"Annie," the $39.5 million movie musical, opened yesterday at 1,103 theaters across the land. It received mixed reviews, and its fate is now in the hands of audiences everywhere.
Columbia, however, is already on the way to the bank.
"Sure, the reviews have been mostly negative out here in California ," said Marvin Antonowsky, Columbia's president for marketing and research. "The local ones will be much better. Anyhow, we've got our money back already."
Columbia has already sold $30 million in theater guarantees, $10 million in television rights from NBC and another $10 million from the cable movie service Home Box Office. "And then there's all the merchandising stuff, which also goes to the bottom line," Antonowsky added.
The merchandising was made easier by the fact that almost nobody doesn't know about "Annie" by this time.
Like Andrea McCardle in the play before her, Aileen Quinn was chosen for the movie part after a talent hunt--itself a promotional juggernaut that took 10 months, visited 20 cities and surveyed more than 8,000 children. Only then did Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters and young Miss Quinn step before director John Huston's cameras.
The behind-the-scenes activity was intentionally the worst kept secret possible. By this week, the range of "Annie" interviews on televisions went from Albert Finney to the trainer of Sandy the dog; Carol Burnett turned up on a Barbara Walters special, and even public television got into the act with an entertainingly promotional fund-raising offering called "Lights! Camera! Annie!: The Making of a Major Hollywood Musical."
Long before all of that, Joe Whitaker was at work.
Whitaker, a former head of marketing for Mattel toys, was in charge of merchandising and promoting "Annie" for Rastar Films. What he and his colleagues worked up is now being called the most ambitious marketing/merchandising effort in movie history.
"Yes, we certainly have the biggest campaign synchronized with the release of a movie. Obviously 'Star Wars' and 'The Empire Strikes Back' did an enormous job, but the difference here is the coordination--we planned it so everything was actually in place when the movie opened."
What was in place, for example, was the Sears catalogue.
"What we did was to give Sears Aileen Quinn for a certain number of days of catalogue shots in Chicago. So the fall catalogue has an entire section on 'Annie's' clothes--which you see 'Annie' herself modeling.
"Since we delivered the real Annie, we got paramount space in the book. Excuse me, I didn't mean to say 'Paramount,' " added Whitaker, who works for Columbia and Rastar. "The point is, the Sears cataloge is in 15 million homes. I would say that's a free ad in 15 million homes."
Then Whitaker moved on to the supermarkets.
" 'Annie's' in the bar soap division everywhere," he explained. "We made a deal with Procter & Gamble to have the biggest soap promotion ever. They'll be giving away 'Annie' posters with the soap--in 25,000 supermarkets."
Sears and Procter & Gamble, Whitaker says, are the two largest retail advertisers in the nation. "So it's nice to be tied in with them both."
Indeed, and with Coca-Cola.
"Yes, Coke is promoting the movie, and so is Hi-C. Coke's Fountain Service Division is doing 'Annie' cups for fast-food chains as well as movie theaters. We've made an arrangement with Minute Maid orange juice too. We've given them Aileen Quinn for an 'Annie' commercial that will be on the air in July."
These endeavors are known as "premium promotions" in the trade. "The philosophy is that basic products--like cereal--are the same. So you offer something else along with them, something like coupons for an 'Annie' doll. It's a good brand-switch technique."
Whitaker's own philosophy is that "kids see a movie and they want to live in that world, they want to exist there, they want to become Annie. Once they've reached that point, it's a matter of choosing from the products available. Of course, only a few movies reach into the consciousness like that. But I deeply believe this one will be a giant hit."
Even before there was Joe Whitaker, there was the Knickerbocker Toy Co. Knickerbocker is the largest "Annie" license-holder--there are now more than 100 such licenses worldwide. Knickerbocker took the plunge when "Annie" was still a play.
"Our line involves a six-inch 'Annie' doll, a couple of sizes of rag doll, a couple sizes of plush 'Sandy' dog, an 'Annie' wig," said Andrew Gatto, senior vice president for marketing and sales, adding " . . . a limosine, a doll house in the form of the mansion and vinyl figures of secondary characters.
"We developed the rag doll around the stage play. The merchandisibility of movies by and large is very difficult to predict. Even when they're big at the box office, they can have little appeal for toys."
Gatto said that when "Annie" opened in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Toronto, sales of "Annie" toys there increased "nine- or tenfold." He expects an ultimate gross "in the tens of millions of dollars."
What if "Annie" turns out to be a bomb?
"Well, we run a long-term category of 'Annie' merchandise," Gatto said. "In that sense the movie is just gravy for us. But it's thick gravy. It's the icing on the cake. Besides, I expect it to be a giant hit. It's more than a movie, it's Americana."
There is "Annie--The Official Movie Magazine," at $2.95 (Pounds 1.5 in the U.K.), and the "Annie Poster Book." Ballantine Books is publishing a novelization, a book about the history of Annie, and a 1983 "Annie" calendar. The juvenile division of Random House has a synopsis of the movie script, with stills. It is also doing a new line of "Annie" storybooks, with titles such as "Annie Finds a Home," "Annie Goes to the Jungle" and "Annie and the Party Thieves."
One thing you can say about "Annie": It isn't only a movie.