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A Film With Underage Fans Faces Marketing Issues

 

Lauren A.E. Shuker

Wall Street Journal

May 30, 2008
 

Scores of women are reserving tickets to see New Line Cinema's R-rated "Sex and the City" movie, which opens Friday. But the season's biggest female event is also generating buzz in a group that isn't supposed to see it: girls under 17 years of age.

The situation -- and the tricky marketing challenge it poses for Time Warner Inc.'s New Line Cinema -- reflects the fact that a lot has changed for Carrie Bradshaw and her friends since the original HBO series had its finale in 2004. On HBO, the series was known for using bawdy sexuality and frank language to chronicle the night-crawling lifestyle of four Manhattan women.

But for the past few years, a sanitized version of the show has been in heavy rotation on Time Warner's TBS network, and it has drawn the under-18 crowd, who now make up 10% of the audience. A new survey by the marketing consultant Intelligence Group indicates that "Sex and the City" is one of the most anticipated summer movies for teen girls, right up there with "Indiana Jones." Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old star of the Disney Channel series "Hannah Montana," has called the show "her favorite" and compared the sexy series to her own show.

Teen girls are drawn to the show's nonstop fashion parade, led by its star, who last year launched Bitten Sarah Jessica Parker, a budget clothing line that routinely sells dresses for less than $10 and appeals to teenagers. "I love Carrie's style: the way she is confident and wears things that are crazy and doesn't care," says Rachel Nyberg, a 16-year-old from Minneapolis who plans to see "Sex and the City" as soon as it opens.

Such intense interest among underage fashionistas poses a knotty problem for New Line. The studios have long had to maneuver carefully when it comes to R-rated movies, which require adult accompaniment for moviegoers under 17, though the rule isn't always enforced. Usually, the concern is about kids trying to sneak into movies drenched with sex, like "American Pie," or violence, as in "The Matrix."

But the issue grew more serious after a Federal Trade Commission report in 2000 accused Hollywood studios of inappropriately marketing adult content to children. The studios vowed to clean up their act after being forced to defend incidents in which they test-marketed R-rated films to 9-year-olds and distributed promotional materials for the films to youth groups. At that time, Time Warner's Warner Bros., which absorbed New Line this year, pledged not to show ads for R-rated movies during any programming where about 35% of the audience was under 17 years old.

Today, New Line says that it's not marketing "Sex and the City" to teens and that advance research shows that less than 5% of the interested audience is under 17. The studio did, however, purchase ad time for "Sex and the City" on TV programs that turned out to have substantial teen audiences, including some in which more than 35% of the viewers are 17 or under, according to Nielsen Co.

For example, numerous ads for the movie have run during CW's "Gossip Girl," which had an under-18 audience of about 23% this spring, and MTV's "My Super Sweet 16," with about 40%. According to TNS Media Intelligence, 18 "Sex and the City" commercials have run during MTV's series "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila" -- where about 40% of the audience is under 18 -- in recent weeks. Studios often argue that buying time on such programs is necessary in order to reach the 18 to 24-year-old demographic.

Dodging such issues is one reason that many summer movies set out to win a PG-13 rating, giving them a shot at a wider audience. Other films carrying R ratings this summer include the comedies "Tropic Thunder" and "The Pineapple Express," the Angelina Jolie action movie "Wanted" and the M. Night Shyamalan thriller "The Happening."

The teen interest in "Sex and the City " is somewhat surprising because the $60 million film focuses on the "Sex" foursome's move into their 40s -- and in one case 50s -- facing problems with marriage, infidelity and starting a family. According to a former HBO executive, in its early stages of development, the film was jokingly referred to as "Menopause in the City."

But the studio always recognized the potential of drawing a younger audience. Executives at New Line originally flirted with the idea of making a PG-13 film to reach a wider audience. They decided against it, according to director Michael Patrick King, worried that a tamer film would alienate loyal fans and come off as a "knockoff version of the show." The movie got its R rating because it includes nudity, profanity and a number of scenes that feature the stars in explicitly sexual situations.

Still, Mr. King says he deliberately crafted a story that would have multigenerational appeal. He added a 20-something character who plays Carrie Bradshaw's assistant to appeal to younger viewers, he says. The film also features a brief performance by a preteen playing the assistant's younger sister.

Mr. King -- who invited his 16-year-old niece to the film's New York premiere this week -- notes that much of the marketing is built around adult brands like Mercedes-Benz and Skyy Vodka. "The reality is that most of the marketing is very grown-up, but that's OK -- it's supposed to be aspirational," he says. "I'm not expecting that 16-year-olds would have a Louis Vuitton bag. It's all supposed to be a little out of everyone's reach."

"Sixteen is the new 20," adds Shelley Zalis, CEO of OTX, a consumer research firm that tracks film demographics. "Sixteen-year-olds want to see films with more adult subject matter. There are a whole new bunch of movies that really hit a teen audience that might not be expected to."

"Sex and the City" is also getting buzz from publicity that falls outside the marketing campaign. On Condé Nast's teen-oriented ym.com Thursday, the film was featured prominently, and a discussion thread about summer movies was spiked with comments about the film, including one that read: "I wanna see the Sex and the City movie," and another that read: "I was never HUGE on the show because I was still younger when it was on ... but I watch it pretty often now on repeats."

Melissa Benjamin, a 16-year-old from Chappaqua, N.Y., says that her three best friends got advance tickets to see the movie Friday because they watched the show for hours in middle school. "We'd come home at 3:30 p.m. and watch until 9 o'clock on HBO on Demand," she says. "We'd like to say which character we all thought we were most like. Secretly," she confides, "I really relate to Carrie, but my other friend wanted to be Carrie."
 

 

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