King Kong: Huge. Awesome. Irresistible. Just Not Overbearin
King Kong: Huge. Awesome. Irresistible. Just Not OverbearingBy ROSS JOHNSON
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.
SAVE the date: Dec. 5, 2005.
NBC Universal's "King Kong" will still be nine days short of its opening. But on that day the studio plans to introduce the third incarnation of its soulful simian to 8,000 of his closest friends at what promises to be a gargantuan movie premiere.
Nearly a year in the making, the party - with a seat for New York's mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and 3,000 for admirers who win tickets in various promotions - is expected to tie up Times Square in Manhattan and 38 screens in a pair of 42nd Street theaters at the height of the holiday shopping season.
Actually, 7,000 fans already made a passing acquaintance with Kong in July, when the director, Peter Jackson, sent a seven-minute scene (in which the ape battles dinosaurs) to Comic-Con, the comics convention in San Diego.
And 30,000 theatrical trailers, dubbed in 11 languages and subtitled in 20 others, have been playing around the globe since June 29, two days after a 150-second teaser had its debut on the Web site of Volkswagen, a promotional partner for the movie, and on various NBC-Universal outlets.
By the time "King Kong" is released on Dec. 14, only the dead are likely to be unaware of it. Yet the marketing mavens at Universal say, without blushing, that their biggest challenge is to avoid hype. "Our campaign must be an honest and open one, and it won't be characterized by flash or gimmicks," Universal vice chairman Marc Shmuger said in a recent interview. "From the first conversation I had with Peter about the film, he talked about the dangers of overhype versus his desire to communicate how much he wanted to do justice to the original."
That Mr. Shmuger and company should be fretting about oversell even as they work to make "King Kong" the year's biggest film event underscores the treacherous nature of the contemporary studio business.
Ever bigger movies - this one had a production budget of $150 million - require ever grander rollouts, which, if not handled delicately, can become a turn-off for an increasingly finicky fan base. Do it wrong, and even a proven fire-breather can become just another cranky lizard, as happened when Sony Pictures released its "Godzilla" remake in 1998 to a relatively modest $136 million in United States ticket sales.
In the case of "King Kong," the task is complicated by a seasonal oddity: Universal will be staging a full-bore, summer-style blockbuster even as competitors ease Christmas-season Oscar bets like Sony's "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "All the King's Men" into the market.
Trickier still, Universal must capitalize on Mr. Jackson's vast cult following from his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which had a worldwide box-office taken of nearly $3 billion, without in any way seeming to take them for granted.
To date, the studio has brought a surprising degree of subtlety to its pitch. Universal chose not to produce an early "Kong" teaser trailer for Christmas 2004 movie audiences, for instance, on the theory that early front-runners, like politicians whose campaigns peak too soon, are often picked off by a dark horse.
In a still more unusual sign of restraint, the studio is relying on Mr. Jackson to communicate directly with his own devotees, both through his official fan Web site (tbhl.theonering.net), and through postings to kongisking.net, which is run independent of the company.
"It's very important that the information being fed to Peter's fans about 'Kong' is not studio sanctioned," said Ken Kamins, Mr. Jackson's longtime Hollywood agent who is now his personal manager. "Peter is a movie fan himself, and he knows firsthand the mentality of the geek fan. They don't want to be told by a studio what they're supposed to like, and they love it when they've all been invited in on a little secret."
The not-so-little secret on kongisking.net is the five hours of production and post-production video diaries that Mr. Jackson and the "Kong" crew have sent to the Web site's editor, Michael Regina, for posting since "Kong" began shooting in September 2004. The videos largely feature film of Mr. Jackson directly addressing the camera and explaining in detail the intricacies of trying to put together the "Kong" film.
"It was Peter's idea to post the production diaries," said Mr. Regina, who runs the site from his home in Montreal.
"These sites are all about outreach at a grass-roots level," Mr. Regina said. "There are no restrictions or boundaries or bureaucracy, and Peter can just call me and say, 'Let's do this, it'll be fun.' "
Responding to queries by e-mail, Mr. Jackson said he shared Universal's sense that it would be a mistake to sell too hard, too soon. "After the big trailer launch, everyone agreed that Kong should go quiet for a while, which I think is a good thing," he wrote. "There's a bunch of other movies coming out over the next few months, and it's good to sit back in the shadows and focus on finishing the best film we can."
True to the geek spirit, Mr. Jackson, whose formal education stopped at high school and who has never shot a frame of film outside New Zealand, forgoes a so-called possessory credit ("a film by") on his pictures. In its place, he has advocated a somewhat self-effacing marketing message, promising audiences a film that melds 21st-century technology and 20th-century storytelling, remaining faithful to the vision of the 1933 "King Kong" film directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack.
In the opinion of Bob Burns, a "King Kong" historian who has built a makeshift "Kong" museum in his Burbank, Calif., home, and who met Mr. Jackson when the director was trying to get a "Kong" film made in 1996, what the June teaser trailer and the scene sent to Comic-Con forcefully established was very important to the cognoscenti: What made "King Kong" so popular to 1933 audiences, and had been taken out in the 1976 "King Kong" remake produced by Dino De Laurentiis, is back in for the 2005 version.
The story is once again set in the Depression; the damn-the-torpedoes movie showman character of Carl Denham (played by the "School of Rock" star Jack Black) is again leading the expedition to Skull Island; and the now-computer generated Kong again moves like an agile four-legged simian, not like the lumbering, ape suit-clad Rick Baker in the 1976 version.
The fights with the dinosaurs are back; so is the Empire State Building finale. And the star of the film is not the Ann Darrow character (played as a disco-era sexpot by Jessica Lange in 1976 and more demurely by Naomi Watts this time around), or the Jack Driscoll love interest (the Oscar-winner Adrien Brody), but rather, what Mr. Burns called "the ultimate alpha male who has the battle scars to prove it."
"At Comic-Con, the place went nuts because you could tell that Peter Jackson knows the story is about Kong's journey," Mr. Burns said. "Peter loves the animal. De Laurentiis only loved the money."
(Mr. De Laurentiis is on location in Italy producing "The Last Legion," and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Mr. Jackson certainly isn't averse to money: He has been paid $200 million to date by New Line Cinema for "The Lord of the Rings," and is attempting to obtain up to $100 million more from the studio with a lawsuit over studio accounting.
Nor is he reluctant to put his name out front, if it's attached to a product other than the movie itself. The video game Peter Jackson's King Kong will make its debut in November with a huge marketing campaign by the French game developer Ubisoft, which produced the hit game Beyond Good and Evil. (According to Peter Nelson, Mr. Jackson's lawyer, Mr. Jackson, who is being touted as highly involved in the game's creation, stands to make as much from the Kong video game, and any subsequent versions, as he will from his $20 million fee against 20 percent of the gross proceeds for directing, co-producing and serving as a writer on the "Kong" film.)
Universal, for its part, will engage in plenty of conventional boosterism before the movie's release. Its promotional partner Volkswagen, for instance, will finance a major ad campaign heralding its Touareg model as an "official member of the 'King Kong' crew," and Toshiba will be flooding the airwaves with product commercials featuring "Kong" scenes. Nestlé will be doing large size "Kong" candy bars, and expect to see Cheerios in a retro package with Kong on the box.
And there is the matter of that premiere, a bit of hype that the film's barnstorming adventurer Carl Denham would surely appreciate. Eddie Egan, Universal's co-president of marketing, has been negotiating since early this year for the use of Times Square, which in the movie is the site of a huge action sequence that begins with Kong storming out of a Broadway theater, all shot outside New York.
By e-mail, Mr. Jackson said the decision not to film in the city was based largely on the difficulty of shooting period scenes in a contemporary environment. "We built our own back lot in New Zealand - including Times Square, Herald Square and other sections of the city," he explained. "What's really cool is the digital city that's been created for the film. It's very realistic and allows us to extend our back lot in all directions, so we end up with crowded streets featuring 1,000 cars, 5,000 people, and at times, a 25-foot Gorilla."
Mr. Egan promises that the festivities will include "a special moment" for the Empire State Building, where Kong meets his death. (In the 1976 version, he died at the World Trade Center.)
On the Universal lot, those in charge of manufacturing the "King Kong" buzz are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. "People forget that we're movie fans," Mr. Egan said. "The pride and anticipation over 'Kong' is at a fever pitch. Everybody is looking forward to just settling into a seat, having the lights go down, and letting this incredible adventure wash over them. Isn't that what movies are all about?"