Sneak Previews Still Give Movies Big Boost
`SPECIAL Sneak Preview! Your Chance for an Advance Look at One of the Important Films of the Year!''Skip to next paragraph
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Millions of Americans have fallen for this hype, which commercializes an ancient Hollywood tradition. The preview, an early look at what could be the coming season's hit - or bomb - has been around since the era of silent movies. Now it's big business.
All the major studios offer ``sneak previews'' as an expensive but often highly effective sales tool. Movies are shown for one performance only on a weekend or two before the scheduled release.
``Normally, we choose films that are highly playable, certain to please audiences, and stimulate word of mouth,'' says Bruce Feldman, senior vice president of marketing at Universal Pictures.
``If we think we have a film that basically has good potential but may or may not be a tough sell, it's sneak-preview potential,'' says Barry Reardon, president of Warner Bros. domestic distribution. He cites the example of last year's hit ``Dave.''
``The star was Kevin Kline, who was a solid performer but whose films had never earned more than $60 million to $65 million,'' Mr. Reardon says. ``The picture was going to come out in early May, before the big summer crush. We decided to do a double sneak - two weeks and one week before the opening. It worked.''
Says Mr. Feldman: ``Very often you will have a movie that is a crowd-pleaser; your tracking studies and audience tests show that. Perhaps it does not have a high profile in the way of big stars or a recognizable subject. A sneak preview can be a way to jump-start your movie.''
Warner Bros. decided on a special strategy for last summer's ``The Client.'' Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones were recognized but not high-voltage box-office names. The John Grisham book had sold in the millions, but many readers had been disappointed by the previous adaptations of his novels ``The Firm'' and ``The Pelican Brief.''
``We previewed `The Client' two weeks before release in a limited number of theaters - 350 to 360.'' Reardon says. ``Mostly, they were in big cities. That was enough for the word to get around. I resisted suggestions for another preview a week before.''
So far, ``The Client'' has grossed $75 million.
Both Feldman and Reardon agree that sneak previews carry some risk. The word of mouth might turn out to be negative. And sneak previews are expensive. They can add between $800,000 and $1 million to marketing costs, which can total $10 million per film. Attracting crowds to previews requires big newspaper ads and backup on national television.
Another drawback: Previews add no revenue to a movie's gross. Preview showings are provided free to theaters, which keep all receipts for themselves. Ticket revenue is added to the gross of a film only after it officially opens in theaters.
But sneak previews continue to flourish. Marketing people point to ``Sleepless in Seattle,'' a movie with two attractive stars, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but no focus on what it was. Previews proved it to be a big crowd-pleaser, and the message spread.
A Hollywood institution since the 1920s, previews have been used as a testing ground. As productions became more costly, studios felt the need to try out films before releasing them.
The young producing genius Irving Thalberg perfected the art of the preview. ``Movies are not made, they're remade,'' he declared.
A poor preview reception could prompt Thalberg to scrap half of a movie, rewrite the script, and reshoot.
Producers didn't trust preview reactions of movie-wise fans in Los Angeles and sought less sophisticated audiences in nearby places. Secrecy was maintained so reporters and rival studios would not attend. News of a bad preview could spread overnight.
Previews have saved many a movie from oblivion. ``Lost Horizon'' met with a dismal reaction when it was sneaked in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1937. The distraught Frank Capra finally figured out what was wrong: The action started too slowly. Capra hurled the first two reels into the studio incinerator himself.
``Gone With the Wind'' was first previewed in Riverside, Calif., under the utmost security. The audience was entranced for 4 hours and 25 minutes. But perfectionist David O. Selznick trimmed the movie to 3 hours and 42 minutes, and he insisted on an intermission. Sales executives resisted. Selznick won the issue by counting how many patrons took restroom breaks during the previews.