Disney marketers hit pay dirt with 'Hogs'

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Huge "Hogs:" When a movie opens to nearly $40 million, as Disney's "Wild Hogs" did last weekend, and plays beautifully to all four demographic quadrants there's more than good luck behind its success.

It's harder than ever, of course, to strike boxoffice gold in today's ultra-competitive marketplace where movies must fight for people's time and money not just with each other but with other entertainment media like video games, DVDs, pay TV, high definition TV, televised sports events and 24/7 social networking on the Internet. Therefore, when a movie kicks off to blockbuster business you know that not only was it something people wanted to see, but smart marketing played a key role in making sure the public knew it was there.

With that in mind, I was happy to be able to focus Sunday on "Hogs'" huge success with Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group president Mark Zoradi and Disney domestic marketing president Jim Gallagher. "Hogs," a Touchstone Pictures presentation of a Tollin/Robbins production, was directed by Walt Becker ("National Lampoon's Van Wilder") and written by Brad Copeland ("Arrested Development"). Produced by Mike Tollin ("Dreamer") and Brian Robbins ("Norbit") and by Todd Lieberman ("The Shaggy Dog"), it was executive produced by Amy Sayres ("Meet the Fockers") and Sharla Sumpter Bridgett ("Coach Carter"). Starring are Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy as well as Ray Liotta and Marisa Tomei.

"It is just a wonderful movie with a great ensemble cast," Zoradi told me when I asked what he felt accounted for it having worked so well. "And (having) these four guys together, people really wanted to see it. We had sneaks last weekend and we saw this coming. You never want to predict, but we saw the kind of audience reaction we had to the sneaks (in about 800 theaters). We were obviously aggressive in our TV and publicity and online campaigns and with the sneak previews got the word of mouth going."

Looking back at how Disney orchestrated its marketing of the film, he explained, "We started early. We saw the movie several months ago and we knew at the early screenings that we had a very, very audience pleasing movie to all four demographic groups. We knew it played well to men and women equally and then we found that it was playing above-25 and below- 25. We really were aggressive on the TV (advertising) and we were very aggressive on the word of mouth campaigns. We did a lot of screenings. And then Dennis (Rice, senior vice president, publicity) and the publicity team got these four guys working everywhere.

"They were extremely cooperative. They crisscrossed the country. They did a promotional tour. They kicked it all off on a full one-hour 'Oprah' show where all four of them went on. And then they went on multiple city tours just doing all the local stuff as well as the national stuff. So it was really a publicity screening and strong television and online campaign. And then we decided to sneak it because we felt there was so much good demand for the film and we wanted to get a real feel for what the word of mouth was going to be. And after we screened it last weekend we knew we had a movie that played well to audiences."

Asked about the marketing challenges Disney faced, Gallagher told me, "Honestly, we were really blessed on this one. It all starts with a great movie and Walt Becker and the filmmakers just did a phenomenal job. And then, on top of that, it got even better because we had a fantastic cast who were not only great in the movie, but who worked themselves to death in all of our publicity efforts. Our four principals -- Tim, John, Martin and Bill -- you really couldn't avoid (seeing them on TV) over the last couple of weeks. And Marisa Tomei was out there. Ray Liotta was out there. Jill Hennessy was out there. We got fantastic publicity on this movie and were (lucky to have) a cast who understood the value of really going out there and working it."

Why was publicity so important when Disney was putting major advertising support behind the film? "I think it's all important, but in this particular case we had a huge cast of really, really big stars," Gallagher added. "Our publicity team just did a great job. There were any number of huge, huge hits we got, not the least of which was an hour on 'Oprah Winfrey,' which was just great. It's such a great way to talk to the 25-plus part of our demographic. But I really have to say that from a marketing standpoint this was a fantastic team effort. We are really blessed with just fantastic professionals in every part of our marketing department -- from media to creative to print creative to publicity -- and they all in each of their respective areas did a phenomenal campaign for this movie."

That one-hour showcasing of "Hogs" on "Oprah" came about, Gallagher explained, after "Dennis Rice and our publicity team contacted Oprah and her team. John (Travolta) and Oprah are very good friends and so there was probably a natural affinity on Oprah's part for the movie anyway because she and John are so close. We got them an early cut of the movie and they just went over the moon for it. As I said, we're blessed with a comedy that plays just absurdly well to everyone. So we really knew that the 'Oprah' part of it was incredibly important, particularly for our older female demographic. And these four guys are all huge stars. I think Oprah has like 8 million fans every day watching that show. It was basically a one-hour show about the movie with clips. It was really, really an important part of our campaign."

The film's domestic strength suggests that it should also do very well in the larger international marketplace. "Internationally, we're going to roll it out throughout March and April," Zoradi said. "Basically, we're using a similar campaign and similar ideas (about) where we're going to screen the movie. The guys are going to do a publicity tour for us. We'll go before all the big summer blockbusters come in May, so we'll go late March and early April and go around the world with the film."

How important is it to have generated huge number one grosses in the U.S. when you then open internationally? "I was in Asia this last week. The most important thing we could do at the very end (of the domestic campaign) was to open this movie to above $30 million," replied Zoradi, who prior to being promoted last July to head Disney's Motion Pictures Group was president of Buena Vista International. "We were hoping it was going to get to $30 million. So when it gets to (nearly $40 million), this is a big win for our international markets because then all the international exhibitors stand up and take notice (and) all of the publicity outlets go, 'This is a big hit in the U.S.' So it absolutely helps when you've got a big number one opening like this."
Looking at other key aspects of the domestic marketing campaign, Gallagher pointed out, "It really was a complete team effort and I think from media to research to print creative to AV creative to online and publicity everyone really did an amazing job in their own respective areas. I mean, there were a ton of highlights. We got a Super Bowl spot (and) were one of the few movies that were actually in the game this year. It really gave us a chance to stand out. We had great creative all the way along, starting with a great trailer and a fantastic one-sheet image that we then put in USA Today in the sports section to reach older males.

"We had a lot of different things to really go out and make sure that each segment of the audience felt like this was a movie just for them -- because from the research we do this was a movie just for them, no matter who the demographic is -- no matter if you're young or old or African-American, Latino, Caucasian. No matter who you are, this is a movie that really, really works for you. It all starts with a great movie and this movie plays remarkably well."

Although Hollywood has traditionally used Super Bowl advertising to tell viewers about big movies that are opening months later in the summer, the big game was only a month before "Hogs'" went into theaters and that turned out to be perfect timing. "I think because it is really a summer of sequels, a lot of studios decided that the Super Bowl this year was not as necessary for them because (running spots) that far out from the release of a film it's probably more of an awareness play than anything (else)," Gallagher said. "But we were really lucky. We had a movie that worked for everyone and so we knew that if we went in the game we had a chance to talk to 90 million moviegoers right off the bat and really jump start our campaign because basically we were coming out four weeks later. So it was a really fantastic opportunity to start our campaign with the biggest television event of the year."

So much is written about how movies have to compete with so many other things for the public's limited amount of time and money, but an opening this big makes it clear that people put "Hogs" at the top of their weekend to-do lists. "I think people want to go to the movies and laugh," Zoradi observed. "And (it works) when you can go into that darkened room and you can share that laugh experience with 300 or 400 other people. And with those four guys in the cast and then along with Ray Liotta and Marisa Tomei, there was something for everybody in this movie.

"We were very careful to present this as a road trip big time comedy. We didn't put one of the stars above the other three. I think the fact that you had a Bill Macy, who's known as being a great actor, and you had John Travolta, who everybody loves, and you had Tim Allen, who's a real comedian, and you had Martin Lawrence, who's a great comedian and also appeals to the African-American community (means) you've got a movie that can play across all demos."

Needless to say, there aren't a lot of four quadrant films around these days. "There really aren't," Gallagher agreed. "We knew very early on that we had lightning in a bottle. Both our ad testing and also the movie testing really showed that this was going to be a movie that works great for everyone. It's really even bigger than the four quadrants. We have the four general quadrants, but we also have teens (and) we have remarkable strength with African-Americans and Latinos. So as many different quadrants as you want to tick off, everybody loves to laugh. And, as I said, Walt and the filmmakers delivered a hysterical comedy.

"The other great thing, I think, as far as the legs of the movie go (is that) as funny as we were able to make this movie look in the materials, this is truly one of those movies where no matter how many trailers we run, no matter how many television spots we cut, there are entire sequences, set pieces and bits and characters that we couldn't even begin to get to. So this is not one of those cases where you go to the movies and you think, 'Oh, there are five funny jokes in the movie and that was the backbone of the campaign.' So we really feel one of the reasons we're getting phenomenal word of mouth is you go to the movie and you're expecting to laugh because clearly we're a comedy, but we're (fortunate) that we've got a lot of stuff going on in the movie that we weren't even able to begin to get to in the advertising campaign. From that standpoint, too, that's another reason I think it's going to continue to work as a movie for everyone because it really is genuinely funny and that makes it much, much easier to sell."

Asked how Disney went about spreading the word about "Hogs," Zoradi pointed out, "We had a big online campaign. We kicked (the publicity campaign) off with the 'Oprah' show and then the publicity tour. And then we had a very strong TV campaign with both :15s and :30s. Sometimes when you're marketing a movie you only have a few jokes to be able to put into the TV spots. With this one there were so many different angles to be able to go for that we were able to refresh the TV spots over and over again so no TV spot ever had to be run (with) the same joke over and over again.

"I just think people want to laugh and they saw the TV spots and they saw the trailers and then a lot of people started talking about the film. People want to go to the movies and laugh and that's exactly what they did. There hadn't been (anything like 'Hogs' for a while). 'Norbit' had been a pretty broad comedy, but that came out four weeks ago. So I think people wanted to see a comedy. This weekend you had 'Zodiac' opening against us and you had 'Black Snake Moan.' Neither of those are a comedy. And last week you had (the thriller) 'The Number 23' and you had 'Reno 911,' a little bit more of a limited comedy. But when you put these four guys together and you put them on motorcycles and you say they're going on a road trip and then you've got some really funny jokes and then you get the endorsement of an Oprah and all the talk shows they went on, it just all came together."

As for other things Disney's marketing team did to launch "Hogs," Gallagher told me, "You know, when you're working with a comedy it gives you a license to have a lot of fun. Our creative team assembled out of the dailies a 58 minute blooper reel. These guys had a great time making the movie and there were just some truly classic bloopers. Our creative guys distilled that down into two minutes. As funny as the movie is, a lot of the bloopers are even that much more irreverent. So we really pushed that two minute blooper reel out onto the net on MySpace and YouTube and a number of other places to make sure that the younger sections of the demographic really understood that this was a movie that would work great for them, as well.

"You know, comedy is the great equalizer and as long as it's funny it works for everybody. And we really felt like we had that with this movie. So (using) that two minute blooper reel to really kind of show a little bit more irreverence that was going on behind the scenes of 'Wild Hogs,' I think, really helped with that demographic."

Early March, Zoradi added, has traditionally been a good period for Disney: "This first weekend in March has always been really good. We had 'Pacifier' there last year and two years before that we had 'Bringing Down the House.' Both of them (were) big broad based comedies that first week in March. So this has been a very good weekend for us. It gives you enough time to play the movie out and let people have a chance to see it before you run into the May movies and the big summer movies."

Disney launched its PG rated family comedy "The Pacifier" March 4, 2005 to $30.6 million at 3,131 theaters ($9,758 per theater). It went on to gross $113.1 million domestically and $85.8 million internationally for a worldwide cume of $198.9 million. Disney's PG-13 comedy "Bringing Down the House" opened March 7, 2003 to $31.1 million at 2,801 theaters ($11,103 per theater). It ended up grossing $132.6 million domestically and $30.4 million abroad for a global cume of $163 million.

Reflecting on how March 2 was the perfect date to release "Hogs," Gallagher noted, "You know, Chuck Viane (president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution) and Chris LeRoy (executive vice president, general sales manager) and those guys (on their team) are just the best in the business. They not only found a phenomenal date for us, but they also made sure that we had prints everywhere. This is a movie that plays particularly well in the heartland and in the smaller markets. Those guys just worked themselves to death to make sure that we had all the screens in all the right places. I think certainly both the date and that (wide release) turned out to be another example of why our distribution guys are just geniuses."

Like Zoradi, Gallagher is bullish on the future of movies: "As people get more fractionalized and they find other things to do with their time and their money, the movies that are going to get squeezed out are just the marginal ones. The big event movies or the movies that are big events for a particular quadrant or a series of quadrants are always going to continue to work. I think this is just another great example of that. If you build it, they will come. We built a great comedy that our production department did a great job getting up on the screen. It was beautifully cast. It all really came together and we ended up putting out a product that people really wanted to see. So that really makes the marketing effort a lot easier.

"My bottom line message is I just couldn't be happier with the efforts of our department. It really was a complete team effort. Each of the disciplines of marketing from publicity and creative and online and media and research (played a key role). If you had six hours I could take you through what each one of those departments brought to this victory. And they absolutely all did. They all worked so hard I'm just absolutely thrilled that this number turned out so well and we got a great movie off the pad so high."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 15, 1989's column: "When John Frankenheimer and I spoke the other day he pointed out that by shooting most of 'Dead Bang,' which Warner Bros. opens wide March 24, in Calgary, Canada, there were substantial cost savings.

"'Direct costs were somewhere around $14.5 million to $15 million,' he told me by phone from Calgary, where he's now doing 'The Fourth War' for Kodiak Films on a budget of about $14.5 million. 'We shot two and a half to three weeks in Los Angeles (on 'Dead'). But if we had shot the entire film in the U.S., we calculated the budget (would be) $3.5 million more.'

"Frankenheimer's a big fan of Calgary: 'I love it here. The beautiful thing about Calgary is that within 25 minutes of the hotel you can find almost any location you want. Conditions are very good up here and the crews are very good.'

"'Fourth War,' which stars Roy Scheider and Jurgen Prochnow, is going well, according to Frankenheimer. 'We don't like the title, but that's about the only thing we don't like,' he emphasizes...

"Frankenheimer makes no secret that what matters most to him is how his films perform domestically: 'To me all that's meaningless (about foreign sales) unless the picture works in the United States. That's where I live. I am an American and I'm an American movie director and what I want is for the picture to work domestically. It's always nice for people's bank accounts and books, but from a career standpoint I don't think (international) means anything.

"One of Frankenheimer's biggest hits over the years, 1962's 'The Manchurian Candidate,' was reissued domestically last year. 'I really was thrilled to see it reissued because you people in the press have been very kind about 'Manchurian' for years,' he observes. 'You all have called it a classic and it's very nice to have directed a film that people that I respect call a classic. The kind of praise I received for 'Manchurian' when it came back again was the kind of thing you usually get when you're dead. The fact that I'm still a working movie director -- that helps!'"

Update: Neither "Dead Bang" nor "Fourth War" were success stories for Frankenheimer. "Dead" opened March 24, 1989 to a deadly $2.8 million at 1,073 theaters ($2,653 per theater) and wound up grossing $8.1 million domestically. "Fourth" opened March 23, 1990 to nearly $776,500 at 1,005 theaters ($772 per theater) and went on to do $1.3 million domestically.
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