Paramount takes 'G.I. Joe' straight to the heartland

Nearly 1,000 service members and their families at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland got to see something Friday night that very few people in Hollywood have seen -- "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," the last big-budget action movie of the summer.

Paramount Pictures gave the movie its homeland premiere at the base for Air Force One, flying out its stars Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller and Marlon Wayans for a helicopter tour, meetings with the base commander and airmen, and a red carpet replete with paparazzi and billowing American flags.

Launching the film to a military audience is just one part of a highly atypical marketing and publicity campaign for "G.I. Joe," which opens nationwide and in most foreign markets this Friday. Paramount is sidestepping the traditional Hollywood showcase and courting of the national print media in favor of taking the picture directly to America's heartland.

"G.I. Joe" is embedded in the Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tour, advertised at the Country Music Television Awards and excerpted on giant video screens at Minnesota's Mall of America. It is bombarding Kansas City, Charlotte, Columbus and Grand Rapids on new digital billboards.

The subtext is none too subtle: Critics are likely to roast the film, and fanboys of the original toy line and comic book may be indifferent, but if you're a flag-waving, Nascar-loving American, it's practically your patriotic duty to see this movie.

Paramount's decision to focus so heavily on just one segment of the audience illustrates -- in a market increasingly fragmented by demographics and swayed by word of mouth via Twitter, text messages and Facebook updates -- the lengths to which studios will go to maximize early exposure among audiences most likely to embrace a film and minimize it for everyone else.

"Our starting point for this movie is not Hollywood and Manhattan but rather mid-America," Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore said. "There are a group of people we think are going to respond to the movie who are normally not the first priority. But we're making them a priority."

Yet overseas, where big action films often earn 60% or more of their ticket sales, rah-rah American sentiment doesn't play well. So those references have vanished from the advertising.

European marketing, rather, focuses on action sequences set in Paris -- where the Eiffel Tower collapses -- Egypt and Tokyo, and emphasizes that G.I. Joe is an international team of crack operatives and not some Yankee soldier.

When it comes to selling "G.I. Joe" outside the U.S., the message is "this is not a George Bush movie -- it's an Obama world," director Stephen Sommers said. "Right from the writing stage we said to ourselves, this can't be about beefy guys on steroids who all met each other in the Vietnam War, but an elite organization that's made up of the best of the best from around the world."

Sommers even expects "G.I. Joe" to perform better overseas, particularly in Asia, where costar Byung-hun Lee, a Korean-born martial arts expert, is very popular.

"It was like traveling with Elvis," said the director, who accompanied the actor to a premiere in Tokyo.

G.I. Joe originated in 1964 as a military action figure that could be equipped with various uniforms and weapons. In the 1980s it was reborn in comic books, a TV cartoon and toys, with the tag line "A Real American Hero," as a special military unit of the U.S. government that does battle with an evil organization known as Cobra.

The new film, which will be accompanied by a revamped toy line from Hasbro Inc., features many of the characters from the '80s, but in a futuristic setting.

With a production budget of $175 million and $150 million more in marketing and distribution expenses on the line, "G.I. Joe" needs the biggest possible crowds to turn a profit.

Although "G.I. Joe" has had some of the hallmarks of big-movie event marketing -- a costly Super Bowl ad, billboards and banners on the side of buses in Los Angeles and other big cities -- a disproportionate amount of resources is being funneled into highly targeted efforts.

Paramount bought ads in newspapers distributed on more than 60 military bases, for instance, and ran a "hometown hero" contest in which entrants wrote essays about a local hero they wanted to celebrate with a screening of the movie. The winner was a 7-year-old from San Diego whose father served with the Navy in Iraq.

One week before its release, virtually no journalists had seen "G.I. Joe" except for Harry Knowles, owner of influential fanboy website Aint-It-Cool-News, who gave the movie an early thumbs up.

Beyond Knowles, however, Paramount has largely avoided what would seem like a natural starting point: loyal fans of the toys, comics and '80s cartoon. "G.I. Joe" had no presence at the recent Comic-Con International gathering of genre fanatics, even though there were panels to discuss both the toys and comic books.

"You can never win with those guys," Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, producer of both "Transformers" films and "G.I. Joe," said of the San Diego convention. "They feel they're the keepers of the fanboys flag and have a deep childhood association with many of these properties. And we know the hard-core fans are already coming to see the movie."

That attitude has left some of the most devoted G.I. Joe fans, the type who typically line up for midnight shows, a bit wary of how Paramount has adapted their beloved characters. One decision that has raised eyebrows is that some members of the G.I. Joe team wear high-tech "accelerator suits" that give them super-speed powers.

The one salve for fans, however, was Paramount's hiring of Larry Hama, who created most of the modern G.I. Joe characters featured in the 1980s comics and cartoon, as a consultant.

Hama said he was pleased with an early cut of the film but noted that he had many disagreements with Di Bonaventura during development over changes to the characters.

"I figured there were fights you can win and ones where you don't even try," Hama said. "I just picked the ones that I thought were really important and stuck to my guns on them."

One he did win that probably will please fans is to ensure that the masked martial arts hero Snake Eyes never speaks.

Based on pre-release audience polling, the PG-13-rated "G.I. Joe" is already exciting male moviegoers. Two executives at rival studios agreed that the film will open to at least $50 million at the box office in the U.S. and Canada and could go higher.

That has been surprising to many in Hollywood, since Paramount's focus on blue-collar audiences has left "G.I. Joe" with a very low profile in the national media.

"I've never had a movie where I have had more responses from competitors scratching their heads and wondering why the tracking is so good," Paramount's Moore observed.

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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G.I. Joe's dossier

1964: Noting the huge success of the Barbie doll for girls, toy creator Stan Weston comes up with an idea for a military-themed doll for boys and sells the idea to Hasbro. The toy company gives the 12-inch-tall figure in green army fatigues the generic name of G.I. Joe, inspired by the 1945 film "The Story of G.I. Joe."

1960s: An African American G.I. Joe figure is introduced in some markets and soldiers from other countries join the toy lineup. The first female G.I. Joe doll, Action Nurse, is produced in 1967 but is a commercial flop. Amid anti-military sentiment created by the Vietnam War, Hasbro downplays the war theme that initially defined the doll, which becomes more of an adventurer.

1978: The oil crisis and falling sales prompt Hasbro to retire the 12-inch plastic dolls, which have become too costly too manufacture.

1982: Producing a line of smaller action figures, Hasbro ditches the idea of the single soldier and relaunches G.I. Joe as a coed team of elite international operatives who battle a nefarious underworld organization known as Cobra.

1983-85: G.I. Joe characters are featured in a comic book series and syndicated after-school cartoon TV show. The frenzy extends to a series of posters, video games, board games and other merchandise.

1991: 12-inch G.I. Joe figures are reintroduced.

2008: Paramount Pictures hires Stephen Sommers to direct an action movie based on G.I. Joe in what it hopes will be the first in a new franchise for the studio.

2009: The movie, which has cost nearly $330 million to produce and market, debuts.

Source: Times research

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