As studio marketers finalize promotional tie-in plans for their summer blockbuster hopefuls, they have only to look at last week’s $10 million lawsuit filed against the producers of “Jerry Maguire” to remind themselves of the fragile relationship between corporate America and Hollywood.
Last week, shoe manufacturer Reebok slapped TriStar Pictures with a $10 million lawsuit over what it claims was the company’s failure to follow through on its promotional tie-in promises, specifically over not including a specially created TV spot for its product and Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character.
Furthermore, Reebok said that after it had signed a product placement agreement with TriStar on April 8, 1996, it was not told until Nov. 27 that the TV spot would not appear in the film.
In the meantime, Reebok had already created an advertising and promotional campaign that kicked off Nov. 15, touting its brand name as well as the Tom Cruise-starring romantic comedy.
The lawsuit is not without precedent. Nor is the lack of communication between Hollywood and its corporate partner.
In 1990, Black & Decker Inc. filed suit against 20th Century Fox and the marketing firm Krown-Young & Rubicam when it found itself on the cutting-room floor. The film: the second “Die Hard,” starring Bruce Willis.
Black & Decker had planned a “Father’s Day” advertising and sales promotion campaign around the film, with the understanding that it would get product placement in the film. Willis’ character was to remove an air duct grill in an airport tunnel with a Black & Decker cordless drill. The suit sought $150,000 in damages, and an out-of-court settlement was reached.
Dairy product placement
In 1991, TriStar’s sister studio Columbia Pictures moved the release date of “Radio Flyer” from summer to fall without informing its promotional partner, American Dairy Queen.
The family restaurant chain had developed a substantial media program and had all its franchisees aboard. Marketing execs found out about the postponement from the press. When execs from Dairy Queen called Columbia execs to ask about the date change, they were told nothing had been decided.
The truth was, the date had changed, and Dairy Queen was left holding the bag. It had to go through with its summer promotion with a tag on the TV spots that said “coming this fall.” After the spots ran, the film was postponed to the following year. The result: Columbia made an undisclosed settlement to Dairy Queen.
A similar scenario happened in 1989 between MGM and Miller Brewing Co. over the Patrick Swayze-starring film “Roadhouse,” but Miller was informed of the release date move by MGM execs. The beer distributor ultimately decided to follow through with its promotion.
Coke adds death
More recently, execs from the Coca-Cola company in Atlanta were appalled in 1994 to learn that a commercial starring their popular polar bears was being used as part of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” in a manner that was not agreed upon.
The understanding between Atlanta and Hollywood was that the polar bear TV spot was supposed to be used in a scene with Tommy Lee Jones, but only for a Super Bowl game on a television playing in the background. Instead, the commercial was edited into the film three times, sandwiched in between quick edits of brutal images – including a scene of a headless, bloody body.
Why no one at either Warner Bros. or, perhaps more appropriately, Creative Artists Agency (which repped both Stone and Coca-Cola) flagged the placement is unknown. The film was screened by three agents at CAA – including the agency’s then-chairman, Michael Ovitz – long before it bowed in theaters.
Corporations like Coca-Cola and Reebok spend millions on positioning their brand names in a specific way. All are concerned that their image is presented in the best possible light.
One marketing executive at a major corporation who deals with Hollywood said of the “Natural Born Killers” situation at the time: “Placement is hard to specify. It can change at any time. It’s all up to the director’s discretion … You have to wish that the studio and the filmmakers are sensitive to the needs and the positioning of your product and how you want it portrayed – or in this case, how you don’t want it portrayed. It is very important the product is used in a positive way.”
Usually when an agreement is reached, a clause is included that states the brand or trademark can only be used in a positive manner.
Reebok claims that “Jerry Maguire” takes several shots at the company, including a scene where Gooding’s character shouts “Fuck Reebok!” Hence, Reebok’s position: Show them the money.