Empty couches worry publicists

Late-night reruns put damper on promo campaigns

For film publicists who rely on the oxygen of late-night television to breathe life into their campaigns, the strike has been a punch to the gut.

Television networks this week have been busy tallying production casualties, but on the theatrical side, studios and specialty divisions have begun counting a different toll: lost bookings.

A fall season already difficult because of a crowded calendar just became even more challenging. Movies due for release in the coming weeks — films as diverse as "Lions for Lambs," "Fred Claus," "No Country for Old Men" and "August Rush" — will now join a scramble for other, sometimes less optimal, television slots.

They'll also be forced to seek out such shorter lead-time outlets as newspapers and radio.

Nearly every day in the coming weeks will bring a new victim. On Tuesday, for instance, MGM's "Lambs" lost a "Tonight Show With Jay Leno" booking for Meryl Streep.

"Late-night shows are cornerstones of a good campaign because a late-night audience is a moviegoing audience," said 42West's Amanda Lundberg, who is working on MGM's "Lambs" campaign. "And there is no replacement for the charisma of the actors reminding us why we like them."

Lundberg noted that on "Lambs," coverage from "Larry King Live," "Good Morning America" and Time magazine are filling the void — somewhat.

And while specialty movies tend to rely less on the late-night bang, the strike has made few distinctions between size or type of picture.

Paramount Vantage will be hit because Nicole Kidman won't be able to stump for "Margot at the Wedding" on "Late Show With David Letterman." Fox/Walden will absorb a blow on its "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" campaign when Dustin Hoffman similarly won't make his "Letterman" appointment. Miramax has lost two "Leno" and one "Letterman" slots for its awards-contender "Country."

And Warners will be dinged several times as "Claus" star Vince Vaughn and "Rush" A-lister Robin Williams won't take the couch on such shows as "Letterman" or "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

The five main late-night shows collectively gather as many as 20 million viewers. Those kinds of numbers are hard to reach through drivetime radio and local newspapers.

After making pit stops on such shows as "Live With Regis & Kelly" and "Charlie Rose," publicists are pursuing as many new avenues as they can, though a spokesperson for "GMA" said that show had yet to hear a clamor for new bookings, as some publicists wait to see if the strike takes hold.

There were rumors earlier on Tuesday — waved away by reps for several shows — that late night could return as soon as next week without writers or monologues. And that, in turn, fueled the hopes of the more optimistic that a publicity bonanza could be just around the corner. After all, if the shows came back, bookers would be forced to fill the hourlongs with celebrities and, well, more celebrities.

"If the shows stay off the air, we're going to have to shuffle a lot to figure out Plan B," said film consultant Jeremy Walker. "But if they come back, they could be open to new kinds of people who wouldn't normally get a guest spot."

On the other hand, if the shows stay in repeats, that could provide a boon for celebrities who've already appeared to thump for awards hopefuls. Tuesday night, for example, "Letterman" scheduled a replay of a recent visit by Viggo Mortensen talking up Focus' "Eastern Promises."

The late-night dilemma highlights how slippery and far-reaching the strike's consequences are.

While most execs said it was too soon to say how the loss of late night would affect a movie's boxoffice, at least one studio was said to be re-evaluating its marketing budget to fill in the gap.

On Tuesday, some who worked on more prestigious pics were trying to find the silver lining in the stoppage, or at least postpone their concern.

"I'm not letting it get me too down. The bigger audiences for awards movies come later in the season," said publicity strategist Jeff Hill. "If it's December and this is still going, then I'm going to worry."

Steven Zeitchik reported from New York; Leslie Simmons reported from Los Angeles. Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.
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