By Ron Grover Studios love to battle for the best scripts, the hottest directors, and the most bankable stars. It makes sense that they would fight over those big things -- they can be all-important factors in a movie's success. Now, in addition to fighting over those things great, the studios are also fighting over those things small. Lately, that means trailers -- yes, those little two-and-a-half minute previews that flash on theater screens before you get to watch the movie you forked over $8.75 to see.
Odder still is the fight over a half-minute commercial that precedes those trailers in many U.S. theaters. In that little pitch, a company called THX insists that your movie-going experience is being enhanced by its sound system -- usually ending with the line "the audience is listening."
These arcane battles burst into the open in early November, when THX, which is owned by superstar director George Lucas, announced it was canceling plans to use the animated character Shrek for its upcoming series of ads. Shrek is the lovable ogre who "stars" in Dreamworks' animated megahit of the same name. THX, which also is in the business of creating digital prints for films, digitally mastered Shrek.
STAR POWER. Lucas and Steven Spielberg, a Dreamworks' partner, are buddies, so it seemed perfectly natural that Dreamworks would ask Lucas to use Shrek in an ad for Lucas' THX sound system. And for THX, featuring Shrek was a chance to instill a little star power in a spot that most movie patrons ignore while they turn off their cell phones.
This looked like the kind of cozy, you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours deal that goes on constantly in Hollywood. The THX Shrek spot was set to appear on Nov. 2, the same date the Shrek DVD and video debuted in retail stores. Nice timing, yes?
Nov. 2, however, also happened to be the day that Monsters, Inc., the highly anticipated computer-generated film from Pixar and Walt Disney, hit theaters around the country. The timing didn't exactly thrill Disney, especially since there's bad blood between Dreamworks and Disney/Pixar. (In 1998, Dreamworks released its computer-generated film Antz right before A Bug's Life from Pixar/Disney, inciting charges from the Pixar/Disney camp that former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg took the idea with him when he left to start Dreamworks. Katzenberg has adamantly denied this, but the tension remains.)
STEVE JOBS, TOO. It turns out that Shrek wasn't part of the THX plug on Nov. 2 -- and probably won't be, period. Lucasfilms executives say they decided, upon reflection, that it wasn't right to link their sound system to any one movie.
Perhaps. Or maybe Lucas executives were worried about Disney and Pixar refusing to throw any work to THX? That's the buzz in Hollywood, though Disney and Pixar, of course, deny any part in getting the THX plug de-Shreked. That's a little harder to swallow. You see, Lucas is also buddies with Steve Jobs, to whom he sold Pixar after deciding he didn't want to make animated films. The thinking is that Lucas felt bad for annoying his pal Jobs over the Shrek bit and wanted to make amends, big-time.
The plot grew even more interesting with the news that Lucas would put the trailer for his next, eagerly awaited Star Wars flick on the front of Disney and Pixar's Monsters, Inc., which appeared in movie theaters on Nov. 2. That's a real coup for Disney and Pixar, and a real beneficence on Lucas' part. It's expected that Star Wars fans will rush to theaters just to see the trailer for Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones.
WHO'S JOE BLACK? That's what mobs of the faithful -- mostly men -- did when the trailer for Episode I was attached to the dreadful Brad Pitt movie Meet Joe Black. Many of them left after Jar Jar and company faded from the screen. They never met Joe Black. But hey, they bought tickets, and that's what box office is all about -- not the number of people who actually watch the movie.
A chance for a sneak peak at Episode II will probably draw a lot of Star Wars fans -- folks who otherwise might not have bought tickets to Monsters, Inc. Who knows, this time the guys might even stick around and get their money's worth. But even if they don't, they'll help swell the numbers for Monsters, Inc., which did $63.5 million in ticket sales on its opening weekend -- Disney's best, and the sixth-best ever for a movie. Send in the Clones, indeed.
As if enough people aren't already teed off, you can now include the folks at Fox, the studio that distributes the Star Wars movies. Fox can't be thrilled about the Star Wars trailer preceding someone else's film. Why, some are saying, couldn't it have been in front of, say, Fox's upcoming film Shallow Hal? Lucas decided against it, that's why, and Lucas calls the shots for just about everything that has to do with his Star Wars films, including their marketing.
Still, it's amazing -- and amusing -- to hear all the caterwauling about things as fleeting as a two-minute trailer and a 30-second plug for a theater sound system. These are, after all, nothing more than commercials. But this is Hollywood, where folks live and die by the battles they wage, and victories come in all sizes -- even if the ground gained is but a tiny sliver of film. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BW Online