Selling Scandal

September 08, 1992|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Faced with a sensational scandal surrounding its top product, TriStar Pictures is doing the only decent thing a company in its position can do: It is embarking on a massive marketing campaign to take advantage of the headlines.

This time, it isn't controversy over a mundane product such as mineral water or a painkiller, but filmmaker and comic Woody Allen, whose professional career has been overshadowed recently by his public war with companion Mia Farrow and his relationship with her adopted daughter. But Mr. Allen's troubles are allowing TriStar to take advantage of unprecedented name recognition and push a new film to new audiences.

"It seems at first a bit disturbing because they are taking advantage of a star's troubles. But it doesn't actually violate their privacy in any way because they've already violated it themselves," said Rick Elice, co-creative director of Serino Coyne Inc., a New York advertising agency that specializes in film and theater.

A few weeks ago, TriStar was planning to release about a dozen copies of Mr. Allen's new film, "Husbands and Wives," to just eight cities Sept. 23, followed by a general release of 200 to 300 copies Oct. 9. A few limited screenings and one jumbo scandal later, about 800 copies of the film are to hit theaters across the country Sept. 18.

Officially, the stepped-up and broadened release is due to the positive reviews given by test audiences in New York and Los Angeles. Unlike Mr. Allen's recent movies, which had limited releases and smaller audiences, his new film is being compared with his earlier blockbusters such as "Annie Hall."

"Prurient interests may get people into the cinema, but the film does deliver. They know they've got a winner," Mr. Elice said.

He said the magnitude of the scandal surrounding Mr. Allen's relationships made it impossible for the studio to ignore the opportunity. When news became public that Mr. Allen was dating a woman he almost helped raise, even the Republican Party's national convention was bumped out of the spotlight, Mr. Elice said.

"This is show business. Woody Allen has provided the show. Now TriStar is providing the business," Mr. Elice said.

Although TriStar's heavy distribution of the film may be predictable given the scandal, the company has to be careful not appear tasteless, said Stephen Frankfurt, chairman of Frankfurt Gips Balkind, a New York agency specializing in films.

"It's important that it's understated. They have to carefully consider the visual images that they use so they don't play into the hands of the publicity hounds," said Mr. Frankfurt, who handled the advertising of an earlier Woody Allen film.

TriStar Pictures has not yet announced its advertising strategy, but it has contracted with ad agencies around the country and will be showing many previews in movie theaters, including one Thursday in the Baltimore area.

Parallels between the film and Mr. Allen's personal problems abound, but drawing them must be resisted, Mr. Frankfurt said. Besides the title, the film stars Mr. Allen and Ms. Farrow as a couple with marital problems. Mr. Allen flirts with a young student but eventually resists the temptation.

In real life, Ms. Farrow, 47, alleges that Mr. Allen, 56, is involved in a near-incestuous relationship with her 21-year-old adopted daughter from a previous marriage, Soon-yi Previn. Mr. Allen met Ms. Previn nine years ago when he was dating Ms. Farrow. Both Mr. Allen and Ms. Previn deny that Mr. Allen was a father or father figure to her.

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