Branding bankroll

Product makers put their bucks into films

Hollywood is already enjoying an influx of cash from Wall Street investors, but could consumer brands be the film biz’s next favorite financier?

Mountain Dew, Chrysler and Burton Snowboards recently ponied up considerable coin to produce films. Burger King is developing its own feature. And now Gatorade and Dove are getting in on the act.

The PepsiCo.-owned sports drink helped finance “Gracie,” the soccer drama that bounced into theaters June 1, ponying up a third of the film’s $10 million budget. The state of New Jersey and Octagon Asset Management financed the rest.

Unilever’s Dove will fund part of “The Women,” a $20 million drama set to star Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing and Candice Bergen.

Gatorade won’t be sharing in the “Gracie” profits. Neither will Dove with “The Women.” They want to use the films as marketing tools, and not have to break out film financing and any potential earnings in their bookkeeping.

Picturehouse is distribbing both films, and having the brands on board certainly helped land distribution deals, as well as the initial greenlight, says company prexy Bob Berney.

“It’s another unique way to promote the film and get as broad of a release as it can,” he says. “It’s hard to compete in the marketplace. You have to extend your marketing dollars to get awareness. A partnership makes a lot of sense.”

The independent financing arms at the talent agencies are seeing more deals like those on the table, and they expect more to come.

Consumer product companies “are saying, if they’re going to spend money to push the brand with a movie, why not own the movies as well, vs. just writing off the marketing costs,” says one financing agent. “Why not drive product sales and have an upside on the movies?”

As part of its deal with “Gracie,” Gatorade launched a four-week promo campaign, stocking store shelves with 8 million 15-bottle packages of its sports drink that include “Gracie” imagery and an instructional soccer DVD starring athletes Landon Donovan and Mia Hamm. It will also promote the film’s DVD release, which will include a version of the instructional vid.

Gatorade’s not the only brand involved with “Gracie”: Bed, Bath & Beyond, CafeMom and Goldman Sachs are also promoting the film, but they’re not part of the pic’s financing.

For “The Women,” Dove will make a major promo push upon its release next year. Pic tied in well with the company’s Pro-Age campaign aimed at women.

Traditionally, brands have brokered tie-in deals with studios in which they spend millions of their own dollars to help market a movie. The idea is to tie their products in with a particular character or property, with some product placement thrown in.

But these latest efforts break new ground, both in terms of the scope of the brands’ investment and their prominence onscreen.

In “Gracie,” for example, the product placements are minimal. The title character knocks a Gatorade bottle off the hood of a car with a soccer ball; the beverage is seen in a refrigerator and at soccer matches.

Brands are now interested in actually making movies, ones that will help their brands gain some additional exposure among consumers that a typical commercial wouldn’t be able to do.

In Gatorade’s case, the company was interested in the promotional value of “Gracie,” not in controlling the creative content or having to account for the film’s revenues.

“It’s not our business; it’s not our expertise,” says Dustin Cohn, director of beverage innovations at Gatorade and Propel. “The value to us is really leveraging this asset and creating a promotion that enriches the lives of athletes.”

“They saw this as a branded entertainment opportunity,” says “Gracie” producer Andrew Shue, who approached Gatorade execs three years ago with the project — early enough to get them interested in the project and to design products and packaging around the film.

The company sparked to the film’s plot — based loosely on the Shue family. Story centers on a teen girl who overcomes obstacles to play on the high-school boys’ soccer team after her older brother, the team’s star, is killed in an accident.

“We really believed in the story because it was about the will to win of a young female athlete,” says Cohn. “Gatorade has been a longtime supporter of female sports and this was another way to inspire athletes.”

Andrew and Elisabeth Shue also star in the film, which was directed by Elisabeth’s husband, Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”).

Gatorade’s execs remained hands-off creatively, and Guggenheim had final cut. But getting Gatorade to commit took some work.

The company agreed to back “Gracie” only if it had distribution in at least 1,000 theaters, a May or early June release date (to coincide with the company’s biggest selling season), and a marketing commitment from the distributor.

“We wanted to know there’d be some awareness for the film,” Cohn says. And the release date commitment meant Gatorade wouldn’t be releasing movie-related packaging without a movie.

The money that brands are spending is considerable: In addition to what Gatorade and Dove are spending, Mountain Dew put up $15 million for the snowboarding doc “First Descent,” which it produced through its MD Films banner and Universal distribbed in late 2005.

Having already produced that movie helped PepsiCo. execs to feel comfortable about backing another. “The Gatorade people never had to feel like they were the first ones doing something,” Shue says.

Elsewhere, Burton Snowboards spent $5 million to make “For Right or Wrong” last year with Mandalay Entertainment.

Chrysler is producing “Blue Valentine,” a drama that is costing the automaker a quarter of the film’s $2 million budget and $1 million more in marketing. Silverwood Films (“Half Nelson”) is also financing the film. Chrysler had previously spent $1 million on the horror film “Cry Wolf,” distribbed by U.

That level of investment won’t produce a summer tentpole anytime soon, but it certainly makes brands a viable source to fund independent films.

“(Gatorade) afforded us the ability to make our movie the way we wanted to,” Shue says. “For independent films with our size of budget, you have to come up with all kinds of creative ways to make and market your film. This was one way to do it.”

Brand reps know they’ll start to get flooded with calls from funding-hungry producers.

“That’s fine,” Cohn says. “I welcome that. As long as we can be involved early enough in the process.”

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