Cents and sensibility

Toon marketing budgets rising

The characters may be cute. The plots may be funny. But Hollywood isn’t finding anything hilarious about marketing animated movies.

Over the last five years, toons were the most expensive movies to promote, easily costing tens of millions more than the average pricetag to promote live-action features.

Disney and DreamWorks Animation are the top spenders and, whether intentional or not, it’s become a Coke vs. Pepsi kind of battle.

This year isn’t expected to prove any different.

Despite costly campaigns for “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” Disney-Pixar’s “Wall-E” is expected to easily become the year’s most marketed movie, with DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda” coming close behind.

Last year, “Ratatouille” topped the marketing charts, with Disney spending $54 million to cook up ads for the Pixar-produced pic, according to TNS Media Intelligence. That’s compared to the $46.8 million Paramount and DreamWorks spent to tout “Transformers” that year.

To put that into perspective, the industry average to promote a pic was $35.9 million last year, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

“Cars,” “The Polar Express” and “Finding Nemo” led each annual list, respectively, before that.

Four toons broke the top 10 in ad spending in 2007 and 2004: “Ratatouille,” “Bee Movie,” “Shrek the Third” and “Meet the Robinsons” in ’07, and “Polar Express,” “Shark Tale,” “The Incredibles” and “Shrek 2” three years earlier.

Only 2005 was an unusual year, in which live-action pics dominated. Yet “Madagascar,” “Robots” and “Chicken Little” still spent considerable coin for ads that year, with DreamWorks’ zoo animal adventure leading with $44.8 million.

There’s a reason for the high cost to hype toons.

For one, it pays off handsomely at the box office, attracting families and repeat viewing from younger auds.

They also bring in considerable coin from DVD sales and vidgames. Off the screen, they amass millions more from merchandise and toy sales, or as attractions that lure tourists to theme parks.

Disney-Pixar is still enjoying robust income from “Cars,” which is expected to sell $2.5 billion in merchandise this year and has revved up $5 billion in just merchandise sales since its release in 2006.

Because of such huge returns from ancillaries, studios will continue to make the huge outlays for promotion and marketing.

“You’re not just selling a movie anymore,” says one ad exec that creates campaigns for studio pics. “There’s the movie, the toys, the theme park ride and all that has to appeal to everyone. It takes a lot of money to reach everyone.”

There’s also the stock price.

DreamWorks Animation is a publicly traded company and relies on the success of its pics to prop up its shares.

This year, the company is relying on “Kung Fu Panda” for most of its revenue, so it needs the film to do well. The same was true for Pixar Animation Studios before Disney acquired it. Each pic affected the company’s stock. Even the type of buzz each film was generating had an impact on shareholders before the films unspooled.

So a big spend can pay off.

Naturally, it costs more to market a property no one’s ever heard of. That’s especially true when you’re trying to get kids interested — a demo already barraged by other options at the multiplex, TV shows on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon, as well as online communities and videogames.

That pressure to perform has forced studios like Warner Bros. to go on ad-buying spending sprees with releases like “Polar Express” and “Happy Feet,” or Fox with “Robots.”

Still, DreamWorks spent more than the norm to push “Kung Fu Panda” and it resulted in a better-than-expected $60 million haul, one of the year’s biggest openings and the best launch for a DreamWorks toon that wasn’t a sequel. The result now opens the doors for a followup.

Disney and Pixar are also hoping the marketing machine behind “Wall-E” will give the pic wheels at the B.O. and ring up sales at retail. A barrage of 300 robot-themed items have rolled out onto store shelves worldwide.

The studio started pushing the pic last summer at Comic-Con in San Diego, and continued its campaign with imagery of the titular robot, as well as a Super Bowl promo leading up to its June 27 release.

At DreamWorks Animation, ad budgets have been going up each year, and with each release. For example, the studio has spent more money to push each installment of the “Shrek” franchise, despite the proven popularity of the property.

Topper Jeffrey Katzenberg already is planning on spending more to launch “Monsters vs. Aliens” next summer than any previous feature because the pic will showcase the studio’s efforts to sell 3-D.

In fact, every one of its pics will be produced for the format starting with “Monsters.”

The company is betting heavily that 3-D will prove a big draw for moviegoers and attract auds that may have opted to wait for the DVD release instead.

Disney also is expected to tout its own slate of 3-D pics, including re-releases of the first two “Toy Story” pics, leading up to “Toy Story 3.”

You don’t necessarily have to break the bank to open a toon.

Fox enjoyed big success with the “Ice Age” pics, but has kept costs down to market the movies. None ever broke the top 10 in terms of ad spenders for the years of their releases, according to TNS.

But the films consistently performed at the B.O., earning on average $185 million domestically.

The studio also was thrifty with “The Simpsons Movie,” and that pic went on to earn $183 million. Its promotional partners like 7-Eleven actually generated more attention for the pic than some of the efforts from the studio.

“Again, Fox is a different animal,” says one studio marketing exec. “Its entire business isn’t riding entirely on the success of its animated movies. If it makes one or two that perform, great. But if that’s all you have, you need those movies to make money. Just remember that saying, ‘You have to spend money to make money.’ “

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