FOR YEARS, PepsiCo has featured its products on movie screens the way most companies do — by paying the studios millions of dollars to sneak them into scenes, dialogue and plot points.Hence bikers do stunts in front a giant Mountain Dew billboard in “Torque”; Frau Farbissina visits Dr. Evil in jail with a bag of Taco Bell take-out in the “Austin Powers” sequel; and Lindsay Lohan says she’ll kill for Tropicana orange juice in “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (all three are Pepsi brands). But as bigscreen plugs become more pervasive, Pepsi may have hit upon a more effective strategy: Bankroll the whole movie. On Dec. 2, Universal will release Pepsi’s first fully financed feature film, a snowboarding documentary called “First Descent” produced by MD Films (a marketing division of Mountain Dew). The goal for Pepsi isn’t to achieve what “I Am Sam,” “Castaway” and “You’ve Got Mail” did for Starbucks, Fed Ex and AOL, respectively. “First Descent” isn’t supposed to look like a giant Mountain Dew ad. And unlike your typical product placement arrangements, this one doesn’t hinge on the exclusion of rival brands (One snowboarder in the movie is actually sponsored by Mountain Dew’s arch rival, Red Bull). Pepsi’s aim, says the company’s VP of sports and media John Galloway, is to persuade “the top five or 10 percent of action sports athletes and influencers to see us as a credible smart and relevant partner in that industry. If it looked like a 90-minute TV spot, that 10% would kill us.” “FIRST DESCENT” was brought to Universal by Embassy Row Pictures, a production company that’s part of a burgeoning Hollywood advertainment subculture. With advertisers pouring untold millions into the entertainment business, a new species of production company is proliferating across the pages of the Hollywood Creative Directory. Among its ranks is Tag Entertainment, a “branded family entertainment” company that collaborated with Clear Channel Entertainment to produce “Supercross” for Fox. The bike racing thriller was a blatant promotional play for Clear Channel, which owns the Supercross racing events depicted therein. “Supercross” bombed in theaters, but that seems unlikely to derail the film industry’s drive to integrate advertising and feature film content in ever more insidious ways. To understand better how such deals work, I sat down with four of the partners of a “branding, advertising and entertainment” firm that calls itself Omelet. Omelet was hatched over a series of 6 a.m. breakfasts by an entertainment lawyer and several former executives at the ad firm Chiat/Day. Omelet’s goal: to develop a full-blown “marketing format” for big advertisers, a process that could include feature films, videogames, online and offline ad campaigns. It’s a process the guys call “Omeletization.” As branding buzzwords go, “Omelitization” may have its limits (McDonalds or IHOP may be ripe for “Omeletization,” but I’d rather not envision a Viagra omelet). This is not to deny the collective marketing expertise of a group that’s designed ad campaigns for everything from Sony PlayStations to Adidas sneakers and iPods. “FIRST DESCENT” is a negative pickup for Universal. The soft drink giant will cover P&A and pay the studio a distribution fee. U, in turn, will give “First Descent” the full studio treatment, with a wide release at the height of a frenzied holiday season, opposite Paramount’s Charlize Theron sci-fi adventure “Aeon Flux.” That’s probably not a grave concern to Paramount, considering the lackluster grosses of Hollywood’s latest extreme sports vehicles, “Supercross” and “The Lords of Dogtown.” As one studio exec told me, “Snowboarding, surfing, sex and skateboarding are fun to do and not that fun to watch.” Then there’s the contentious issue of theater advertising. Officially, the majors continue to support the advertising pre-shows like Regal’s 2twenty, but privately, studio executives grouse that all the advertising in multiplexes is having a toxic effect on the box office. If studios start distributing 90-minute ads instead of movies, won’t that just make things worse? Of course there’s always a chance “First Descent” will prove entertaining in ways that conventional movies aren’t. Charlize Theron, meet Hannah Teter, a Mountain Dew-sponsored snowboarder, and one of the stars of “First Descent.” The strawberry blond 17-year-old and X Games gold medalist, the first woman to do a 900-degree aerial flip at a snowboarding competition, also comes with impeccable Red State credentials. If Jesus were a snowboarder, she told the Aspen Times last year, “he’d thrash.”
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