Sneak Previews Still Give Movies Big Boost

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`SPECIAL Sneak Preview! Your Chance for an Advance Look at One of the Important Films of the Year!''

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.

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``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.

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