Can the next great tentpole fly without a Happy Meal? Or a Mountain Dew can?

Hollywood is facing that possibility.

Retail chains, fast-food franchises, cell-phone companies, automakers and packaged-good firms have created vast promotional pushes that make them key players in marketing tentpoles.

But an increasing number of these partners are starting to spend their money on TV and the Internet. They pony up to $100 million on media buys in tie-ins that promote both their product and the tentpole films — a big relief to studios who, according to the latest MPAA figures, have just started to rein in marketing costs.

The loss means Hollywood studios are faced with the need to beef up their marketing budgets to compensate for the shortfall.

Usually product tie-ins for summer pics are brokered six months to a year in advance. But Pixar and Disney are still talking to potential partners for “Wall-E,” which unspools in June.

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In the film biz, Disney-Pixar is the closest thing to a sure bet, so if they’re working hard to land the right marketer, what hope is there for other studios?

During the most recent holiday frame, “I Am Legend,” “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Enchanted” boasted no significant outside support, other than online sweepstakes.

And last summer, “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” certainly had plenty of tie-in partners — but fewer than in their previous installments.

Some execs have been quick to say that’s been done on purpose — fewer deals let the brands shine. But in actuality, fewer deals are on the table.

Studios spend an average $35 million domestically and $50 million more overseas on marketing, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. That means the multimillion-dollar ad blitzes from Madison Avenue have been crucial, doubling the marketing outlay.

Often, these multimillion-dollar promos are linked to product placement in films. But in many cases, the retailer wants to keep the product placement — even as it drops the promo. Studios hope that product placements will lead to promo deals down the road, but the reality is that execs are allowing the product to stay in the picture but not getting the promo push.

“It’s definitely getting harder to land these deals,” says one studio executive. “It’s not that it’s impossible to get companies on board. They all want their products on the screen. Getting them to open their wallets and promote those appearances, especially with mega TV buys, is the hard part.”

The trend is not expected to end anytime soon:

  •  A large number of fast-food, snack, soda and cereal companies are wary of G and PG pics, fearing watchdog groups will criticize them for pushing junkfood on children. That eliminates a large number of deals that were once considered golden.

  •  Advertisers feel TV gives them more creative control and the ability to get quicker results by showing off products that won’t be too outdated and irrelevant to consumers once the episode airs on broadcast or cable. On top of that, they’re already spending millions on spots during shows so why not ratchet up the exposure?

  •  The growing interest in original programming on the Internet is encouraging brands to produce their own web series and other shortform projects that they can own outright and exploit in various ways. Online ad spending is expected to grow by 16.5% this year.

  •  They’re also producing more live events and flocking to videogames in order to court consumers with entertainment.

  •  Rather than seek a tie-in, they’re producing pics outright, with Gatorade having ponied up a third of the $10 million budget for soccer drama “Gracie,” and Dove set to contribute to the $20 million budget of femme-skewing “The Women.”

  •  There’s less money to go around. Ad spending is expected to slow this year. And high-profile events like the Super Bowl are charging more than ever, while the Summer Olympics will earn more than $1 billion from brands for TV spots alone.

“No one’s saying that movies are not in vogue anymore,” says Tom Meyer, prexy of Davie-Brown Entertainment, which reps such firms as HP, AT&T, FedEx, Nokia and Pepsi in Hollywood. “It’s just that people have more choices. There are just more things out there to do.”

Even companies with strong ties to brands aren’t enjoying the additional ad coin.

Universal, which has rich multi-year pacts with the likes of Volkswagen and MasterCard, has found it tough to get its partners to spend around its pics.

For example, VW has placed its vehicles in many of U’s movies, but the company has spent little to tout those appearances. Last year, it only pushed “The Bourne Ultimatum” with TV and other ads. In 2005, it spent only around “King Kong.”

Part of the problem could also be what the studios’ slates look like these days — fewer sequels, more comedies and attempts to launch franchises this summer.

“It’s always easier to get big deals around a sequel,” says one studio exec. “Building a promotional campaign for an unknown movie is always a huge challenge.”

Remember Jaguar’s tie-in with “Catwoman”? Neither does anyone else.

The result doesn’t mean that movies will suddenly be brand-free.

Rest assured, pics will still be packed with products. The companies behind them just won’t be ponying up the same amounts of cash to promote the fact that they’re in the films.

Some summer movies will still boast tie-ins.

For example, Par and Marvel’s “Iron Man” will be backed by Burger King, LG Electronics and Audi. Other pics, including the next installment of “Indiana Jones,” “Batman,” “The Mummy,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” and “The Incredible Hulk,” as well as “Speed Racer,” “Get Smart” and the “Sex and the City” movie should lure partners, as will DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda” and Pixar’s “Wall-E.”

But expect the partners on those toons to be more adult-oriented. Campaigns for “Bee Movie,” the “Shrek” films, “The Simpsons Movie,” “Over the Hedge,” “Cars,” and “The Incredibles” were launched by HP, 7-Eleven, Wal-Mart, State Farm Insurance and Verizon Wireless — hardly child’s play.

“All of your mainstay partners in the food and beverage categories are getting out,” Meyer says. “Or they’re trying to do deals for more good-for-you types of products. They just don’t want to get caught in a bad PR situation. It has everything to do with the fear of using well-known characters or properties to market to children.”

Last summer, McDonald’s did push the third “Shrek,” but focused its tie-in on healthier food like apples rather than double cheeseburgers.

Earlier this month, a coalition of 19 advocacy groups demanded that the MPAA develop a policy restricting the advertising of PG-13 films on kids TV, and prohibit restaurant toy giveaways aimed at young children for films with that rating.

Some animated films will remain a big draw. Those pics not only appeal to family auds but the toon shops behind them are willing to create custom animation for a marketer’s own TV, print or web spots, as long as it fits in with the film’s messaging.

Confusion created by the strike doesn’t help matters.

Hearing that a film’s script has been rushed or can’t be changed during production, due to the writers walkout, won’t encourage any brand to back a project. If it winds up being a critical or worse, a commercial dud, it won’t have been worth ponying up tens of millions of dollars in promotional support.

The networks are expected to reap much of the rewards.

For example, rather than spend heavily around its prominent placement in Warner Bros.’ “I Am Legend,” Ford Motor Co. opted to again devote its dollars to Fox’s “American Idol” and to NBC’s revamp of “Knight Rider.”

Similarly, Toyota has all but taken over NBC’s “American Gladiators,” Verizon is plastered all over CW’s “Gossip Girl” and Nissan has benefited from pushing two of its models in NBC’s “Heroes.”

The upcoming “Oprah’s Big Give” on ABC is filled with a slew of high-profile advertisers, including Ford and Bank of America. On cable, Bravo shows like “Project Runway” and “Top Chef” are jammed with sponsors.

Of course, those deals couldn’t come at a better time, considering the impact the strike is having on the schedule.

The move to air more reality all the time during the strike will only make it easier to lure marketers — and thus, their ad dollars — given how much easier it is to integrate the products and provide shout-outs.

None of this should come as much of a surprise to marketing execs.

The look of promotional partnerships had already been focusing more on the brands than on specific products.

For example, for Fox’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” Samsung promoted itself, rather than the electronic devices seen in the pic. GM’s campaign for “Transformers” promoted the automaker as a transformed company — pun intended.

Meanwhile, Samsung and Starbucks have upped their efforts in the indie scene, putting their name behind specialty pics like “Into the Wild,” “Atonement” and “Arctic Tale” in order to raise their cachet among niche auds. Results have been mixed.

“Marketers are in the mood to try something new,” says one studio marketing exec. “As a studio, we now have to come up with new ways to use movies as a way to promote their products and brands. We have to keep them interested.”