Studio film promos blitzed by strike

And then there was darkness.

With one television show after another halting production and going into reruns because of the writers strike, film studios are facing a daunting prospect: How are they going to trumpet their movies and get people into theaters if TV viewership plunges?

Publicity departments are wringing their hands over the loss of latenight shows, which are in reruns because of the walkout. Normally, every night, some star or other is talking to Jay Leno or David Letterman about a new movie.

So there were fewer opportunities for the all-star Cruise-Redford-Streep team to persuade the public that “Lions for Lambs,” which opened Nov. 9, is as engaging as it is cerebral. Should the strike last, Tom Hanks won’t have as many outlets to explain to filmgoers why they should become emotionally involved in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” yet another war film.

In addition to the loss of latenight, studios are rethinking their ad spending. Even with the rise of the Internet, the majors still spend 35% of their ad budgets on TV spots to tout films, and that could be close to $2 billion this year.

In terms of primetime TV advertising, studios should be OK through the busy holiday season, since most series have enough episodes to last until the end of the year.

But if ratings begin to drop because of a prolonged strike, the studios may turn away from scripted shows in primetime and seek audiences elsewhere on TV, such as sports and reality fare. And as the studios all fight for time on primo shows, the networks could hike up their prices.

The strike is certainly causing soul-searching across town — and that could change spending habits for good.

“This is going to force people to think out of the box, because there are a lot of big movies coming up,” says one top studio exec. “I think it’s nuts to still spend so much money on television, because TV spots can be scattershot. This is a perfect opportunity to explore other media, and new ways for targeted advertising.”

That’s OK for the ad side, but it’s going to be hard to rethink the booking of talent.

Latenight TV — which includes ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and the gaggle of late-late talkshows like “Conan O’Brien” and “Craig Ferguson” — went dark Nov. 5, less than 24 hours after the walkout became official. That left studios stranded, because those shows deliver big numbers of male auds.

Morning shows, midday gabbers and cable talkshows might pick up some of the slack, but they tend to skew to females. And while Charlie Rose and Larry King are celeb-friendly, they don’t book actors all that frequently. With fewer places to book talent, there will be fierce competition for remaining spots.

“You can’t plan for your talent,” a Par exec bemoans. “Also, what happens when television viewership drops? How are we going to get the message out? It’s a huge issue.”

The other big issue is movie ads. Scripted primetime shows have been crucial, particularly on Thursday nights before a film’s weekend launch. Studios will continue to advertise there, but they will have to rethink things if audiences dwindle.

After the five-month writers strike in 1988, roughly 8% of the TV aud vanished, never to return. That’s a chilling stat for marketing execs, considering that viewership is already down this fall.

“It’s a big presumption that the TV audience will come back. If television viewership takes a gigantic plunge because of the strike, that will be a significant problem for us moving forward,” one veteran marketing topper says. “You’ll have to shout even louder.”

And it’s a potentially costly problem for the networks, with the average price of a 30-second ad on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” costing $419,000 while a spot on “CSI” is $248,000, according to media buyers. A lengthy strike could drop those rates significantly.

Studios spent $379 million on national and local spot TV to promote their pics in 2006, an increase of 16.9% from the previous year, according to TNS Media Intelligence and the Television Advertising Bureau.

This year, studios spent $1.817 billion across all media between January and June, an uptick of 1% versus a year ago, according to Nielsen. (The studios spend the vast majority of their TV ad dollars in the first six months, due to the network upfronts.)

Studios have lagged behind other industries in terms of the ad money they allocate for the Internet. But majors have been devoting more of their ad dollars to the Web, blanketing MySpace, Facebook, AOL, Yahoo, Google and YouTube with videos and other promos. That spend could be boosted as a result of the strike.

In 2006, studios spent an average of 3.7% of their marketing budgets on Internet advertising, versus 35.1% for network and spot TV, according to eMarketer. That Internet spending is up from 2.6% in ’05. Some studios like Universal have said their online ad budgets are up to 7% and it’s even higher for pics like “300,” which appeal to Web-savvy auds.

That Web spending is expected to continue to climb — especially as studios try to court 12- to 24-year-olds where they consume their entertainment the most, namely online.

“The people running to the bank right now are the Internet folks, because people won’t watch television reruns, they’ll be on their computers,” an exec at another studio says.

With Thursday night juggernauts like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI” in repeat mode, auds will likely go elsewhere, and studios will have to follow.

Also, dot-coms have been rolling out the red carpet to land more of the majors’ money.

For example, to push “Lions for Lambs,” MGM brokered a deal last month with Google and YouTube to launch a competish to get potential auds talking about issues important to them, and as a result, the movie. Each 90-second spot created for the online campaign essentially serves as an ad for the film.

Vince Messina, national director of entertainment sales at Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions, said 12- to 34-year-olds are harder to reach “through print and television, so the challenge that studios have is, ‘How do we get to that audience, which is the lifeblood of the movie audience?’ “

But there are still concerns about the Internet’s mass reach.

“If I spend money on television, I will see a corollary movement in tracking,” a Universal exec says. “To this point, I have yet to see alternative forms of advertising register in tracking. Those alternative forms are still important, but they don’t move the needles.”

So studios will stick with television, turning to event programming like sports. Also, reality TV can carry plenty of punch (think “American Idol”). And since reality TV isn’t impacted by the strike, expect the nets to fill gaps in their schedule with such programming.

It’s still a bummer, since the net result could be fewer shows delivering the big ratings the studios crave. And of those shows, there are only so many spots to go around — meaning the demand will be greater than the supply. Next year, studios will have to compete for inventory along with election campaigns that pour millions into media buys and could help drive up prices.

“You’ll have less inventory, and the competition for those eyeballs will be fierce,” one studio distribution exec says.

Or, as another studio exec quipped, “you’ve got football of all kinds. And you’ve got basketball. Hopefully, it won’t get so desperate that you think about hockey.”

While the Super Bowl has always been a showcase for movie promos, given its massive viewership, studios have been using it less over the years as a platform to unveil trailers for upcoming tentpoles.

That will change next year.

Spots for February’s game on Fox are already more than 90% sold out, months earlier than usual. Ads for movies and automotive make up the top two categories that ponied up as much as $2.7 million for each 30-second spot.

In fact, there are five times more movie ads in the upcoming game than last year. Incentives for the buy include having the spots placed on MySpace, as well as inclusion in a special segment in which Ryan Seacrest interviews the stars of the film on a red carpet.

Another option is in-theater advertising.

Universal and Sony have already taken advantage of creating custom content promoting their pics during the 20-minute pre-shows that run in front of trailers. In-theater ad spending was already up 15% in 2006 to $455.6 million, according to the Cinema Ad Council.

“There are plenty of other ways to advertise. It’s going to get sticky when all the shows are repeats, and viewership goes down. Once that happens, maybe you look at more radio and outdoor,” one Sony exec says.

Playing the optimist, one Universal exec notes that studios buy up plenty of ads in the summer when there are reruns. Hollywood can’t get too alarmed.

“That means we advertise our tentpoles during reruns,” the exec says. The strike “just means we are going to have an endless summer. If it was true that airing ads during reruns doesn’t work, then summer would never work. And we even have better sports in the winter than we do during summer.”

Tatiana Siegel and Rick Kissell contributed to this report.

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