Friday, March 27, 1998
By BRUCE ORWALL
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
[With additional commentary by yours truly!]
How do you hide a 200-foot-tall radioactive lizard?
That's the question two movie producers and Sony Corp.'s TriStar Pictures are struggling with as they prepare to unveil a new movie version of "Godzilla" this summer. Sony and the "Independence Day" team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have given the schlocky 1960's monster an edgier '90's look, which they want to be a complete surprise when the would-be blockbuster opens on May 20.
A massive promotional campaign now depends entirely on keeping the made-over beast under wraps. Publicity photos and preview trailers show only Godzilla's eye and foot. and the film's 150 merchandising partners have been given strict orders to keep the secret. At February's American International toy Fair in New York, retailers wishing to review Trendmasters Inc.'s line of Godzilla toys were routed through metal detectors into a room that required an electronic access card for entry.
But kept secrets are a rarity in Hollywood, and Godzilla's handlers have fretted that a leak would squash their publicity drive like a Tokyo subway car. So they went one step further. They set up a sting operation.
Rather than give Godzilla licensees real renderings of what the monster would look like, Messrs. Devlin and Emmerich instead disseminated a series of fake drawings, each slightly different. If any of them became public, they would know where the leak came from and cut ties with that partner. "We sent out these drawings to see who was going to be able to keep a secret," Mr. Devlin says. The producers planned to hand over the real designs at a later date, before any of the licensees began manufacturing merchandise.
Such paranoid tactics are unheard of, if not unprecedented, other movie executives say. Mr. Devlin says he was inspired to try it by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, whom Mr. Devlin says has put out disinformation about the plot of next year's much-anticipated addition to the "Star Wars" cycle. But a spokeswoman for Lucasfilm Ltd. strongly denies that, saying that Mr. Lucas doesn't want to risk betraying his most ardent fans. [Are you listening, Mr. Devlin?]
Controversial though it may be, Mr. Devlin's trap worked. One of the fakes showed up on the Internet late last year, and Mr. Devlin sprung into action. "We knew exactly which partner we'd sent it out to," he said of the fake drawing. "So we terminated that partner."
Mr. Devlin wouldn't identify the company in an interview, but people familiar with the situation say that the offending party was Fruit of the Loom Inc. A spokeswoman for Fruit of the Loom declined to comment.
That's when the disinformation campaign started taking on a life of its own. The first problem arose because Godzilla loyalists didn't realize that the monster they saw on the Internet was a phony. And they were dismayed.
"People just were not happy," says Barry S. Goldberg [WOO-HOO! I made the front page of the Wall Street Journal!!!], who designs computer systems for a Boston law firm when he isn't updating his encyclopedic "Temple of Godzilla" Web site. "It looked like a cross Between 'Alien' and 'Creature of the Black Lagoon. [Actually, I didn't say that's what it looked like. I said that was what one person had told me he thought it looked like]
Longtime Godzilla fans, it turns out, have been fearing all along that the producers would toss out what Mr. Goldberg calls the "thunder-thighed and ponderous" [Did I really say that? What was I thinking....] two-legged beast they love in favor of a slicker, more agile four-legged version. They are also worried that the new Godzilla will boast not the traditional monster's "atomic breath," but rather a wimpy "hurricane-force breath."
To shut down potentially damaging negative buzz, Mr. Devlin began spinning Internet taste-makers like Mr. Goldberg, Harry Knowles and Patrick Sauriol, who operate competing Web sites that specialize in gossip about unreleased movies [Harry's site is the Ain't It Cool news page, and Patrick's is the Corona's Coming Attractions page. I'm not sure what my name is doing in the same sentence as theirs, though....]. Mr. Knowles says that Mr. Devlin contacted him to explain that a low-level Fruit of the Loom employee had unwittingly passed the phony on to a friend, who put it on the Internet.
Another problem involved the film's other licensing partners. Many of them were nervous about Sony's demand that Godzilla merchandise be held off shelves until the film is released; the pre-opening period usually accounts for about 35% of movie-merchandise sales. They were irritated to learn that they had been set up. "Once it came out that the drawings were fake," Mr. Devlin says, they demanded the real drawings." He instructed the companies that had received the decoys to destroy them.
But in classic movie-monster form, the unleashed decoys have refused to die. Licensees in some cases passed them on to sub- contractors for use in designing merchandise, and the potential for leaks multiplied. Sure enough, a white [Actually, it was pink] sculpture showing the monster wrapped around the Empire State Building appeared on the "Temple of Godzilla" site in January -- another fake presented as the real thing. The picture was later picked up by more popular sites.
The producers renewed the search for suspects, but wider distribution of the fakes now made that more difficult. The ship was springing other leaks, too. Another licensee, Tiger Electronics Inc, of Vernon Hills, Ill., was terminated for allowing a trade magazine to publish a photo that showed part of a real Godzilla toy. Tiger Electronics declined to comment.
Desperate to take swift action, the producers turned up the heat on the Website operators. On Feb. 6, Mr. Goldberg received an e-mail from Josh Gordon, who works in the interactive division of Messrs. Emmerich and Devlin's Centropolis Entertainment. "We are extremely upset, surprised, and disappointed that you would post the alleged Godzilla sculpture," Mr. Gordon wrote. [And they were even more upset, surprised and disappointed when they found out I forwarded their comments to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Hey -- they never told me it was supposed to be private! Oops....] He continued: "In order that people who had no part of this leak don't lose their jobs, we are asking that you tell us where you got these pictures from. This is an extremely unfortunate situation that could have been prevented IF you had used a little more discretion in your decision."
A bit shaken, Mr. Goldberg coughed up a photo of the anonymous envelope in which the statue pictures had arrived. "I felt a little guilty." he says, but adds: "That was all I could tell them. I wasn't holding out."
The postmark on the envelope led the producers to an unidenti- fied sculptor in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Upon learning that he was molding a fake Godzilla, the sculptor had thrown out -- but not destroyed -- the sculpture. The producers believe the mold was plucked from the trash, photographed, and eventually sent to Mr. Goldberg for use on his Web site.
Discovery of the leak's source came not a moment too soon, as Mr. Devlin explained in an e-mail to Mr. Goldberg: "EVERY partner who was given those particular fakes were about to go on the chopping block."
Then Mr. Devlin made a last request. The media were hounding him for real photos of Godzilla, which he couldn't provide. "If we did," he wrote, "an entire promotional campaign of $150 million will go down the drain." Yet he knew other fakes were still floating around. "I'm sure, at some point, those will leak out as well. And of course, the REAL creature may eventually leak out as well. The problem for us all is that this has become some kind of game wherein a feeding frenzy is growing on the Internet and encouraging people to lie, steal and bribe their way into getting the 'scoop.'"
So Mr. Devlin has asked Mr. Goldberg and others to preserve his publicity campaign by not posting any unauthorized Godzilla photos they receive: "Because," he wrote, "there will be more."
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