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No such thing as bad publicity? Consider ‘Gigli’

Times Staff Writer

The paparazzi gantlet for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at Sunday’s “Gigli” premiere was as hungry as it was long. But when the film’s stars climbed out of their Rolls-Royce Phantom, Affleck and Lopez first ignored the many cameras, walking across the street to greet scores of frenzied fans and sign dozens of autographs. It was a rare -- and fleeting -- moment of adoration for a movie that has suffered some of the most negative attention since Madonna’s disastrous “Swept Away.”

Opening Friday, “Gigli” provides a textbook tale of how circumstances beyond a studio’s and a filmmaker’s control can undermine a movie at every turn. Revolution Studios and Sony Pictures, which respectively made and are releasing “Gigli,” are now nervously awaiting the film’s reviews, fearful critics will do battle to be the meanest. If the film’s history can be trusted, their fears are understandable: Plenty of movies struggle and often fail, but few do so publicly and with so much gang tackling.

From “Gigli’s” first test screenings, where writer-director Martin Brest clashed with Revolution studio chief Joe Roth over the film’s final act and pace, to the film’s poster, which allegedly featured a retouched version of Lopez’s famous derriere (which the studio denies), nearly every step of the film’s path to the screen has been chronicled by the Internet, the tabloids and, eventually, the mainstream media.

Taken together, “Gigli” has single-handedly disproved the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

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A number of people involved in “Gigli’s” production talked about marketing the film on condition they not be identified by name. They told a story of swimming constantly against a tide of bad press and an off-screen romance that ultimately proved to be the film’s greatest marketing liability.

Despite the bad early buzz, Affleck and Lopez both went to bat for the film, playing off their celebrity sizzle. “They were out there,” Revolution partner Tom Sherak says of the two actors. “They cared. They were involved. They were both busy making other movies, and they still did everything and anything we asked them to do.”

Neither a romantic comedy nor a standard drama, the $54-million film stars Affleck as a Los Angeles thug named Larry Gigli (it rhymes with “really”), ordered by his gangster boss to kidnap the disabled son of a federal prosecutor. Soon after Gigli abducts the young man, a second mobster named Ricki (Lopez) arrives at Gigli’s apartment to make sure everything’s under control. Gigli quickly falls for Ricki, who lets him know she’s gay. But will they still fall in love?

If their movie romance is in doubt, their off-screen romance certainly isn’t. And the real-life love affair presented several challenges, according to people who worked on “Gigli.” The biggest problem is that moviegoers may not want to spend $9 to watch a romance they can catch at any hour of any day on TV for free. Furthermore, their real-life love affair compromises any mystery that surrounds the film’s make-believe plot: If you already know they are going to end up together, where’s the suspense in the theater?

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Sony and Revolution tried a number of advertising strategies to persuade people there is an actual movie. (Because the movie’s title is easily mispronounced, the film was briefly called “Tough Love,” but Affleck, among others, preferred the original tongue-twisting title.) In an attempt to overcompensate for the tabloids, new ads focus heavily on the movie’s plot and less on its stars. But the new TV spot was eclipsed by more gossip about the couple -- this time their impending marriage. At the same time, the studios were never able to establish the film as the work of a respected filmmaker (the Oscar-nominated Brest also made “Midnight Run” and “Scent of a Woman”). It was always about Affleck and Lopez -- though ironically, Lopez only stepped into the role after Halle Berry dropped out of the project.

Internet attention

It’s hard to find stars higher up the celebrity food chain than Affleck and Lopez -- just glance at any newsstand. So early research screenings of the film drew instant Internet attention, especially on www.aintitcool news.com. One Web reviewer said, “Never have I seen such a disasterous [sic] film as this.” Another said the film “is so bad, so god awful, and so painful to sit through that I seriously think it’s flat out unreleasable.”

Sony and Revolution believe the online reviews of the incomplete film were unnecessarily personally and professionally vindictive, but whatever their motivation the Internet notices were quickly repeated in the mainstream media, a toxic development from which the studio struggled but was never able to recover fully.

The bad press spun out globally. In the last week, for instance, articles disparaging “Gigli” have been published everywhere from India’s Hindustan Times to Scotland’s Glasgow Evening Times. Many of these stories have included mentions from some of the Internet reviews.

Ken Sunshine, Affleck’s publicist, says reporters have dwelled so much on the couple’s romance that “they aren’t giving the movie a chance.”

The romance generates other, unexpected issues, according to some people who worked on the film. Thanks to his early work in titles such as “Good Will Hunting” and “Chasing Amy” (in which he also falls in love with a lesbian), Affleck enjoys a noteworthy following among independent film fans. But his romance with Lopez, a pop-culture powerhouse with meager art house appeal, actually hurts Affleck’s draw, several executives said. Miramax even has postponed “Jersey Girl,” another movie starring Affleck and Lopez from filmmaker Kevin Smith, from November to early next year in order to distance itself from “Gigli.”

Affleck’s art house fans aren’t the only moviegoers left out in the cold. Lopez’s core audience is composed of young girls. But they won’t be able to see “Gigli” without a parent or guardian, because the film’s language and violence earned it an R rating.

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Debate on screenings

One of the more spirited debates preceding “Gigli’s” release focused on early screenings. Unlike premieres and media screenings that are typically held a week or so before a film opens, these early word-of-mouth showings can start a month or more before the debut weekend. Sometimes, they are publicly advertised as “sneak previews.” The idea for both the sneak preview and recruited screenings is to heighten audience interest in movies that are both flying under the radar and are actually pretty good. The problem with “Gigli” was that the film certainly wasn’t flying under the radar, and several people who worked on the film admitted it wasn’t all that great.

Some people involved in the debate felt that since some moviegoers assumed “Gigli” was no better than “Ishtar,” early screenings would prove that the film was hardly that kind of epic disaster. These people believed that without showing “Gigli,” its bad buzz would continue to mushroom, until it totally overran the film itself. They also felt that advertisements would never be able to convey the film’s idiosyncratic plot, but that early screenings would.

But others believed any further “Gigli” exposure would only fan the flames of mounting audience disapproval. Ultimately, Sony and Revolution decided not to hold any recruited or sneak preview screenings.

Sony and Revolution have been working diligently to squeeze at least one good weekend of ticket sales from the film. Two weekends ago, the two stars sat down for about 60 junket interviews with TV reporters, and they spent nearly an hour talking to fans and the media at the film’s premiere. The pair also were interviewed by Pat O’Brien as part of a package that ran on the “Today” show, “Dateline NBC” “VH1" and “Access Hollywood.”

The O’Brien interview, which made the couple appear like regular folk, appears to have helped the film. Audience surveys show that while many people are aware of “Gigli,” the film is the first moviegoing choice for very few. But after the widely watched O’Brien interview was broadcast, the number of people, particularly women, interested in seeing the film went up significantly.

The film also will be shown tonight and Thursday night as part of radio station promotions in 75 cities. Those screenings come so close to the film’s theatrical debut on Friday they won’t affect word-of-mouth, but instead will deliver radio mentions of the film across the country, which Sony estimates can be worth millions in advertising.

It’s a small help, but at this point, “Gigli” needs all the help it can get.

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