Marketing of a Star After Death


Her name was one of those buzzing in the Hollywood pipeline: Aaliyah.

It was the same pipeline that knew--just knew--that a sexy, young actor with a boyish grin named Brad Pitt was destined to become a movie star long before he appeared in “Legends of the Fall.”

The same pipeline that predicted stardom for a fleshy-lipped seductress named Angelina Jolie after she appeared in the HBO movie “Gia.”


The same pipeline that today predicts a golden future for a Dublin lad named Colin Farrell, who wowed critics with his performance as an American soldier preparing for duty in Vietnam in “Tigerland.”

But Aaliyah’s story didn’t fulfill any of the predictions. It dissolved amid swampy brush on Aug. 25, when a chartered, twin-engine Cessna 402 crashed on takeoff from Abaco Island in the Bahamas, killing the 22-year-old Grammy-nominated singing sensation and eight others.

While the film and music industries continue to mourn her loss and ponder how big her dual-track career might have become had fate not been so cruel, the reality for Hollywood is that the show must go on.

The question faced by film and record executives when a marquee star dies unexpectedly is, how? A star’s death naturally places their work smack in the middle of public view, potentially attracting a bigger audience at that moment than at any time while he or she was living. There is always a temptation to release new movies or records to capitalize on that publicity, but if studios and record labels do this, they risk alienating the public and even their credibility with artists.

In film, Warner Bros. faces two significant hurdles. This fall the studio must wrestle with how it plans to market “Queen of the Damned,” a youth-oriented, rock-driven horror film that features Aaliyah in the title role. Based on the Anne Rice novel of the same name, the $15-million to $20-million picture directed by Michael Rymer features Stuart Townsend as the vampire Lestat, who becomes a rock star and wakes up the queen of all vampires with his music.

Meanwhile, directors Andy and Larry Wachowski and producer Joel Silver are grappling with whether to recast Aaliyah as Zee in “The Matrix Reloaded,” the highly anticipated sequel to their 1999 blockbuster “The Matrix.”

The filmmakers remain tight-lipped about their secret project. Silver, through a studio spokeswoman, declines to discuss how they will deal with Zee. A decision to recast the role of Zee would be a sensitive undertaking if, for no other reason, than any false step could alienate her fans.

Indeed, the pressure on the studio is already evident by a petition by some of fans posted on the Internet. The petition, addressed to Warner Bros., states:

“In the wake of the tragic death of R&B; Singer/Actress Aaliyah, Warner Bros. is rumored to be cutting the scenes Aaliyah has already filmed for [‘The Matrix Reloaded’] and recasting the role. We would like to urge WB to honor the memory of Aaliyah’s life and keep her scenes .... “

While certain scenes have already been shot in the U.S., filming is scheduled to resume in Australia today). Silver told The Times shortly after Aaliyah’s death that the actress was not scheduled to go before the cameras until late October.

The mere possibility that such a choice part might be recast obviously has Hollywood’s agents and managers primed.

“The reality is, there’s a role available that a girl who was on her way to superstardom [was going to do],” said veteran manager Dolores Robinson. “Somebody is going to get that job. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. It’s not a wait-and-see business. It’s a business where you have to make decisions quickly.”

Warner Bros. had big plans for Aaliyah. After “Queen of the Damned” and “The Matrix” sequel, the studio hoped to cast her in an updated remake of the 1976 musical “Sparkle.”

Aaliyah and her mother had each read the script, studio officials said, and Aaliyah was passionate about playing the lead role of a young singer in a girl group like Destiny’s Child, who steps forward and becomes a singing sensation.

When script rewrites weren’t ready in time, however, production executives opted to wait until she had completed her work for the Wachowski brothers. The “Sparkle” project is now on the back burner, according to studio executives.

Howard Rosenman, who produced the original “Sparkle,” said he and producer Linda Obst also had their eye on Aaliyah for their own project called “Ghetto Fabulous,” which tells the story of a singer from small town America who wants to make it big.

“Her management called me about it and I think she even read the project,” Rosenman recalled. “We were interested in her, yes. She had that thing, that dual talent that is so hard to find. She could sing and act. She had a powerful career arc. And she was very beautiful and young--all those star qualities.”

To be sure, actors have died unexpectedly over the years during the filming of movies, and whenever that happens it creates an extremely delicate problem for the studio involved.

When Brandon Lee was accidentally shot to death on the set of Paramount’s “The Crow,” for example, the studio decided to back away from the project. Producer Ed Pressman was able to buy back the rights and strike a deal with Miramax.

David Dinerstein, who headed marketing at Miramax at the time, said that even though Lee was the star, the marketing could key off his character, which was based on a best-selling comic book.

“We didn’t have stars to work with, per se,” Dinerstein recalled. “The film itself was the star. We were just careful in how we marketed the movie. What we did was screen the film for the fans, and developed a very good word of mouth before coming out. But we were very careful not to exploit the events around the production.”

That same dilemma is now facing Warner Bros. with “Queen of the Damned.” Producer Jorge Saralegui noted that because the movie won’t come out until early next year, the studio has time to carefully develop the marketing plan.

While no decisions have been made on exactly how to market the movie, he said, there is really no way to get around the fact that Aaliyah is the star of the film and this is her last movie.

“There will be an empty chair,” Saralegui said. “Everything--the premiere, everything--will be affected by this. You want to make the movie as good as it can be. You want to make her as good as she can be [and] you hope to have everything hold up around her. She was the title character in our movie. It is a hell of a role--an actor’s role. Not a stunt role at all. Warners was a big fan of hers. [Studio production chief] Lorenzo di Bonaventura was a huge fan of hers.”

It was Di Bonaventura, the producer noted, who suggested that director Michael Rymer meet with Aaliyah on “Queen of the Damned.”

“Then I met her separately,” Saralegui recalled, “and it worked out much better than you would have expected.” He said Aaliyah had a fascination for ancient Egypt that predated the movie, and that was one of the reasons she wanted the role.

“She came in and met with Michael Rymer and they talked about the role and she improvised with him and he made a bet on her,” the producer recalled. “She was very charismatic.”

It wasn’t only the film world that she had entranced; music fans had already embraced her.

Executives at Blackground, Aaliyah’s record label, said the death forced them to dramatically slow their marketing efforts. Her new album, “Aaliyah,” had been released in mid-July, debuting on the national pop chart at No. 2. The album slid heavily in the next few weeks, but in the week following her death, sales spiked 595%. She has sold 1.1 million copies of this new record in total, according to SoundScan

Label executives said they have been devastated by her death and are determined not to appear as though they are capitalizing on it.

“The first thing we had to do was think about the legacy we want her to have,” said senior vice president Parrish Johnson. “We just took a step back on the project and made a few adjustments.”

Executives say the rising R&B; singer had recorded enough material for at least one more album, and that they expect to release a greatest-hits package, including one or two new songs, for sometime next year.

One unreleased track, a duet between the R&B; singer and folk-pop singer Beck, is scheduled to appear on a new album by producer Timbaland and his partner Magoo. That album is scheduled to be in stores Nov. 20.

The label said it was holding two completed music videos for the songs “More Than a Woman” and “Rock the Boat"--the latter completed shooting just before the plane crash.

“We are going to be releasing them to the music-video channels,” said spokeswoman Carrie Davis. “I don’t know when and I don’t know in what order. People don’t even want to look at the rough cut yet.”

The label’s initial marketing plan called for releasing several singles on top of each other to build buzz quickly, but the singer’s death forced the label to rethink that strategy.

Johnson said radio programmers had called the label following the singer’s death asking to play a track called “I Care for You,” which the label had not yet started promoting. Label officials then asked other programmers to listen to the song, and have made it their next priority.

“We have a responsibility to her memory and her legacy,” Johnson said. “I want to make her as big as she can be. I think she’ll continue to be popular [because of] what she stood for. A lot of young girls looked up to her. She wouldn’t compromise--that’s going to be part of her legacy. It’s my duty to keep reminding people.”

Compared to other record labels who have had to wrestle with the death of a popular artist, “Our situation was much different because this is a family-owned company,” he said. “There was a lot more sensitivity in dealing with someone who was more of a family member, not simply an artist. We’re just not about profiteering.”

In the past, the death of a well-known act has resulted in a spike in sales--for example, the deaths of John Lennon and Kurt Cobain. After Frank Sinatra died in 1998, Capitol Records and Reprise Records re-released eight of his most critically acclaimed albums from the 1950s and ‘60s. The labels said the promotion had been planned months before the singer died, but noted that advance orders for the albums jumped dramatically after he died. In the week following his passing, six Sinatra albums vaulted into Billboard magazine’s Top 50.