Beatles mania strikes again

Times Staff Writer

"All You Need Is Love" may be an abiding principle in the gospel of the Beatles. But the Fab Four-inspired romantic musical "Across the Universe" -- in which winsome young actors and assorted rock stars sing 35 classic Beatles songs vividly re-imagined by acclaimed opera and theater director Julie Taymor -- needed a lot more than that after an uninspiring opening last month.

Then help arrived in the form of an audience whose parents were their age when the first wave of Beatlemania hit.

After three weeks in theaters, the PG-13 movie finally penetrated the top 10 by connecting with a zealous core constituency: teenage girls, who, anecdotal evidence suggests, are going to see the movie in packs, bonding with one another (and the film) through repeated viewings and popularizing it with their school chums via word-of-mouth.

Nicole Sacharow, 15, from Culver City, for one, ranks "Universe" among her "favorite movies ever." She's seen it twice and would already have notched up several more viewings were it not for scheduling conflicts with her friends.

"You go up to a group of people and say, 'Who wants to see "Across the Universe" this weekend?' " Sacharow explained. "The songs are addicting. Everyone who goes to see it has the soundtrack. I listen to it every day. I hear people singing the songs around school."

Matylda Kerry, 15, from Santa Monica, has also seen "Across the Universe" twice and feels the film's stylized depiction of '60s historical touchstones such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement -- as set to Beatles music and sung by good-looking young people -- has helped her and her friends make a more personal connection to the era.

"It puts it in a different perspective. It makes it more real," Kerry said. "It reminds me of today's issues. Our government, the war that's going on, how it affects people around us."

As of today, the $45-million film, which has taken in $8.5 million at the box office so far, is expanding from 364 to 953 theaters.

But "Universe's" commercial prognosis hardly looked promising at the outset. Released to mixed reviews -- many condemning the artistic liberties Taymor took with the Beatles' music -- the movie had been in the can for over a year before hitting just 23 screens in its first week of release. Taymor, the creative force behind the Tony-winning musical "The Lion King," famously battled her production company chief, Revolution Studios' Joe Roth, over final cut of the film after he took the unprecedented step of editing a version of "Universe" by himself. She ultimately won the right to assemble footage her way after threatening to take her name off the movie -- tantamount to an act of commercial seppuku in Hollywood. But word of "Universe's" troubled production prejudiced industry expectations.

Even at a time when music-driven fare such as "Hairspray" and "High School Musical" are striking a chord within the culture, capturing the hearts and allowance money of teen fans, "Universe" faced unique marketing obstacles. The movie's stars, indie trauma-drama princess Evan Rachel Wood and unknown British actor Jim Sturgess, weren't sure-fire attractions. And to judge by "Universe's" trailer, which began screening in front of "Spider-Man 3" in May, it wasn't immediately clear which genre "Universe" belongs to. Is it a coming-of-age story? A rock opera a la "Moulin Rouge"? A surrealistic period piece? (Answer: all the above.) Worse for marketers at Sony, the film's distributor, contractual obligations bound them from hitting home with "Universe's" primary selling point.

"Yoko Ono, Paul [McCartney], Ringo [Starr] and [George's widow] Olivia Harrison were all supportive of the film, but I couldn't use the Beatles name in any advertising," Taymor recalled. "That didn't make things easy. And you can't advertise that you have Bono, Eddie Izzard and Joe Cocker in cameo roles. We didn't have a real big push from Sony; they were stumped by it. So nobody was really sure who the film's audience was."

The division's president of domestic marketing, Valerie Van Galder, explained that movie musicals are notoriously difficult to promote. So rather than employ a traditional marketing salvo -- TV commercials, billboards, talk show appearances, etc. -- the studio posted numerous video clips and music videos to the Web that have collectively been streamed millions of times, popularizing "Universe" in cyberspace's most popular kibbitz rooms.

"We gave people the sense that they'd discovered it for themselves," Van Galder said. "On MySpace, YouTube and the message boards, there has been a passionate, vocal following. Young people are discovering the Beatles' music for the first time and Jim Sturgess has been a big draw. It's like fans are in love. There hasn't been a teeny-bopper discovery like this in a long time."

According to Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers, audiences are now finding their way to "Universe" thanks to Sony's textbook execution of what is known in the industry as a "platform release."

"The movie is so unique. It has an indie sensibility even though it's a Sony picture," he said. "So expectations were unknown. But Sony has handled it perfectly. They got big initial interest in limited release, then they've been capitalizing on that every week."

"They're taking their time. On a movie like this, that's what you have to do."

But while Dergarabedian heaps praise on the marketing plan, Taymor feels the movie has benefited from a kind of benign studio neglect. "In a funny way, young people found the movie because it wasn't marketed huge," she said. "Young people don't want to be dictated to about what's the new cool thing."

Curiously, just as the film's hunky-yet-sensitive male lead, Sturgess, has become the focal point of fan appreciation -- postings on various message boards have proclaimed him "the hotness," and "soooo cute" -- the actor's personal publicist has put him out of reach for "Universe's" new publicity push. Sturgess was made unavailable for an interview with The Times partially out of concern he be perceived as a "teen heartthrob" -- never mind Sturgess' scream-inducing appearance on MTV's "Total Request Live" on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the movie's soundtrack, distributed by Interscope Records in both a deluxe and standard version, has also helped drive the film's popularity. It peaked at No. 2 on the iTunes album chart and at No. 24 on the Billboard 200, selling a combined 110,000 copies. "I'm thrilled we can turn on a new generation to Beatles music," said Robbie Snow, Interscope Records head of marketing.

As Matylda Kerry sees it, "Universe's" reworking of the Fab Four songbook has allowed her to appreciate the Beatles more deeply. "Everyone I know is listening to [the soundtrack] again and again, comparing it to the old Beatles songs," she said. "I've heard people saying they're ripping off the Beatles, but it's also a tribute.

"Everybody knows those songs. It makes you like them all over again."

chris.lee@latimes.com

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