What Game? Look At The Ad!

Moviemakers score big with Super Bowl commercials

You know it's Super Bowl season in Hollywood. Top talent is switching focus from movies to 30- and 60-second ads that dazzle, that wow, and keep millions of sports fans glued to their sets during the commercial breaks. And with average production budgets hitting $1 million--triple the average cost of making a typical commercial--top-rung directors and special effects houses are finding the small-screen work lucrative.

Director/producer brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 Fargo was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, are producing a commercial for Honda Motor Co.'s Odyssey minivan. George Lucas' Industrial Light + Magic is reanimating Steven Spielberg's E.T. for Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., as a spokesman who urges drivers to buckle up. And Michael Bay, director of last summer's Armageddon, is being paid $30,000 a day to give Nike Inc.'s spot high-tech pizzazz.

And why not? Companies that advertise on the championship telecast pay dearly for it--$1.6 million for one half-minute--but are rewarded with a domestic audience that is expected to exceed 140 million. The only thing that comes close is--what else?--the Oscars.

FINANCIAL "FX". So companies like first-time Bowl advertiser First Union Corp. are willing to spend a lot on production to make sure they'll be noticed. "We wanted to run with the big dogs," says Jim Garrity, First Union's senior vice-president. "It's all about breaking through the clutter." First Union has hired ILM, creators of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs, to craft a $1.5 million Super Bowl spot dramatizing the high-tech side of finance with a computer-generated shot of helicopters carrying off a building.

The Super Bowl may be the big showcase. But cranking out glossy spots for the small screen is becoming a year-round source of earnings for moviemakers. At both ILM and Digital Domain (of Titanic fame), ads account for nearly one-third the revenues. And commercials offer nice margins--usually around 20%. One particularly cost-effective feature: Special effects generated for movies can often be resurrected for ads, lowering overall costs and raising that old bottom line.

Major Hollywood studios want some of the action, too. Both Sony Picture's Imageworks special-effects unit and Pacific Data Images, computer graphics specialists on the animated Antz for DreamWorks SKG, are beefing up their advertising production teams. Says Jim Morris, Lucas' Digital president, who oversees ILM: "Advertisers are always looking for something that's never been done before." Put that together with a rapidly growing number of advertisers willing to fork over millions, and even Spielberg might be tempted.

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