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UNIVERSAL'S FAST AND FURIOUS MARKETER
Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ November 26th 2001 ]

Los Angeles advertising executive Santiago Pozo remembers pitching his idea for a Latino film label to Universal Pictures Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger. Pozo was on the fourth slide of his presentation when Shmuger cut him off. "Yes, yes, I got it," said Shmuger, 43, who oversees worldwide marketing and distribution for Universal. "Let's make it happen."

Three months later, Universal is teaming up with Pozo's Arenas Group to launch a film label called Arenas Entertainment to produce, finance, distribute and market films tailored to the Latino market in the U.S. and worldwide. Arenas Entertainment will distribute up to six pictures a year and operate out of Universal, which is a minority investor. Shmuger, aware of the potential tie-ins with Universal's Latino music label, was instantly sold on the idea, which hasn't been tried in Hollywood. "It makes so much sense ... because the Latino market is underserved," he said.

The deal is the latest example of Shmuger's zeal for finding ways to expand the marketing reach of Universal Pictures, now under the aegis of Paris-based Vivendi Universal.

From negotiating the first promotional tie-in with the U.S. Postal Service for the movie "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to striking multimillion-dollar marketing deals with Microsoft Corp. and AOL Time Warner Inc., Shmuger has played a pivotal role in Universal's turnaround. In the last three years, the studio shot from fourth to a tie for first with Warner Bros. for the largest market share, according to ACNielsen EDI Inc.

In an industry in which the success or failure of a movie depends largely on how it fares in the opening weekend, marketing is more important than ever. And during Shmuger's first year as vice chairman, Universal has racked up impressive numbers. Four films in a row--"The Mummy Returns," "The Fast and the Furious," "Jurassic Park III" and "American Pie 2" each grossed more than $40 million in their opening weekends. Last year, as Universal's president of marketing, Shmuger oversaw the promotions for several box-office hits, including "The Grinch" and "Erin Brockovich."

"I think he completely revitalized our business," Universal Studios President Ron Meyer said. "When you look at some of his campaigns--"The Grinch," "Bring It On," "American Pie" and ["American Pie 2"] - and how innovative they were, they were exceptional." Even rivals are quick to offer praise of Shmuger. "He's formidable," said Oren Aviv, president of Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Marketing.

Shmuger started his career in advertising, working several years in New York before joining Disney and later Sony Pictures, where as a top marketing executive he promoted such films as "A League of Their Own," "Groundhog Day" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

But unlike many of his peers, Shmuger had a filmmaker's background. The St. Louis native studied film at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he watched as many as eight movies a day "to satisfy an insatiable curiosity for movies." Shmuger, who once owned a production company, wrote and produced the 1987 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feature "Dead of Winter." "He has an unconditional empathy with the filmmakers," said Rob Cohen, director of "The Fast and the Furious."

Cerebral and low-key, Shmuger spends his free time with his sons, ages 6 and 9, and playing pickup basketball in Pacific Palisades, where he and his family live. Colleagues describe him as passionate and relentless, often staying up all night to complete a movie trailer. "Everybody around him gets energized by his passion," said his boss, Stacey Snider.

Shmuger's hallmark is a willingness to make risky decisions, such as moving the opening date for "The Fast and the Furious" from spring to a more competitive summer slot. The urban drag-racing film had no big names and a medium-size budget, but Shmuger was convinced it would be a surprise hit after strong test screenings. So he moved the opening date to June, one week after the opening of Paramount Pictures' hit"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

The delay allowed Universal's marketing department to build awareness of the movie through extensive screenings for racing fans. "The Fast and the Furious" so far has grossed $198 million worldwide. Cohen, the film's director, figures Shmuger's decision at least doubled the film's ticket sales. Shmuger has a knack for finding the right message for a movie and acutely understanding youth culture, said Brian Grazer, co-producer of "The Grinch" and the upcoming "A Beautiful Mind." "He's kind of this lethal blend of the guy who cares more than anybody and is almost smarter than everybody," Grazer said.

To broaden the appeal of "The Grinch," Shmuger had the movie trailer depict the Grinch with a scarier, edgier quality than the original cartoon character. Boosted by $80 million in support from promotional partners, plus appearances by Audrey Geisel, widow of Dr. Seuss creator Theodor Geisel, and merchandise tie-ins with the Postal Service, "The Grinch" became the year's most successful movie, racking up about $260 million at the box office. "There's no set formula, " Shmuger said. "You have to go with what the marketplace is telling you [and] what the competition is throwing at you."

Shmuger and other Universal executives also credit a new strategy of promoting more cooperation among other divisions, including consumer products and overseas distribution. Universal's distribution arm, UIP, which it owns with Paramount, also is more active in marketing campaigns. Shmuger believes that this more unified approach gave a big boost to such movies as "Bridget Jones's Diary," which grossed more than $200 million overseas, nearly triple domestic sales.

But Shmuger has had his share of marketing failures, including "Rocky and Bullwinkle" and "Josie and the Pussycats" at Universal, plus the Arnold Schwarzenegger flop "Last Action Hero," which Columbia Pictures touted as the big ticket for 1993. "It was a hard lesson in over-boasting," Shmuger said. And Shmuger's tendency to experiment hasn't always worked. To promote the 1999 movie "Man on the Moon," about the offbeat comic Andy Kaufman, Universal gave money to die-hard Kaufman fans to run their own marketing campaign. The studio also ran print ads that were upside-down and TV ads that were cut in half. But mainstream viewers failed to connect with the message.

Beyond individual movie promotions, Shmuger also has stepped up Universal's online marketing by forging multimillion-dollar deals with AOL Time Warner and Microsoft. Such deals are critical to Universal, which lacks the domestic distribution capabilities of rivals such as Disney and AOL.

The AOL deal guarantees that Universal's movies will be promoted across AOL's Web and TV properties, including TNT, the WB network and HBO. But to reduce its dependence on AOL, Universal reached a similar 15-month, multi-picture deal with Microsoft last month. The agreement includes banners promoting Universal movies, chat rooms with celebrities, exclusive clips and games. Though online promotions are common among studios, Universal was the first to strike a full-year deal to promote its slate of films with MSN.

Despite Universal's strong box-office performance in 2001, Shmuger will have his work cut out for him next year. "I believe he'll be tested in the next year," Disney's Aviv said. "They don't have four big sequels and they don't have any obvious tent poles [beyond a re-release of "E.T."]...If anybody can pull it off, Marc can, but it will be a test.".

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Lara Croft and Tomb Raider are trademarks of Square Enix Ltd.
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