Studios get creative to reel in bigger audience

When it comes to marketing a toon, bigger is certainly better these days.

Given the increased competition among animated pics, marketing mavens are finding that increased competition has forced them to get a little more creative when rolling out their wares.

That’s meant stuffing Jerry Seinfeld into a bee costume and dangling him off a building at the Cannes Film Festival, giving 7-Eleven stores “Kwik-E-Mart” makeovers and letting kids slide down a traveling wedge of cheese.

In other words: stunts.

“We’re trying to break through the clutter and come up with the new and unique ideas that get the attention of the moviegoer,” says Anne Globe, head of worldwide marketing at DreamWorks Animation.

The resulting payoff can be seen at the box office this year with toons winding up as three of the top 10 earners domestically: “Shrek the Third” is the second highest at $321 million, while “Ratatouille” cooked up $206 million and “The Simpsons Movie” laughed its way to $183 million. “Bee Movie” has earned more than $118 million since Nov. 2.

The key to the promo push is to start early, marketing mavens say.

“Given the competitiveness of the release schedule, we’re always trying to create awareness early on,” Globe says. “It helps create momentum.”

That means launching teaser trailers and one-sheets a year in advance — especially if a film isn’t a sequel, isn’t based on an existing property or features new characters unknown to audiences.

Yet even if its characters are well known, there are still marketing challenges.

“The Simpsons” has been on the air for 20 seasons; Fox had to make sure potential auds knew what they’d see on the bigscreen would be different than what they’re used to getting on TV.

“When you have a beloved property, you have to make it an event, and you have to differentiate the film from what they see every day on TV for free,” says Tony Sella, co-prexy of domestic theatrical marketing for Fox.

The first step: announcing the film with a teaser attached to “Ice Age: The Meltdown” on March 31, 2006.

“We decided to keep the ball up in the air after that,” Sella says.

That’s why 20th had 12 7-Eleven stores turned into Kwik-E-Marts, packing them with Buzz Cola, Krusty O’s cereal and Squishee cups; installed “The Simpsons’” iconic purple couch in multiplexes; allowed people to turn themselves into a Simpsons character via SimpsonizeMe.com; and made the Fox logo yellow (replacing the “O” with a pink doughnut) in all markets.

“We never made the campaign solely about the story of the movie,” Sella says. “It was more about the celebration of this cultural phenomenon and that it was finally coming to the bigscreen.”

Then again, Fox needed the turnout for “Simpsons” to be huge. Promotional stakes were high, given that the TV series essentially built the Fox network nearly 20 years ago and remains a reliable moneymaker. A dismal performance at the B.O. could have resulted in synergistic fallout across the Fox properties.

But the appeal of “The Simpsons” ultimately earned more than half a billion dollars worldwide. For other studios, however, opening a toon means working with a clean slate, and any sort of star factor helps build buzz.

For “Bee Movie,” having Seinfeld as its star gave the film a face to market. Live-action teasers featured Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Steven Spielberg as themselves. Closer to release, Seinfeld appeared on NBC’s “30 Rock” as well as a series of 20 “Bee Movie Juniors” that aired on the network during commercial breaks.

“It was a new property,” Globe explains. “(Jerry Seinfeld) was our strongest marketing tool. He was game for everything. He was interested in all the things he could do to break through.”

“There’s a tendency at lots of studios to throw huge amounts of money at stars in hopes that they’ll go out on the talkshows and talk up the film, so you’re really paying them to advertise the films,” says Brad Bird, writer-director of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”

DreamWorks has consistently packed its pics with celebs — Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Will Smith, Cameron Diaz, Steve Carell and Bruce Willis — whereas the star of Pixar’s “Ratatouille” was voiced by Patton Oswalt, a relative unknown, forcing Disney’s marketing brass to rely on Pixar’s pedigree.

Stars or not, studios argue that it’s hardly easier to sell a toon than a live actioner.

Just ask Sony.

The studio stumbled with how to market “Surf’s Up,” torn between whether to target parents or kids. And Disney and Pixar had a tough time lining up promotional partners around “Ratatouille.” Remy the rat may have been cute onscreen, but marketers mostly turned up their noses at the chance to tie their food products in with the rodent.

As a result, the studio relied on traveling the country with a giant wedge of cheese as one of its sole stunts. Specials on the Food Network focused on how realistic the animated food appeared.

Marketing mavens say the spending on promotions and marketing around animated pics is the same as other big-budget tentpole launches. That’s not likely to change in the coming year as the studios ready to roll out “Wall-E,” “Horton Hears a Who” and “Kung Fu Panda.” Teasers for those pics have already been released a year before the films unspool in theaters.

Stunts will also remain a factor. So will the increased reliance on promotional partnerships (“Kung Fu Panda” hopes to play off interest in the Beijing Olympic Games). After all, they’ve worked before.

To get the word out that the third installment of “Shrek” was hitting the bigscreen, the ogre and his friends were found in ads for HP (the studio’s technology partner) and pushed healthy snacks at McDonald’s that “tapped into the humor of the franchise,” Globe says.

In addition to 7-Eleven, “The Simpsons” also had deals with Burger King, Vans, Xbox and JetBlue Airways. McDonald’s was also a partner on “Bee Movie.”

In most of the cases, animated sequences featuring each film’s characters were custom-created for the ads, an element that makes partnerships even more attractive for marketers — especially considering the phenomenon each toon could potentially become.

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