Things look bleak for the protagonists of A Little Princess — privileged schoolgirl-turned-maid Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) and her fellow servant Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester) — when they’re locked in an icy attic without any supper. But they fall asleep fantasizing about food, and awake to find the room washed in sunlight and gold silk, a sumptuous feast waiting for them.
Warner Bros. is hoping for a similar kind of magical bounty with its Aug. 4 rerelease of Princess. Originally, the studio expected the G-rated adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1888 children’s book to draw hordes of young girls. But when Princess, first released in May, got a lackluster response in theaters (it earned only $8.8 million in its first 10 weeks versus Casper’s $90.5 million), the studio decided to give the film a rare second chance to grab a substantial summer audience. It commissioned a new ad campaign with a Little Women look that focuses on critics’ raves and repositions Princess as a high-quality film for discerning parents and their children. Warner isn’t asking for repeat visits. ”At this point,” says producer Mark Johnson, ”I just want them to see it the first time.”
Warner publicity president Robert Friedman blames the premature demise of Princess’ first run on strategy mistakes rather than on the film itself. He cites marketing gaffes such as releasing the film in early summer, when fall or Christmas might have been better; aiming it at too young an audience; and making the posters look too girlish. But most harmful of all may well have been Princess’ lack of merchandising tie-ins. ”We asked for toys,” says Johnson, ”but Warner Bros. was only licensing Batman Forever and Free Willy 2.”
In a summer crowded with heavily marketed kids’ fare (Casper, Pocahontas), movies without toys or fast-food tie-ins have found it tough to survive, let alone stage a comeback. ”It’s incredibly hard for a children’s film to succeed without brand-name awareness,” says Universal’s vice president of publicity, Stuart Zakim, whose studio did well with Casper. But not everyone is sold on merchandising. ”If you put out a toy line — [even with] Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers — the film’s a big hit with kids,” says Princess director Alfonso Cuaron, undoubtedly indulging in hyperbole. ”But that’s not this film’s path.”
Instead, a profitable alternative to national hard sell may be local soft sell. The new, improved campaign for Princess focuses on building grass-roots enthusiasm in 19 targeted markets. In Cincinnati, for example, field representative Doris Owens has expanded her usual sales pitch from newspaper arts editors to include radio DJ’s and opinion columnists. While community-based marketing may not yield the mammoth box office results of The Lion King, it could create the family equivalent of art-house success and foster a healthy video life. To that end, Owens has organized coloring contests, group sales, and screenings for the type of people she thinks will love Princess. Says Owens, ”I’m going to have hairdressers in there big time.”