Consider this: Did the L.A. Times cross a line?

CONGRATULATORY ADS have long been the stock in trade of newspapers that cover the entertainment industry, this one included.

But on Sept. 30, the Los Angeles Times gave the old formula a new twist. It peddled its own congratulations to a potential advertiser.

In a house ad in the Calendar section, sandwiched among the double-truck movie spots, was a full-page salute to the Weinstein Company showcasing 17 titles from its production slate.

An ad that size typically costs a studio about $50,000, but this one was free, a gift from the Times to a company that in its previous incarnation spent lavishly on Calendar section promotions. Those ads in turn helped insulate the paper from its own financial problems — falling circulation and ad sales, and relentless cost-cutting pressure from its corporate parent.

As promotional freebies go, this one had enormous upside for the Weinstein Co., serving as an advance ad for next month’s American Film Market, where the Weinsteins are expected to hawk foreign rights to a number of projects. It also helped enhance the company’s profile at a pivotal moment, as it negotiates the last of its deals with financial partners.

But the ad also crossed a line most newspaper advertisers would rather not transgress, subverting the usual relationship between ad buyer and seller, and thereby jeopardizing the value of the surrounding real estate. And it raised hackles among other advertisers. “It’s in bad taste,” one studio marketer told me. “They have an obligation to support all their advertisers. What are they going to do for me?”

SO HOW did it happen?

According to both parties, the ad was the Times’ idea. The Weinstein Co. had bought space for a similar ad in three other publications, including Daily Variety. Either because there wasn’t space or because the ad came late, the Times didn’t get the spot, so it devised its own.

“It’s very simple,” Times spokewoman Martha Goldstein told me. “We’ve had a strong relationship with the entertainment industry and the ad department decided to congratulate a new movie company.”

Harvey Weinstein, for his part, sounded bemused by all the fuss. “The print business is growing up,” he said. “This has happened to me with TV since beginning of time.” TV ad reps, he said, often approach him at the last minute with similar offers — “I’ve got two bonus spots, the game didn’t sell out, here we’ll help you out,” he said.

“Any marketing people who say they’re not getting those kinds of offers are doing their companies a disservice,” Weinstein said.

Maybe so, but TV still has a lock on movie ads, while print ads have lost their foothold. Studios still spend more money advertising in newspapers than either automakers or airlines. But those ads are built on quicksand.

NATIONAL NEWSPAPER spending by the studios has steadily dropped in recent years, plummeting from $311 million in the first quarter of 2003 to $266 million in the first quarter this year.

As much as 50% of studio print budgets are spent in New York and L.A. But studios don’t buy pages on coast to drive traffic to multiplexes. They do it to placate talent. If you don’t have a two-page spread in the paper on opening weekend, one marketer told me, “the filmmaker believes you’re not supporting your movie. It’s a myth. One should be more concerned with the broadcast ad schedule and the Internet.”

It’s a situation that surely can’t sustain itself indefinitely. One prominent media buyer told me that the studios are already “pulling back (print ads) very significantly in the secondary markets. Eventually you’ll see that start to happen even in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.”

Hence the Sept. 30 Caldendar section giveaway, part of a stepped-up effort by the Times to woo its hometown industry – a strategy that may also include expanded entertainment coverage, maybe a gossip column, and even a Web site dedicated to entertainment industry awards.

The long-term implications of that strategy are far from clear, but at least one important client is pleased with the results.

“All it did was endear the L.A. Times to me,” Weinstein said of last week’s ad. “I’m going to remember them, and whatever the cost of that one ad is, they’ll probably get it back 50 times over.”

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