Bold moves in 'Ugly' times

Once upon a time, a movie ticket bought you more than just a movie. From "dish night" giveaways to Sensurround, theaters have used every gimmick short of actual bribes to fill their seats.

The value-added ethos lives on at Loews Universal Cineplex 20, where marketing and promotions manager Anne Brister can be counted on to mastermind themed hoopla that makes marginally interesting pictures more entertaining. For last winter's premiere of "The World is Not Enough," Brister had a James Bond stand-in descend from the rafters on a rope; the opening day of "U-571" saw a 15-foot submarine displayed at the theater, alongside a booth manned by Navy recruiters. (It's an old story: pop out to the snack bar, end up serving a 20-year hitch.)

Naval was out and navels were in for last Friday's debut of the voyeuristic drama Coyote Ugly. "Meet Coyote girl look-alikes!" a flier promised. "Wild bartending demonstrations!"

"I try to do really wild events here," Brister explained, "because I have the atmosphere for it." Her endeavors, she added, were "greatly supported" by the powers-that-be at the surrounding CityWalk entertainment complex.

It's a good thing the theater wasn't showing the junkie portrait "Jesus' Son," or else shoppers on their way to the Cigarz on the Avenue smoke shop might have been offered a quick lesson in booting up. Instead, a trio of accomplished area bartenders warmed up the crowd. Standing behind a convention-type table erected in front of the popcorn machines, they performed solo and synchronized juggling routines with white plastic bottles -- a safe, sensible alternative to the too-dangerous glass.

Flask me no favors

But no matter how skillfully the cocktail-makers flung the faux vessels behind their heads and into the air, their efforts were seldom regarded by more than four onlookers at a time. Maybe that's because they had bypassed the Coyote Ugly uniform of skintight leather for collared shirts that advertised their affiliation with Bar Starz, an Orlando-based "beverage consulting company" that helps train restaurant and nightclub staffers.

The task of procuring the all-important Coyote girl impostors fell to C.J. Jackson and Ashland Thomas of Mystiquest Productions, who engineer live promotions as a sideline to their main business of film production. Their success rate for Friday's casting call was three-out-of-five: A dopplegänger for Piper Perabo's Violet Sanford had been impossible to locate, and the actress who was to play Tyra Banks' Zoe simply didn't show up, despite repeated pagings. (It's just like the supermodel to be the difficult one.)

That left the raven-haired Rachel, the baby-faced Cammie and the hard-as-nails Lil, whose roles were interpreted by "Maria," "Jennifer" and "Rachel" (no last names, they stipulated). Respectively a professional dancer, a costumed character at Universal Studios Florida and an in-line skater by trade, they proved even tougher than their big-screen counterparts, and just as brazen. Parading lustily throughout the lobby and onto the CityWalk promenade, they shook their hair -- and other attributes -- at amused tourists. You won't see that at Disney.

As showtime approached, they emitted piercing coyote cries and invited -- no, make that challenged -- passersby to attend the movie. The suggestive comments of teen-age boys were met with haughty come-ons; when that didn't work, Maria fell back on the highly effective salutation, "Hey, you! Get over here!"

Half empty or half full?

Such inspired ice-breakers didn't do much to boost the attendance for the 7:50 p.m. show, which was about 50 percent short of a sellout. (Booking a stinker like "Coyote" on a full three screens was probably less than a stroke of genius.) But the customers got their money's worth when the ladies were handed microphones to announce the picture. They had been coached in their portrayals by Jackson and Thomas, who had watched the film earlier in the day in order to transmit its not-so-subtle nuances to their cast. The blond Rachel was totally in character as barkeep Lil, telling the audience exactly how to behave when the movie began to roll. She also felt compelled to explain the absence of the remaining Coyote girls.

"And the other two bitches?" she cried, as jaws throughout the room went slack. "They were too drunk to show up! Oops!"

Brister conferred with Thomas for a few seconds. Then all involved beat a hasty retreat, leaving the orphaned audience waiting for the lights to go down. I bolted, too: I wanted to see if Rachel/Lil would amplify her comments.

"It's just a female dog," she shrugged.

"It's rated R," Maria said of Coyote Ugly. "Under 17 not admitted!" (Actually, it's rated PG-13, but who's counting?)

"They made me proud," Thomas said.

Two hours later, I spotted Rachel at The Groove nightclub, dancing in the spotlight while cavorting with a red umbrella. Still unrepentant, she looked to be having the time of her life. Good for her: You pay for a coyote, you get a coyote.


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