How ‘Sleepless’ Became a ‘Sleeper’: Tri-Star Offering Prospered Amongst the Summer Behemoths

LOS ANGELES – Love tangled with the rules of Hollywood movie marketing last summer. In a season steeped in action-adventure films and marketing hype, an old-fashioned romance called Sleepless in Seattle sneaked in and set the heart of summer ad strategies aflutter.
Tri-Star Pictures’ subtly crafted ad campaign for Sleepless niched the film as the summer’s romantic alternative. That counter-marketing move contributed to a $118-million-and-still-growing box office for the film, and in the process uncovered a multi-generational audience clamoring for ‘feel-good’ entertainment.
And now Tri-Star marketing president Buffy Shutt and company are the talk of Hollywood marketing circles, as the studio team most responsible for lending an identity to movie marketing for summer ’93.
‘It is much harder to market a Sleepless in Seattle in the summer than it is to market a Jurassic Park,’ said Anthony Goldschmidt, president of Hollywood movie creative boutique Intra/Link. ‘The heartfeltness of that kind of film could easily get lost in a highly competitive market, if not handled in a very creative fashion.’
Indeed, director Nora Ephron’s unassuming romance was hardly the film expected to make a marketing statement this summer. Too much had been made of – and spent on – the big-budget action-adventures. On the Sony lot alone, Tri-Star fawned over Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger and Columbia promised to shoot the moon in marketing synergy sessions for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero.
The fact that Sleepless wasn’t automatically identified as an expected blockbuster may have given Shutt the freedom to proceed as she did. For as the stakes get higher for studios and filmmakers, top-name directors and stars are more intricately involving themselves in film marketing.
Sources within the creative community say that in his meetings with Universal’s top brass, Steven Spielberg made it clear that Universal’s marketing department was not to control Jurassic’s advertising. ‘Spielberg specifically did not want Universal’s marketing department involved in the film,’ said a source within the production community who is close to the director. ‘He had no confidence in their whole marketing operation, and he wanted to be intimately involved in the marketing of the film.’
What’s probably more realistic is that Spielberg brought in his own team of marketers who worked closely with Universal’s team on the campaign.
The same happened at Columbia, where Arnold Schwarzenegger brought in his favorite boutique, Cimarron/Bacon/O’Brien, to handle creative marketing duties.
Both of those moves have had a trickle-down effect for the two studios and their in-house creative departments. Spielberg put his upcoming films – including Schindler’s List and The Flintstones at Universal – in the control of creative boutique Kaleidoscope Films. Upon viewing the trailer Columbia cut for In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood demanded Cimmaron/Bacon/O’Brien, reportedly challenging, ‘What’s the matter? Aren’t I as good as Arnold?’
Movie marketing execs for the most part are trying to downplay that shift in power. ‘If you have a string of successes, that’s what a studio looks for,’ said former Universal marketing chief Si Kornblit. ‘Having a marketing department thought of as tops will help attract filmmakers, because marketing is an essential element of the whole process.’
But as the summer movie testosterone swirled about them, the Tri-Star team found a gentle niche for Sleepless.
‘We made a conscious decision to release the movie in June, in the thick of the big summer movies,’ explained Shutt. ‘We knew we had an extremely well-playing film. We also felt we were a counterprogramming alternative to the movies around us and to summer in general. Based on that, we built a campaign true to our movie.’
Aware of the mass of upcoming movie hype, Tri-Star subtly launched its own version of a marketing attack well before the bulk of summer marketing activity broke out. Shutt ran the first TV ad for the film a full six months before its release, during the Presidential inauguration celebration in January. In February, the studio held limited press screenings, well before music and other elements had been edited in. On Valentine’s Day, Tri-Star tempted 200 critics with chocolate renditions of the Empire State Building, as a reminder that Sleepless would be part of the summer pack.
Through word-of-mouth generated from the screenings, Tri-Star had critics believing that they had discovered what was quickly dubbed the ‘sleeper’ of the summer. Trailers broke in March, and one week prior to the film’s opening in June, Sleepless had a wide sneak-preview to audiences in half of its release markets.
Through the overall strategy, Tri-Star attempted to sell the film gently, letting people believe that they were discovering Sleepless for themselves.
Above and beyond the media strategy, creatively conveying the essence of the film’s message was a more difficult challenge. Said Shutt: ‘The sense that dreams come true and that love will triumph is an indescribable feeling.’ Tri-Star selected the tag, ‘What if someone you never saw, never met, was the perfect someone for you?’ as its campaign theme.
What strikes their peers the most about the Tri-Star team’s success is that the ethereality of such a marketing message was able to stand out in the summer. ‘It’s a warm movie,’ said Goldschmidt. ‘To market it that way, instead of making it look like a wacky comedy, which could have been safer for summer, is a tremendous attribute to that department.’
Regardless, a studio’s marketing reputation only lasts for a period roughly approximate to the tenure of its film in the theater. So Tri-Star’s session in the spotlight may only be fleeting. ‘It’s always, ‘Show me,’ ‘ said Shutt. ‘But it’s October, and we’re still playing on 900 screens. Who would have believed that?’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)