Cue The Soda Can

Hollywood and Mad Ave are in a cross-marketing frenzy

It was one of the most important scenes in the movie, and it sure seemed like a wrap. The actor got his lines right. The lighting was perfect. Even the trained dolphin performed like a trouper. But none of that mattered next to the label on a crunched-up soda can sitting on the dock. "Coke," it said--but soon after the scene was shot, the producers signed a marketing deal with PepsiCo Inc.'s Pizza Hut. So the crew of Flipper returned to its high-tech editing room and digitally changed the can label to the familar red, white, and blue of Pepsi. The cost: roughly $40,000, shared by the company and the studio.

This is the business of moviemaking, summer of 1996. The connections between Madison Avenue and Hollywood have grown so elaborate and far-reaching that nothing is off limits when studios and advertisers sit down to hammer out the marketing campaign. Re-editing the film, tinkering with its script, and negotiating casting decisions and release dates--all are possible. Acting as matchmakers are some two dozen consultancies that have sprung up around Los Angeles, from just a handful in the 1980s, to link films with products. "Now we pay as much attention to the marketing of our partners' products as we do our own," says Brett Dicker, senior vice-president for promotions at Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Pictures.

In this, the busiest summer in movie memory, the cross-marketing frenzy is evident all over. Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge Ram pickup truck has a starring role in Twister. The basketball team in Eddie wears New York Knicks uniforms, thanks to a deal with the National Basketball Assn. And sportscasters from ESPN, which is owned by Disney, appear in a TV spot to promote The Rock, which has not a lick to do with sports but happens to be distributed by another Disney division.

VIRTUAL BRANDS. Sixty-five big-budget films are scheduled for release between Memorial Day and Labor Day, up from about 50 in past years, and the industry's skyrocketing marketing budgets mean that all of them will have multimillion-dollar campaigns. The vast majority will also fill store shelves or fast-food restaurants with clothing, books, and figurines, unlike five years ago, when just a few signed licensing deals. "A movie is no longer a movie. It's a marketing event," says Alan Brew, a partner at San Francisco brand consultancy Addison Seefeld & Brew.

In addition to a dollop of glamour, movies give marketers access to two audiences that are hard to reach through network TV or print: foreign viewers and young people. Consider the deal signed last month between PepsiCo and the makers of Star Wars. Pepsi, which owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has agreed to promote the rerelease of the original three movies and the 1998 "prequel" at its fast-food outlets around the world. For the first time, its beverage and snack-food businesses will collaborate to ballyhoo the saga through giveaways and in-store promotions. "Star Wars is more than a movie," says Rick Rock, Pepsi's vice-president for media and entertainment marketing. "It's a pop icon, a global brand."

The marketing alliances can help studios, too. A partnership with a strong mass marketer can turn a film into a virtual brand, allowing producers to live off fat merchandising deals while cultivating audiences for the sequels. When Universal Studios O.K.'d a Jurassic Park ride--set to open on June 21--at its Hollywood theme park, it wasn't just counting on admission fees: Universal wants to keep up the brand's momentum until a sequel to the movie opens next year.

The branding of a movie also can protect against failure at the box office. "The price of making films has gone so high, the gamble gets so big, it's scary," says Robert Evans, the producer of Chinatown, The Godfather, and now The Phantom. He estimates Chinatown would now run $50 million in production costs alone, instead of the $3.25 million he spent in 1974.

The epicenter of cross-promotional hype this summer may be the pact between Apple Computer Inc. and Paramount's Mission: Impossible that turned the Apple PowerBook into Tom Cruise's onscreen sidekick. Apple returned the favor in a TV campaign estimated at close to $15 million that viewers could easily confuse with a movie preview. Apple, which has employed a full-time product-placement coordinator for the past two years, also created an online Mission: Impossible Web site. No money changed hands, but each side provided great publicity for the other.

FLOOD WARNING. Are the movies really marketing magic? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. BMW credits James Bond for the success of this year's Z3 roadster. Sales took off when 007 stepped out of his traditional Aston Martin and into the Z3 in GoldenEye. On the other hand, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero did nothing for the Sony Mini Disk CD player despite a prominent role, and left some viewers with the feeling that they had just sat through a very long commercial.

Movie purists may bristle at the notion of changing a script for commercial purposes, but it's becoming a far more accepted practice. MGM/UA wrote in an entire scene revolving around Bond's new BMW in GoldenEye. And actors are finding that the role doesn't necessarily end at the wrap party. Billy Zane got back into his Phantom costume when producers of the action adventure convinced executives at Bozell Worldwide Inc. to put their lead character in the long-running milk-moustache ad campaign for the National Fluid Milk Processors Promotion Board. "There are some [actors] who say, `Wait a minute. We don't want to be connected with products,"' says Sid J. Sheinberg, the producer of Flipper. "We'll respect that decision, but often we want to find somebody who does."

The flood of movie marketing deals isn't likely to slow soon. In fact, this year might be just a warm-up for the summer of 1997, when the rerelease of Star Wars, the Jurassic Park sequel, and the new Batman flick, three of the most merchandised movie brands of all times, are slated to open. So keep those digital editing machines warm. There may be many more soda cans to remaster.

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