Making this cold fish hot again

Times Staff Writer

MARTHA'S VINEYARD, Mass. -- When it comes to DVDs, you apparently can go back into the water again. Just five years after releasing "Jaws" for the first time on DVD -- then timed to the 25th anniversary of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster -- Universal Studios is back in this bucolic retreat off the coast of Massachusetts to mark the film's 30th anniversary, with fans and a new DVD edition, which hits shelves today.

Until now, the town has never openly embraced the legendary "Jaws," which Spielberg shot on the island in 1974. "Like the mayor in 'Jaws,' no one wanted to play up the fact that there was a great white in the waters," said Jeff Kristal head of the local Tisbury Business Assn. "Now, we regard the movie as a promotional tool -- part of the island's identity."

So the first weekend in June, "Jaws Fest," a three-day bash, overtook the Vineyard with a series of events initiated by the Chamber of Commerce and organized with Universal.

The festival is yet another example of the kind of events Hollywood is staging to attract attention for DVDs in an ever more cluttered marketplace. The events are becoming the home video world's version of a movie premiere, often with the same star power. (For instance, for the launch of the "Shrek 2" DVD last November, DreamWorks took over Spago and redressed it like the film's Far Far Away with Mike Meyers, Eddie Murphy and Julie Andrews in attendance.)

This time around it was the island coming to Spielberg. Martha's Vineyard (where show biz folk such as Spike Lee, Mike Nichols and Carly Simon have homes) contacted Hollywood in hopes that a Jaws festival could boost lagging tourism. Down to the wire, there were rumors that the director had booked a plane and would make a surprise appearance. Busy with the upcoming release of "War of the Worlds," according to his camp, the director delivered a taped introduction to the film instead.

Indeed, star power was in short supply. While a frail Peter Benchley (recuperating from neck surgery and a broken hip) made the scene, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss sent their regrets. (Robert Shaw died in 1978.)

"With a decades-old catalog title, we needed a hook," said Vivian Mayer, senior vice president of publicity for Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Home entertainment events date back to the late 1980s when the Walt Disney Co. flew reporters to Walt Disney World to announce the VHS release of "Bambi" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Since then they've been fueled by the revenue stream that DVDs now generate.

"When the first 'Jaws' DVD came out, there were only 7 million DVD players in American households," said Benchley, 65. "Now that there are more than 70 million, events like this are very worthwhile." What DVD events do have in their corner are an existing fan base, one that studios are eager to tap into. In early June -- on a Soldiers' Appreciation Day, Sony commandeered the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base near Long Beach, serving lunch to more than 2,000 military men and their families to promote the DVD release of "Stripes." And, come September, Fox Home entertainment is taking over the Hollywood Bowl to promote the 30th anniversary of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." "Our 2004 'Harry Potter' event generated the equivalent of $7.5 million in media coverage," said Pamela Godfrey, vice president of worldwide publicity for Warner Home Video.

"Jaws Fest" was mounted on a minuscule $20,000 budget -- plus donations "in trade." (The Chamber of Commerce concedes it exceeded that sum but wouldn't say by how much.) Mentioned by a speaker from England at a tourism conference last year, the project acquired an Internet life before it became a reality. Benchley was furious when the website jawsmovie.com announced that he was a confirmed attendee, convinced organizers were leveraging his name. He e-mailed them, asking that he be removed from the list but later reconsidered. The star-challenged festivities, he realized, needed his support. And, given the growth of the DVD market, it made good business sense.

Besides, the writer added, he and the movie are inextricably linked. "Take it away and what am I -- 'a schmuck with an Underwood,' as one entertainment mogul put it. I can't get arrested in Hollywood now. I'm nobody -- too old."

Eighty merchants offered "Jaws Fest" discounts. Bookstores stocked copies of Carl Gottlieb's "Jaws Log"--the co-screenwriter's 1976 chronicle of the troubled, over-budget shoot. An Edgartown pharmacy hung an "Amity Drugs" banner -- a reference to the fictitious island in which the action was set. "Shark Attack" was the featured flavor in Mad Martha's ice cream parlor.

Approaching the event as a homespun, fan-based affair, Universal stayed on the sidelines -- until they heard "Jaws" would be projected on a sail. Unwilling to risk the low-tech approach, they brought in state-of-the-art equipment for the Friday night screening. Held on a Vineyard Haven hillside, it attracted a crowd of 2,000 or so -- far more than originally expected. Five hundred people turned up for a free conversation between Gottlieb and Benchley at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs. And though the $75 price-tags were off-putting to some islanders, Saturday night's "Amity Ball" and a Sunday clambake attracted a healthy mix of tourists and locals.

On the publicity end, Universal lined up outlets such as "The CBS Evening News," BBC Radio, "Extra," and "The Today Show"--which went live. (At Friday morning's ribbon-cutting ceremony, some bystanders observed, the press seemed to outnumber the "fin-atics."). With no big names, "Jaws Fest" VIPs were primarily behind-the-scenes talent such as production designer Joe Alves or those with minor on-camera roles. Jeffrey Kramer, who had a small featured part as a sheriff's deputy, had a brief brush with superstardom. Though he'd tabled his acting career in 1988, the co-executive producer of "Chicago Hope," "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" found himself posing with celebrity-hungry fans and signing autographs nonstop. An unexpected moment in the sun, he observed -- which, after a cold, rainy May made a welcome, long-overdue appearance.

Arriving with her family in a spray-painted "Jawsmobile," Michigan resident Becki Reiner anticipated more glitz. Sporting a T-shirt that read "Matt Hooper is My Boyfriend," she particularly bemoaned the absence of Dreyfuss, who played that character.

"Chris Kiszka, whose world-class collection of "Jaws" memorabilia was displayed in Tisbury's Grange Hall, took a philosophical approach. The real star of the movie was the shark, he said -- a creature the crew dubbed "Bruce" after Spielberg's attorney, Bruce Ramer.

" 'Jaws' is finally getting the respect it deserves," Kiszka said of the movie's first fan-based event. "And those who attended are normal, everyday people -- nowhere as weird as the Trekkies."

"Jaws Fest" was an infusion of fast-track marketing expertise into a sleepy little town, said Susan Sigel Goldsmith, co-director of the event.

"We just wanted to get on the map," she said. "But, hooking up with Universal, we had a shark by tail. This festival gave us visibility during the slow stretch between Memorial Day and July 4th. We're hoping it has longevity and becomes an annual event. "

If Martha's Vineyard got a fiscal shot-in-the arm, Universal got its promotional blitz -- stars or no stars.

"The absence of a red carpet calls for greater imagination," said Steve Feldstein, senior vice president of marketing communications for Fox Home Entertainment.

"It's all about marketing to the consumer, generating that extra layer of publicity. When our theatrical colleagues have exploited every media opportunity, we're forced to be more creative."

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