to the screening.

Bruckheimer says that while such parties are fun, he sometimes finds the actual screenings at invitation-only premieres tiresome.

"The worst screening we ever had on 'The Rock' was at Alcatraz," he said. "It's an audience that sees 300 movies a year. That's their job. They don't react the way a general audience does."

And the "Con Air" premiere was widely seen as a dud. Las Vegas--a frequent destination for many Hollywood types--did not have the allure of Alcatraz or the Kennedy Space Center. And thematically, the "Con Air" party's setting was less connected to the film.

"It didn't set as well," Roth acknowledged.

Disney anticipates no such problem in "the land of the big toys," as the Kennedy Space Center is called. The awesome hardware that is assembled at the only spot in America where humans are launched into space will be a treat for party-goers to see, movie or no movie. So will the three real astronauts who plan to attend wearing their flight suits.

And if any of the movie stars in attendance decide to take a side-trip to visit DisneyWorld, that will be an added payoff, Disney's Curtin said.

"The parks really benefit when Ben Affleck shows up," she said.

Meanwhile, in Florida, the locals are getting ready for their close-ups.

"When word came out that the premiere was here, the phones started ringing. This is a very, very tough ticket to get ahold of," said Dan LeBlanc, director of marketing for Delaware North, the contractor that operates NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. He joked that he may offer to tend bar just to make sure he gets in.

"We've catered for men who've walked on the moon. And having movie stars here is almost routine for [shuttle] launches," LeBlanc said, noting recent visits by Hanks and Jim Carrey. "Still, from the standpoint of people here in Brevard County, this is pretty darn exciting. This is a real Hollywood premiere out at Banana Creek. You kind of have to pinch yourself."

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