Tentpole surplus draws more Madison Ave. dollars to Hollywood

Over the next two summers, Hollywood will roll out a huge number of tentpoles that will require hefty marketing budgets. At the same time, Madison Avenue is awakening from the recession with ad dollars to spend and is eager to associate with entertainment properties and personalities.

The result: a convergence of mutual needs that will result in an unprecedented level of promotional partnerships.

This summer, every major advertising category — from fast food chains and soda brands to cell phone and automakers — will pair up with the second editions of “Cars” and “Kung Fu Panda,” the third “Transformers,” fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean,” an “X-Men” prequel and adaptations of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” “The Smurfs,” “The Zookeeper,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Green Lantern,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Summer 2012 already has lined up “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” the “Spider-Man” and Jason Bourne reboots, a third “Men in Black” and “Madagascar,” a fourth “Ice Age,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” “Brave,” “Battleship” and the “Star Trek” sequel. Fox’s “The Wolverine” and Relativity Media’s “Snow White” are also possible.

Hollywood hasn’t offered this many properties that boast a built-in fanbase and appeal to a wide demo since summer 2008 when “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,” “Wall-E” and “Speed Racer” played in theaters.

The scene is a far cry from the past two years when summer seshes were filled with R-rated actioners (“Terminator: Salvation,” “Inglourious Basterds”), dramas (“The Hurt Locker,” “Public Enemies”) and raunchy laffers (“The Hangover,” “Bruno”) that brands couldn’t embrace with their own campaigns — with the exception of an “Iron Man,” “Transformers” and “Star Trek,” of course.

As a result, brands shifted their attention over to such TV shows as “American Idol,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “Glee” and videogame franchises like “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” Other studios including DreamWorks Animation enlist brands to help market homvid releases, TV toons and live-action stage shows.

But Madison Avenue’s interest in movies is heating up again, especially as studios are greenlighting sequels, remakes, adaptations of comicbooks, young-adult novels, toy lines and videogames that enable advertisers to go after the same moviegoers studios are looking to attract at the megaplex.

“The thing that’s hard about this job is there are so many brands out there, many of which want to be involved with entertainment partnerships,” says LeeAnne Stables, executive VP of worldwide marketing partnerships for Paramount Pictures. “We’re not just pitching these films against other movies; it’s also television, which is a huge opportunity. A big brand can only look at so many entertainment titles in the course of one calendar year. Their choices are many and it puts the onus on us to put a strong presentation together on why our film is the best choice against the many alternatives out there. These are multimillion-dollar decisions.”

The money is hard not to go after for studios.

The cost to market movies isn’t showing any signs of getting cheaper, especially as networks increase the prices of their 30-second spots this year.

While social media like Facebook and Twitter are now important components of a studio marketing plan, TV still remains the main driver of audiences into theaters, marketing mavens say. The Motion Picture Assn. of America no longer releases the average marketing costs for a movie, but it falls somewhere between $25 million and $50 million per pic, a conservative estimate for most summer tentpoles.

As a result, studios are increasingly looking to line up outside partners, which can add $100 million or more to a film’s overall marketing campaign, especially overseas, where studios need more support. Stateside, brands push pics in various locations like restaurants, stores, car dealerships and buy media on TV, in theaters, magazines and online, providing invaluable exposure.

“We did see media budgets getting slashed” during the recession, says Susan Spencer, head of national promotions at DreamWorks Animation. “It does feel like people are putting their toe back in the water again and we hope that if we deliver on the partnerships, people will get back into the business in a bigger way.”

How much a brand spends grows even higher if its products are prominently integrated into the project.

Being able to open wallets doesn’t guarantee a brand a film deal, however.

The trend has been for studios to surround films with fewer brands, giving partners the chance to stand out more with their marketing tie-ins, while not bombarding auds with too many promo pushes. That isn’t changing.

And with pacts usually brokered a year or more in advance, many partnerships with some of the biggest spenders around major pics have already been inked.

Paramount smartly cemented a relationship with Burger King when the fast food chain agreed to promote “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Star Trek” and “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” during summer 2008, the first time it hyped a single studio’s films back-to-back. Last summer, it pushed Marvel’s “Iron Man 2,” which Par distribbed. And this year, BK will help the studio create some sizzle around “Transformers,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Similarly, DreamWorks Animation has had a long-standing arrangement with McDonald’s, which will promote “Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom” this summer, as will computer and chip makers HP and Intel, ongoing partners for the toon studio. This is the sixth year McDonald’s is creating Happy Meals for a DreamWorks toon.

General Motors is returning for a third time to promote “Transformers,” which features the company’s various car brands that star as the actioner’s shape-shifting robots.

” ‘Transformers’ is the all-time big daddy of tentpole partnership opportunities,” Stables says. “This is the third time and we do have the benefit of repeat partners.” Par has also brought on new partners with each installment, like M&Ms, for the first sequel.

Dr Pepper and 7-Eleven are also back to support Marvel’s launches of “Thor” and “Captain America.” Both brands are already getting mileage out of appearances in early “Thor” footage.

Sony also has had an ongoing company-wide relationship with Pizza Hut (cooking up marketing deals around films like “Terminator: Salvation,” its PlayStation and “EverQuest” gaming brands, the Spider-Man musical, and its Adam Sandler comedy “Just Go With It”). “There are few things that go together as well as movies and pizza,” says Tressie Lieberman, who oversaw the Pizza Hut-“Just Go With It” promotional tie-in.

Sony is expected to have a slew of partners around its summer family films “The Smurfs” and “The Zookeeper.” Although it declined to disclose which brands, casual dining chain T.G.I. Friday’s is featured in “Zookeeper” and plans to launch a promotion in its restaurants around the talking animal pic, similar to the promotion IHOP did around Universal’s animated hit “Despicable Me” last year.

“Each of the partners delivers something to different segments of the audience,” Spencer says. For example, where McDonald’s reaches out to kids through toys in Happy Meals, HP and Intel talk to adult auds and General Mills to moms.

Studios also continue to recruit regional partners in other countries. DreamWorks has a relationship with Chinese apparel chain Meters/bonwe (think their version of H&M). The stores have a dedicated section within the stores showcasing the “Kung Fu Panda” and “Shrek” characters on signage and product.

“We approach each country with their unique market in mind,” Spencer adds.

But there’s still a lot of room for dealmaking to take place, studios say.

Even this month, studios like Disney, Fox, Paramount, Universal and Sony were negotiating promo pacts around films like “Pirates 4,” “Cars 2,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Super 8,” “Cowboys & Aliens,” “Smurfs” and “Zookeeper.” The same is true at other studios around their
summer films.

Par is still aligning a short list of partners around “Super 8” that tie in to the nostalgia of the late 1970s, when the film takes place. Studio had to consider which brands were in the marketplace in 1979 as well as the position of the brand in the marketplace at that time.

Early promo deals are locked down once a company is integrated into a movie; product placement deals don’t get made anymore unless a company agrees to pony up ad dollars around the pic’s launch.

But while marketers may have money to spend, they’re still cautious about which films to support and want to see footage and other marketing materials before they commit coin. That’s opened up the doors for more nimble brands such as cell phone and electronics companies like Panasonic, LG, Motorola and Samsung to put together a promo four to six months before a film unspools.

“You need materials to show,” says one high-level studio marketing executive deep in the middle of negotiating several summer deals. “A lot of brands want to see what you have to offer audiences before they commit. But you often don’t have that until late in the game,” usually because complicated f/x sequences are still being created.

Recent Super Bowl movie ads have sparked interest from several brands, insiders say, after footage from the summer pics was finally unveiled during the big game.

Still, some films remain off limits. Disney won’t broker deals with fast-food partners for its films, not wanting to be seen as selling “junk food” to children. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. has kept brands away from “Harry Potter,” whose final installment bows in July, since objections arose around Coca-Cola’s involvement around the first pic in 2001 and its hard sell to kids.

That issue wasn’t a problem for the Vidalia Onion Committee last summer when it tapped Shrek as a spokes-creature to pitch its sweet onions to vegetable-hating tykes, timed around the release of “Shrek Forever After.” Partnership actually made sense since “Onions have layers, ogres have layers. Ogres are like onions,” was a line from the first film in the franchise. The result of the deal was around $300,000 worth of PR and marketing for the toon studio and Paramount, which released the pic, and a 50% boost in sales for the Georgia-grown onions.

Following that success, DreamWorks signed on House Foods’ tofu to support “Kung Fu Panda 2,” given that a character in the film runs a noodle shop that serves up the product.

Locking down an early deal isn’t without its complications, however.

Because marketers need a long lead time to schedule a co-promotion alongside their regular activities to launch a car or burger, for example, it can be hard or impossible to move a campaign when a studio decides to shift a release date.

That happened to Carl’s Jr. when Sony changed the date for “The Green Hornet” five times, giving it two dates in summer 2010, then two more in December, before finally moving it to Jan. 14. Carl’s Jr., which pushed the pic at Comic-Con in San Diego last summer, finally had to pull the trigger on its tie-in, rolling out toys and signage at its eateries over Thanksgiving.

The ever-crowded summer release calendar and the playability of pics outside that frame has enabled Hollywood to turn to a year-round sked for its higher-profile releases. And that’s given brands the chance to partner up with pics during the spring and fall, as well, and not get lost in the clutter of spots competing for attention during the summer.

Last year, Sony was able tune up a deal with HSN for an innovative TV effort around “Eat Pray Love,” while Nivea stood out with its tie-in around New Line’s “Valentine’s Day.” Par’s “Up in the Air,” an R-rated drama, also managed to land American Airlines and Hilton Hotels in the fall.

This year, Universal has opened up the Easter holiday to brands for the first time to back its toon “Hop,” whose star is the Easter Bunny. Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” franchise and reboot of “Planet of the Apes”; Par’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and next “Mission: Impossible”; Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes 2” and “Happy Feet 2”; DreamWorks’ “Real Steel”; Disney’s “The Muppets”; Summit’s “Twilight: Breaking Dawn”; and Relativity’s “Immortals” also offer up promo opportunities outside the summer sesh.

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