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Studios blitz pigskin party

Campaigns in high gear as ads hit $2.25 mil for 30 sec.

Sunday’s Super Bowl features a full-contact game within the game. Disney, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. are collectively spending nearly $20 million for TV’s ultimate beachfront property.

A survey of studio execs, producers, trailer vendors and ad firms has yielded a lineup that reflects an effort to make more strategic use of the most-watched TV event of the year.

Spots for nine films are expected during the New England Patriots-Carolina Panthers matchup. That’s the most in any ad category but off from 10 Hollywood ads a year ago. Last year’s crop was heavily weighted toward summer fare, while just two of the nine this year are summer titles, both in May: “Van Helsing” and “Troy.”

There will be no “Spider-Man 2,” “Day After Tomorrow,” “Hellboy” or “The Bourne Supremacy” during the CBS telecast.

Spots get pricier

Rates hit $2.25 million per 30-second spot, a record for any telecast. Most of Sunday’s movie spots are 30 seconds, but “Van Helsing’s” lasts 60, a format employed by action tentpoles like “Armageddon.”

Disney will have a spot in every quarter, including a first-quarter, 15-second ad for “Miracle,” which opens five days after the game.

The postgame analysis of Super Bowl ads has created enormous pressure for studios that are using the game to launch their marketing campaigns. Every Super Bowl ad is dissected, rated and repackaged in the media in the days that follow.

Rarely is the work of movie marketers subjected to the same Monday-morning quarterbacking as the latest efforts by Budweiser or Pepsi. Positive momentum, however, can be difficult to achieve, especially with Web sites facilitating immediate reaction and months of positioning remaining on each pic’s campaign.

Lead time crucial

The more time between the game and opening weekend, the less likely it is that a Super Bowl ad will move the needle in terms of tracking data or box office.

U’s “Hulk” and Warners’ “Terminator 3” elicited some negative impressions that both studios had to work to overcome. F/x-driven pics face the dilemma of building mass awareness without a full portfolio of finished visuals. Last year, on the other hand, the ad for “Bruce Almighty” scored high marks in various viewer polls, including a closely watched one in USA Today.

“The whole event, including the advertising, has a very special place in the consumer’s mind,” said Adam Fogelson, U’s marketing prexy.

Added Fran Kelly, president and chief operating officer of ad agency Arnold Worldwide: “The audience is expecting you to be loud and entertaining and funny. Don’t just show up with your straight act.”

Decade of ads

It may be Super Bowl XXXVIII, but it’s only IX in movie marketing terms. In 1995, there was just one spot, but in ’96 Fox’s ad for “Independence Day,” which showed the White House vaporized by a UFO, proved that there was tremendous upside to advertising on the game.

The game has come a long way since its 1967 debut, when both CBS and NBC carried it, 30,000 seats went unsold and a 30-second ad cost $42,000. This year, 89 million viewers are expected to tune in.

An average Super Bowl party is larger than even a New Year’s Eve gathering, market researchers say. It trails only Thanksgiving in terms of food consumption, St. Patrick’s Day in terms of beer intake. TV ads in that context play like mini-trailers; last year’s “Matrix” spot brought party conversations to a halt. In years past, blurbs for films like “Battlefield Earth” drew hoots from the crowd.

Due to that keen audience focus, the weeks leading up to the game are marked by a feverish surge of activity at trailer houses and marketing departments.

“Decisions are made in quick succession,” said Craig Murray, a former Disney ad copywriter whose eponymous trailer house employs 100 people. “For an event movie with a lot of f/x, the studio may decide at the last minute to go with a Super Bowl spot. A studio will buy the time but not commit” unless the trailer is just right.”

Alternatives abound

Disney marketing prexy Oren Aviv said: “You have to constantly raise your own bar strategically and creatively. There are a million ways to do it other than running a Super Bowl spot.”

Ads are apportioned by “pods,” based on when they occur in the game. Since many Super Bowls have been blowouts, a fourth-quarter pod is considered less desirable and often fetches a lower rate.

Being in the pre- or post-game program is another lower-cost option. CBS corporate sibling Paramount, for example, is expected to advertise in such a slot.

Studios increasingly make use of “billboards,” interstitial ads that promote a specific title.

An avalanche of hype and the prospect of a lopsided score are reasons enough for some studios to stay on the sidelines. Marketing execs, however, rarely have so effective a means of reaching a wide TV audience.

“People say if the game’s a blowout you’re really screwed … but you’re not,” one vet said. “You’re going to go from 90 million to 70 million households. You’re still tripling the highest-rated show. Even if it’s a blowout, you’re 100 yards ahead.”

(Marc Graser contributed to this report.)

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