Typically, when movie studios set out to market an adult drama about a historic event, they write off teenagers.
But when Paramount Pictures executives first screened director-producer Oliver Stone's upcoming release, "World Trade Center," for a test audience last month, they realized there was nothing typical about selling a movie about 9/11.
Teens who were just children when the Twin Towers fell said in a focus group attended by Paramount marketing staffers that the movie strongly resonated with them because the events it portrayed occurred during their lifetimes.
"I remember back in 2001 when it happened on the news," said one 14-year-old girl. "I kept thinking, 'This isn't real; it's just one of those disaster movies.' This movie made me feel Sept. 11 was real for the first time."
Five years since terrorist attacks leveled New York's iconic towers -- and about three months since a rival studio released the first major feature film based on 9/11, which did little business in theaters -- Paramount is selling "World Trade Center," which opens Aug. 9, as a story of heroism, not terrorism.
In Hollywood, where blatant sales pitches tend to be the norm, the studio's approach to marketing the movie that some are calling Stone's triumphant return has been unusually low-key. Call it respectful hype.
But for all the challenges Paramount Worldwide Marketing President Gerry Rich has faced on this project -- chief among them, he says, is avoiding looking like "Hollywood trying to cash in" on a tragedy -- he also caught an unexpected break. So favorable has been teenagers response to the film, Rich says, that Paramount completely reworked its $35-million marketing campaign to also court the most faithful and frequent moviegoing demographic: young people.
"Every generation has a defining moment," says the voice-over of a 30-second TV spot aimed at the under-25 crowd that began airing this week. The melodic "Fix You" by rock group Coldplay plays as the screen goes black and three words appear in stark white letters: "This Was Ours."
And Friday, MTV, Paramount's sister company, will air a 30-minute "town hall" special in which young adults discuss their reactions to the PG-13-rated movie with filmmakers, cast members and one of the 9/11 survivors depicted in the picture.
Much is at stake for Viacom Inc.-owned Paramount with "World Trade Center," which cost $63 million to make. To break even, the studio needs the film to reach a much broader audience than did Universal Pictures' lower-budget April release, "United 93," which grossed just $31.5 million at the domestic box office.
Paramount Chairman Brad Grey, who's been in his job just 17 months, also has a lot riding on the film. "World Trade Center" is the first homegrown production to be made start to finish under Grey and Paramount President Gail Berman.
"I felt that it was an extraordinary story and one that people would be entertained by," Grey said. "And I know that 'entertainment' in this context is a complicated definition."
While the terrorist attacks provide the backdrop for "World Trade Center," the focus of the film is the bravery and valiant rescue of two Port Authority police officers -- Will Jimeno (played by Michael Pena) and Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) -- who were buried in the rubble.
It fell to Rich and his senior vice president of creative advertising, Josh Greenstein, to highlight this theme and shake off the preconception that "World Trade Center" is another bleak tale about the horrors of 9/11. On another front, Paramount marketers worked closely with consultants linked to conservative commentators and public interest groups to head off speculation that Stone's film was a liberal political soapbox.
To distinguish the movie from "United 93," they emphasized the uplifting, emotional and inspirational aspects of the story in trailers, TV spots and posters, which read, "A True Story of Courage and Survival."
Then, rather than hosting a traditional press junket, which involves flying journalists to a single city to interview the principals in a posh hotel, Paramount is taking the movie, the filmmakers, some cast members and the two survivors on a two-week, 10-city tour across the country that ends Friday.
"We took the film to the heartland, because this was something we couldn't achieve in a hotel suite in L.A. or New York," Rich said.
In the interest of good taste, it was decided that there would be no celebratory party after the movie's red-carpet premiere in New York on Aug. 3. And the studio has posted no outdoor advertising -- on subways, billboards, construction sites or the sides of buildings -- in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Instead of creating 20 TV ads as it did for its recent comedy release "Nacho Libre," the studio is airing about half a dozen 30-second spots for "World Trade Center."
In most cases, when studios test-screen a movie, the comments received are used to tweak the film -- to cut it, say, if viewers complain about the length or to rework an unsatisfying ending. With "World Trade Center," the key realization that came out of its test screening in Minneapolis led the studio to revamp its marketing campaign.
In fact, Greenstein got the idea for the youth-focused TV spot that very night, when a male college student noted, "It's like your grandparents knowing where they were when they heard Pearl Harbor got bombed or your parents hearing of JFK's assassination. For my age group, this event is for us."
Later, during the filming of the MTV special, 19-year-old Brittney Summer, whose father is a New York fireman who made it out alive on Sept. 11, struck a similar chord.
"The movie definitely gave me an opportunity to express my emotions about the day," she said, "which I had a lot of trouble doing in the beginning."
According to industry tracking numbers reported Wednesday, as Paramount's media campaign was just getting rolling, 40% of teen girls and women in their 20s who were aware of the movie said they had "definite interest" in seeing it. Teen boys were close behind, with 37% reporting definite interest.
Rich said young people's curiosity about "World Trade Center" came as a surprise to everyone but Stone.
"Oliver believed in his heart that young audiences would respond in a profound way," said Rich, noting that it was Stone who insisted the research company hired by Paramount recruit as many teens as possible to attend the test screening.
Stone, the controversial Oscar-winning director of "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" whose inconsistent box-office success and reputation for being combative have not always endeared him to mainstream Hollywood, said that he benefited from his own personal focus group: his 10-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.
"They loved the movie," said Stone, who showed his children his early cuts. "Kids who were 7, 8 and 9 at the time didn't know enough. It makes perfect sense that they'd want to know what really happened."
With advance Oscar buzz already mounting, Stone is philosophical about his place in the industry firmament.
"I've always been an outsider," said the director-producer who had been ridiculed for such misfires as "Nixon" and "Heaven and Earth." "And I've been down and out for years, but I try to come back."