Sponsors' coin helps 'Just Wright' get made

Movies like this summer’s “Iron Man” and “Sex and the City” sequels have long been magnets for marketers, with brands eager to associate their wares with high-profile tentpoles and their product-loving characters. But “Just Wright” is proving that smaller-budgeted films are able to play the promotional partnership game just as well, and can attract more than just marketing muscle.

In fact, it’s the involvement of companies like Cover Girl, the National Basketball Assn., Izod, Nike, Under Armour, Tom Ford, Lab Series Skincare, Apple and Mercedes-Benz USA that helped get Fox Searchlight’s romantic comedy made in the first place.

The companies ponied up considerable coin to produce the $12.5 million-budgeted pic, which stars Queen Latifah, Common and Paula Patton, and provided locations to lens the film and other resources like makeup, apparel and automobiles.

“We couldn’t have made the movie without them,” says the pic’s executive producer, Debra Martin Chase. “When you talk about a budget in our range, every dollar counts.”

In fact, as production dollars get tighter to lock down in Hollywood, “Just Wright” is the latest example of how lower-budgeted pics can get more creative in how they find financing. Whether auds will show resistance to product-heavy pics remains to be seen.

In the past, similar smaller pics like 2007’s soccer drama “Gracie” landed production dollars from Gatorade, while Pedigree was close to backing last year’s Richard Gere indie “Hachiko: A Dog’s Story.” Audi, Mountain Dew and Burton Snowboards have backed full-length documentaries.

Smaller films can give marketers the chance to “provide a brand with a lot more freedom to create breakthrough marketing opportunities,” says Jarrod Moses, president and CEO of Gotham-based United Entertainment Group, a branded entertainment firm backed by UTA, which was tapped by the film’s exec producers, who also included Latifah and Shakim Compere, to broker many of the marketing deals around “Just Wright.” His office has seen the number of opportunities for brands to back pics triple over the past year as more producers seek new sources of funding.

“You have the eyes and ears of everyone involved in the film, including the actors,” with smaller films, Moses says. “There’s the independent mentality that everybody shares in the effort.”

“Just Wright” had initially been set up at the Mouse House seven years ago, with Latifah always attached to star in the romantic comedy that features the NBA as a backdrop. But when Disney couldn’t get a handle on the film’s budget, the project went into turnaround, where it found a new home at Fox Searchlight two years ago.

By that time, Latifah had established a strong relationship with Cover Girl, and the cosmetics brand agreed to step up to support one of the company’s main spokeswomen to back the film with “significant” production dollars, as well as makeup for the pic, and marketing dollars. Company reps were involved creatively a year before production officially began.

“We always thought promotional partners were going to be key to help us,” Chase says. “This was one of those situations where it takes a village to make a movie. We knew that going into it, and actively embraced (the brands’) involvement.”

Moses says “Just Wright” also appealed to marketers because it was a film that would allow them to associate themselves with the “glamor of sports and be safe, family friendly, and play to a mass audience.”

While filming “Just Wright” in New York City provided producers the chance to save millions through a 35% tax break, “we also wanted to make the film as realistic as possible,” Chase says. “(The marketers) gave us what we needed.”

In the film, Latifah plays a physical therapist who falls for Common’s Scott McKnight, an NBA All-Star player, while helping him recover from an injury.

The NBA paired the pic with the New Jersey Nets, the team for which Common’s pro-basketball character plays in the film.

The NBA also recruited other teams like the Miami Heat, and Nets player Bobby Simmons, league announcers Marv Albert and Kenny Smith, and other NBA team players including the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and the Heat’s Dwyane Wade.

Apparel-maker Izod, which typically doesn’t tie-in with film productions, lent the film the Izod Center in New Jersey where the Nets compete. The company provided clothing to the cast, as did Nike, Under Armour and Tom Ford. Products by Lab Series Skincare for Men and Apple are also placed in the film, while Mercedes-Benz provided its pricey Maybach for Common to drive onscreen.

Naturally, the marketers also are stepping up to promote “Just Wright” through a series of events, and traditional and online ads. Partners helped promote the pic on ESPN during the network’s coverage of the NBA playoffs.

Ultimately, the brands’ involvement was key in getting Fox Searchlight to greenlight “Just Wright.”

“It gave the studio some confidence in knowing there would be someone there to support it when others were on the fence,” Moses says. “The great thing about brands investing in movies is that it’s nonrecoupable money,” Moses says. “These are deals where the brand can benefit from the halo effect that the movie can provide the brand. They’re supporting the film; they’re not equity partners.”

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