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Early buzz from religious leaders: two thumbs up
BY Steve Rabey
LOS ANGELES—The Prince of Egypt, the $60 million-plus animated movie about the life of Moses, won't open in theaters until Dec. 18. But DreamWorks SKG, the film's producer, has already launched an omnipresent marketing blitz using music stores and book stores, mass merchandisers like Wal-Mart and Target, religious leaders, and even churches.
The campaign promises to make it harder to ignore this film than it was for Pharaoh to ignore the various plagues unleashed upon Egypt until he realented and released the Jewish people from more than three centuries of slavery.
Stores have already begun selling movie-related musical albums, including an official soundtrack and other albums targeted to country and Christian listeners. Meanwhile, three separate publishers have created a movie-themed wave of nearly two dozen books related to the film.
And the movie's impressive, multi-language, art-festooned Web site (www.prince-of-egypt.com) features study guides designed to help parents and teachers examine Moses'spiritual and ethical values. Some churches are planning to take groups of children to the film, while others intend to promote it to their members.
An article in the September/-October issue of Children's Ministry magazine, published by Loveland, Colo.-based Group Publishing, Inc., tells readers how to create a “Life of Moses Museum” in their churches, and gives the upcoming movie the kind of earnest endorsement that money can't buy: “This is an unprecedented opportunity for children's ministers to … reveal God's truth to children.”
“Merchandising The Prince of Egypt like a cartoon would be wrong,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney honcho who is now the “K” in SKG. “This is not a fairy tale for toddlers.”
Many people of faith are anxious to support films that take their beliefs seriously. Early reports indicate that The Prince of Egypt does just that, while not offending non-religious viewers who may be attracted to the film's universal themes of “faith, hope, and freedom.”
Rolf Zettersten, publisher at Christian publishing giant Thomas Nelson, which is producing seven Prince-related books, initially passed when DreamWorks asked him to jump aboard the movie's burgeoning bandwagon. But Zettersten changed his tune after an advance screening of the film.
“We're not looking for a movie to animate every jot and tittle of the Bible,” he said. “But we do want it to be at least consistent with Scripture. And Prince of Egypt does that reliably.”
Still, marketing to religious viewers requires sensibilities and sensitivities absent from the typical Hollywood promotional campaign, as well as generous doses of creativity.
In 1956, director Cecil DeMille used unprecedented methods to promote the last major movie about Moses, DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments. Working with a granite quarry, DeMille created hundreds of sets of stone tablets carved with the Ten Commandments and had them installed in parks and public places around the country. (According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which opposes such displays on public property, DeMille's tablets still stand near statehouses in Denver, San Antonio, and elsewhere.)
But early on, the folks at DreamWorks decided not to promote The Prince of Egypt with the sort of marketing campaign typically associated with children's films, namely action toys and fast-food meals.
The concern was hypothetical Holy Moses Happy Meals and Super-sized Red Sea Sodas and Manna Malts would leave a bad taste in consumers' mouths. Ditto for Toys R Us pushing millions of, let's say, battery-powered Burning Bushes or Miracle Magic Sets (“Turns water in your house and in nearby lakes and streams to blood!”). That's why DreamWorks SKG began promoting The Prince of Egypt to religious leaders as long ago as 1995. Katzenberg has been hosting visits by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders. A studio press release says “558 people have paid 756 visits to DreamWorks” to screen the film.
The list of honored guests reads like a who's who of contemporary American religion, and includes the Rev. Billy Graham, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, religious broadcaster James Dobson, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches, Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and others.
“I think (DreamWorks) knew the religious community would either be their greatest ally or their greatest enemy,” said publisher Zettersten, “and they shrewdly courted that community's leaders.”
DreamWorks' public promotional machinery began going into high gear in late October with the release of the movie's non-sectarian theme song, “When You Believe,” delivered by divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
In mid-November, thousands of record stores began selling the sound-track album, which features “When You Believe,” as well as two companion “inspired-by” collections — one featuring country artists, the other boasting performances by top contemporary Christian and gospel artists.
Targeted to adult listeners, the albums are intended to communicate the message that the movie is more than kid stuff.
And while the Bible tells Moses' story in just one book, Exodus, three publishers have released 22 Prince of Egypt-related books, most of them intended for children and utilizing some of the film's impressive computer-generated artwork.
Thomas Nelson recently shipped huge Prince of Egypt floor displays to the country's 2,000 largest Christian bookstores. The displays, which stores must feature in the front one-third of their retail space, will promote more than a dozen of these books, along with movie-related musical recordings.
In addition, the country's 2,399 Wal-Marts and 451 Sam's stores will offer gift packages to their millions of shoppers. The packages include a musical CD, a book, and tickets to the movie which are good at any U.S. theater.
“This is like having thousands of additional box offices out there,” said one DreamWorks exec.
There will also be a mass media onslaught, consisting of TV specials on NBC, TNN and CMT; radio specials on the nation's 100 top Christian stations; and consumer advertising for it all.
While DreamWorks hopes The Prince of Egypt will be a smash box office success, retailers hope the movie-themed merchandise will unleash a flood of holiday shopping.
And for Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, hopes for financial success are mingled with prayers that the Prince of Egypt phenomenon will use one of the Bible's most powerful stories to help promote biblical values. “These books have as much crossover potential as anything we've published in recent years,” said Zettersten.