LOS ANGELES — Maybe it was the three publicists in tow. Maybe her hairdo was wilting under the hot television lights. Maybe a dog, even a showbiz one, was just not meant to be a meteorologist.
Whatever the reason, Lassie seemed unfocused as the cameras rolled last month at KTTV, the Fox affiliate in Los Angeles. Booked to help give the weather report, she woofed off cue and let loose a torrent of drool.
“I’m not sure,” a Fox anchor said as the segment ended, “but I think Lassie is annoyed.”
No matter. The publicists cooed their approval, deciding the appearance had done its job: Lassie had inched a bit closer to a comeback.
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“Good work, gorgeous,” said one of the public-relations people, Ame Van Iden, giving her client a pat.
How does Hollywood teach an old dog new tricks? Pay attention, Toto, because DreamWorks Animation, which gained control of the faded Lassie brand in 2012, has unleashed the comeback campaign to end all comeback campaigns. The studio is convinced a simple collie can still resonate in a Grumpy Cat world.
Studios typically revive old characters with new movies. But DreamWorks Animation dismissed that idea, aware that Lassie’s rural escapades would have little relevance for viewers now keen on explosions, aliens and superheroes.
Instead, the studio decided the best hope for making money from Lassie was to make her a merchandising star, and it turned to a suitably old-fashioned tactic to prepare an onslaught of products next year: the publicity stunt.
And so Lassie’s calendar this summer has been filled with coast-to-coast appearances. Vanity Fair recently agreed to do a story about Lassie’s beauty regimen. The collie’s new publicists brought her to People magazine to make a video; Lassie helped select cover photos and sat patiently while accessories editors draped her with jewelry. “Unlike everyone else in Hollywood, Lassie is much bigger in person,” Ryan Seacrest told listeners when the dog stopped by his radio show.
A long way from 1938
DreamWorks Animation has a lot riding on the furry back of this 76-year-old character. The studio, which has lost money for the last two quarters, is scrambling to expand into merchandising to make itself less dependent on volatile movie releases. Experts say that in success, Lassie could generate tens of millions in added revenue.
“Our ambitions are global,” said Michael Francis, DreamWorks Animation’s chief brand officer, “dog food, dog accessories, dog grooming, dog beds, dog training,” targeted mainly at adults. None of these planned Lassie products are available right now, but the studio says deals for all are in the works.
Resuscitating the character is such a priority that even Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio’s chief executive, is working the phones. He called Harvey Weinstein and persuaded him to put Lassie on a coming episode of “Project Runway.” Katzenberg has also pitched the dog for a guest spot on “The Amazing Race.”
“There is nothing Lassie can’t do,” he said. (Well, except certain things unbecoming to a VIP. One tip: Do not ask Lassie to fetch.)
The character — based on a real pet collie, Toots — first appeared in 1938 in The Saturday Evening Post, or in dog time, 532 years ago. The movie “Lassie Come Home” arrived in 1943. A 1954 CBS series, “Lassie,” became the third-longest-running prime-time drama in history at 19 seasons, behind “Gunsmoke” and “Law & Order.”
But Lassie has been in rough shape lately. Before arriving at DreamWorks Animation as part of a $155 million character-library acquisition, the brand was tossed around and had two other owners in a dozen years. The 2006 film “Lassie” took in only $652,163 in North America.
Unsure of how best to freshen the musty franchise, the studio commissioned market research, which to its delight found that Lassie retained an 83 percent “brand awareness” among Americans; words such as “loyal,” “hero” and “heartwarming” were most often associated with the character.
“A national treasure”
There are no plans for a new Lassie movie or TV series. Francis said the brand studies convinced him such endeavors were not needed. Filmed entertainment is also expensive, and the character would have to be updated, though perhaps not to the point of wearing a cape.
“I would love to believe that modern children would sit down and watch lovely Lassie frolic with Timmy in the meadow,” said Jeanine Basinger, a film historian. “But I fear they would get awfully bored unless she turned into a superdog that blows things up, and that would be sacrilege.”
The current Lassie is the 10th in a family line. Trademarks require four white feet and a white blaze up the nose, and makeup is never used, although Max Factor did make a toupee for a balding 1960s-era Lassie. (The dog also suffers from gender confusion; for size reasons, among others, “she” is always played by a rather manly collie. Ahem.)
Charities are an important part of the bid to bring back Lassie. DreamWorks Animation asked the Best Friends Animal Society and Save the Children to name Lassie an animal ambassador. Julie Castle, chief marketing officer for Best Friends, a group that advocates no-kill animal shelters, signed up immediately.
“Lassie is a national treasure,” Castle said.
Save the Children, focused on youngsters in disaster zones and developing countries, was more cautious. Would children even recognize Lassie?
Erin Bradshaw, a senior director, said reservations evaporated when the dog appeared at Oklahoma tornado-safety rallies in May. “They knew her right away,” Bradshaw said.
Each stunt is carefully vetted. The appearance on KTTV’s “Good Day L.A.” was meticulously planned. A week before the live broadcast, Van Iden, the publicist, emailed the show’s talent booker.
“Things Lassie can do,” she wrote in all capital letters. Item one: “She can sit in a chair.” A shot from the dressing room was another option.
When Lassie arrived, the KTTV weather forecaster, Maria Quiban, suggested some ad-libbing. But the publicists nixed that idea. “Oh, fine, we’ll stick with the talking points,” Quiban said. “You celebrities are all alike.”