How do you sell audiences on a 3-hour black-and-white movie with no major American stars that is about the Holocaust?
Get Steven Spielberg to direct it. Carefully position it in the marketplace as an important "experience" rather than a movie. And pray that positive word of mouth will ignite the public's passion for a subject that is historically a tough sell on the big screen.
Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures are using this low-key approach to lure moviegoers to next month's release of Mr. Spielberg's labor of love, "Schindler's List," based on the life of German industrialist and Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler, who secretly saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews from the death camps by employing them in his factories.
While this movie is from the same successful filmmaker who brought the world the highest-grossing movies of all time -- "Jurassic Park" and "E.T." -- you won't see any tie-ins with McDonald's, merchandising gimmicks, blaring TV spots, or gala Hollywood premieres for this latest Spielberg creation. Rather, there will be an extensive print campaign and select TV ads, typical for the platform release of a prestige picture.
A number of special showings and benefit premieres are planned, but Amblin spokesman Marvin Levy insists they will be "understated events." They include an invitational screening in Washington Tuesday, which it is hoped President Clinton will attend. Benefit screenings will be held for the Schindler Foundation and Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (Dec. 9) and for those two groups in conjunction with the Jewish Federation for Christian Rescuers in New York (Dec. 1).
Amblin and Universal officials are sensitive to the words "marketing" or "selling" when it comes to "Schindler's List," arguing those terms don't apply here.
"We think of the word 'marketing' in the case of 'Jurassic Park,' not with this movie," said Mr. Levy. "We believe this movie essentially has to speak for itself."
Universal's slow roll-out distribution pattern reflects just that. The $24 million movie, which stars Irish actor Liam Neeson as Schindler and Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley, will open Dec. 15 on approximately 20 screens in 15 cities. The national rollout begins in mid-January; by the end of that month, Universal estimates it will be playing on about 200 screens. The run will further expand through the Academy Award period in March (nominations are announced Feb. 9; the awards presented March 21).
"Schindler's List" will have a similar limited platform release overseas, said Hy Smith, senior vice president of international marketing for Universal's foreign distribution arm, United International Pictures, or UIP. "It is obviously a very serious movie and needs to be handled carefully and cautiously, with great care and reverence," said Mr. Smith.
The picture's international debut will be on Feb. 10 in Australia, home to Thomas Keneally, author of the book "Schindler's List" upon which the movie is based. It will open in Great Britain Feb. 18, around the rest of Europe between March 4 and March 10, and in Japan March 5.
Mr. Smith said the target audience is "a more intelligent, more up-market 25-year-old-plus" demographic, but that Universal hopes that word of mouth will generate curiosity among 18- to 25-year-olds.
While tourists are lining up in droves at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and TV viewers often eagerly tune in to programs dealing with the Holocaust, Universal is understandably concerned whether moviegoers will line up at the box office for a 3-hour, 13-minute film.
In 1982, Universal was challenged with marketing Alan J. Pakula's screen adaptation of William Styron's book, "Sophie's Choice," which won Meryl Streep an Oscar for her performance as a Polish woman living in Brooklyn struggling with the emotional repercussions of surviving the Holocaust. That film -- considered one of the more successful Holocaust-themed movies -- grossed $30 million. Many others have been less successful.
Producer Arnold Kopelson ("The Fugitive"), very disappointed that his 1989 $11 million "Triumph of the Spirit," starring Oscar-nominated actors Edward James Olmos, Robert Loggia and Willem Dafoe, grossed a mere $408,000 (which he blames on bad marketing and distribution), cautioned: "It is a subject that is very depressing. It is difficult for audiences to go to a theater and be shocked into a state of despair."
Yet, Mr. Kopelson applauds Mr. Spielberg for making "Schindler's List," saying: "There is a segment of our population that will seek out a Steven Spielberg movie regardless of the subject matter because he's known to be a brilliant filmmaker. I hope his film will be seen by a large audience."
Another Hollywood producer, very active in Jewish causes, agreed: "I don't think there's any question that trying to market a Holocaust movie to the mass audience is extremely difficult, if not impossible; however, when you have a director whose name is synonymous with mass audience appeal, as Spielberg's is, you have to wonder if that won't make a big difference."