One stage of film’s marketing is on stage

Special to The Times

Even in seen-it-all Hollywood -- which never fails to pull out the stops in a quest for Oscar gold -- one publicity campaign in particular stands out this year.

DreamWorks has been building support for its Oscar-gunning adaptation of the stage musical “Dreamgirls” by paying licensing costs for any noncommercial theatrical organizations (high schools, colleges, community and youth groups and other groups) that wanted to stage the musical. So far more than 50 productions of the show have been performed across the country, in venues including Hackensack, N.J.; Milwaukee, New Orleans and Boise, Idaho.

The idea was launched in the summer of 2005, when a DreamWorks marketing team traveled to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Sitting in individual cubicles, headphones on, they watched a videotape of a Broadway production of “Dreamgirls.”

Michael Vollman, executive vice president of marketing, was one of those at the library. “Watching the play I realized that if people started mounting this, everybody who worked on it, everybody who saw it, everybody who was in it, would go see the movie. So I thought of it as a way to build word of mouth.”


Contacting Sargent Aborn at Tams-Witmark Music Library, which oversees the licensing -- the legal rights for a group to perform the words and music -- for “Dreamgirls,” Vollman made the arrangements to cover the noncommercial licensing fees for 2006. (Rates varied, depending upon venue size, number of performances, and other factors.) He also used Tams-Witmark’s network of contacts within the theatrical community, as well as the media, to help spread the word of the offer.

Aborn can recall no previous endeavor such as this. He said the DreamWorks campaign appears to have had the desired effect: This year has seen “a big jump” in the number of productions of “Dreamgirls” around the country.

“I don’t know that I had any preconceived notions,” Aborn said when asked if he was surprised by the response. “But we’ve certainly had a lot more licenses than we would normally have. I’d say we’ve been pleased with the response.”

DreamWorks has so far set aside $250,000 for the project.


The only local production was undertaken in November by Performance Riverside at Riverside Community College. Each production, though, has its own tale to tell. For example, at Rockdale County High School in Conyers, Ga., the decision to do “Dreamgirls” was partly a reflection of a recent influx of African American students, according to Kathleen Carroll, chorus director at the school. “We wanted to encourage more of the black kids to get involved in theater, because up to this point it was more of the white kids,” Carroll said.

She estimates that 50% of her cast had never been in a show before. For that matter, in a bit of reverse engineering, word of the upcoming movie helped her sell the kids on the show. (The movie opens Friday in limited release, before going wide Christmas Day.)

“The only reason they had any idea about it was because of the publicity of the movie coming out,” she said. “And they’re so excited because their favorite is Beyonce. They just love her, the guys and the girls love her. And of course they know Eddie Murphy and all the big stars in the movie coming up, they all just love and emulate them. They’re excited about ‘Dreamgirls’ because of it.”

She was pleasantly surprised to discover DreamWorks’ program: “I didn’t even know it. We decided we wanted to do ‘Dreamgirls’ and then we looked into it and found out they were subsidizing us in order to do it. Which was wonderful.”