More companies signing up to co-finance films

The first time I heard the word “branding,” it related to something John Wayne was about to do to a steer. I never thought it would become the most overused word in the business lexicon.

When a product loses favor with consumers, it’s not because it’s mediocre or badly designed — the failure is always due to bad branding. John Edwards is not gaining traction as a presidential candidate, pundits assert, because he hasn’t established a solid brand.

The ubiquitous branding wars are apparent at the French Open or the NBA Finals — brands are emblazoned across every article of clothing or equipment, down to the athletic cups (happily we can’t yet see those). Whenever an actress strolls the red carpet or even reports to rehab, insiders know her wardrobe evolved out of a tough branding negotiation. As far as most stars are concerned, their taste is for sale.

I’ve long since steeled myself to all this, but the latest push in the branding wars makes me a little queasy. More big companies, it seems, have decided to put up co-financing for films in the hope of advancing their product lines. I realize that the marketplace has become more competitive and that it’s vital for brands to reinforce their identity, but does that mean that movies have to become mere marketing tools? At the risk of sounding naive, I find this a daunting prospect.

Unilever believes that by helping to fund a remake of “The Women,” starring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening, it can enhance the image of its Dove line. Perhaps. But as I remember it, the dialogue in “The Women” (originally written by Clare Boothe Luce, wife of the founder of Time) was pretty acerbic. Characters didn’t talk much about washing up.

Chrysler also is stepping up to help finance a romantic movie called “Blue Valentine,” so we can imagine in which make of automobile the characters will be making out. In a key scene in the soccer movie “Gracie,” the title character knocks a Gatorade bottle off the hood of a car with a soccer ball. Not surprisingly, Gatorade helped finance the movie.

Burger King is another in the considerable list of companies that has decided to develop its own movies. Now what munchies do you imagine its characters will be snacking on?

Product placement has long been around in movies and TV, to be sure. I remember one football movie in which the director slugged the producer (off camera) because he kept sneaking a Cadillac into scenes to satisfy his personal product placement deal. There’s so much product placement on the “Entourage” TV show that there are even self-referential jokes about product placement.

“It’s hard to compete in this marketplace,” Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, told Variety’s Marc Graser. “You have to extend your marketing dollars to get awareness, so a partnership makes a lot of sense.” Berney’s company is distributing both “Gracie” and “The Women.”

While I accept all this, I wonder where sponsor-financed movies will take us. Would “Waitress” be the same edgy movie had Applebee’s decided to finance it? How would the script of “Bug” been altered had it been funded by Raid?

Good movies are hard enough to make without worrying about the branding needs of consumer companies or the script notes of marketing gurus.

For that matter, I wish most actresses would think once again about cultivating their own distinctive “look” (remember Audrey Hepburn?) rather than signing up for the biggest deal that’s offered them.

But, come to think of it, Hepburn ended up making a killer deal with Givenchy.

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