Strap on some star power

Grabbing onto the coattails of a film's star power can add real lustre to a brand. With big name flicks grabbing general awareness levels of more than 90%, such deals can mean millions and millions of dollars worth of publicity. But...

Grabbing onto the coattails of a film’s star power can add real lustre to a brand. With big name flicks grabbing general awareness levels of more than 90%, such deals can mean millions and millions of dollars worth of publicity. But while such tie-ins are a refined science south of the border – where most blockbusters are born – they’re still developing here in Canada.

It’s partly because there are a few more hurdles to clear when you’re dealing with distributors and branch offices one step removed from the action. However, for retailers and consumer goods companies, there are serious opportunities, as long as they’re willing to be flexible – and fast.

‘You learn to jump in this business,’ says Susan Smythe, VP publicity and promotion at Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Releasing in Toronto.

The need for speed is rooted in chronically short lead times for the American and foreign films Alliance Atlantis (AA) distributes in Canada. Besides distributing and promoting approximately 50 of its own films a year, AA is also the Canadian distributor for U.S. studios Miramax and New Line Cinema. It can get as little as two weeks’ notice of a film’s release date, and that’s true of the Canadian offices of the major Hollywood studios as well.

U.S. promotions are often locked in before Smythe and Julia Caslin, AA’s director of publicity and promotion, even receive any information on the movie. ‘We’re scrambling to find materials to produce P-O-Ps,’ says Caslin.

‘It sometimes scares our retail partners,’ says Smythe, ‘but once they work with us and know our professionalism, they learn to trust us.’

Time is just one of many difficulties of building cross-promotional film campaigns in Canada. There’s also money. Canadian budgets simply can’t match the Hollywood marketing machine. For instance, when Paramount Pictures’ anticipated blockbuster Tomb Raider opens this month, it will unleash a synergistic colossus of big-budget promotional tie-ins.

Firstly, the movie itself is one big product placement for the popular Tomb Raider video game by Eidos Interactive (developed by Core Design and born on Sony PlayStation). In addition, virtual heroine Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) drives a new Special Edition LR Defender Land Rover through her late 21st century world and wears a futuristic headset by Ericsson, a U.S. telecom company. Each placement partner has put multi-million-dollar budgets into related promotions, contests and advertising, as have power brands Pepsi Cola and Taco Bell. A multi-media platform campaign with NBC and the NBA rounds out the package.

All this comes before Paramount spends one dime from its own advertising budget on the film.

‘There isn’t a major Hollywood motion picture that doesn’t have product placement,’ adds Jim Murphy of Toronto’s TVA International, one of a handful of smaller Canadian distributors. ‘We just don’t have that luxury.’

Canada also does not have as many national chains or big brands to approach, Murphy points out. He sometimes has to call independent retailers store-by-store to achieve a national promotional presence. For Ginger Snaps, the Canadian horror film released last month, TVA isolated comic-book lovers as a prime target. In the States, Murphy would have just hooked up with Marvel, which already has a national network in place, he says. Here, TVA had to call almost 90 stores across the country to solicit retail prizes and set up poster distribution.

Finally, some films play to such small Canadian audiences that the distributor doesn’t even bother trying to forge partnerships. Vancouver-based Lion’s Gate Films concentrates more on publicity and straight advertising, than on promotional tie-ins. John Bain, VP distribution, explains, ‘It’s the nature of the films we do …more specialized, interesting and more controversial.’ This precludes mass appeal and therefore mass advertisers.

However, Tim Brown, VP distribution of Vancouver’s Keystone Entertainment, suggests matching niche products to niche films ‘because 500,000 hits is still 500,000 hits you didn’t have before.’

Bain also says that advance planning is crucial, that staff and resources devoted to ferreting out retail partners is necessary and, ‘most Canadian companies don’t have that.’

However, as Canada’s largest film producer and distributor, Alliance Atlantis does have the staff…and a can-do attitude. ‘There’s always a way to do something,’ says Caslin.

For a two-week limited release promotion, Alliance looks to the grassroots level – usually a simple exchange of movie passes for poster placement at local retailers. For a premiere, they might squeeze in retail prizes with a radio promotion, produce laser-copied tent cards and offer signage on site. There is little risk and no cost to the retail partner, other than the prize, if proffered.

The majority of Alliance Atlantis cross-promotions are much bigger deals: partnerships on a national level. The campaign for Bridget Jones’s Diary for instance, brought together Women’s Television Network (WTN) and Signature Vacations, which provided a trip for a mystery date promo. Alliance Atlantis brokered the deal and did all the leg work.

‘When we approach retailers, their first reaction is, ‘What do we have to do?’ They’re almost suspicious,’ says Smythe. ‘Once they understand that we almost act as their [ad] agency, they think it’s great.’

‘All we ask is that they share in the cost of the P-O-P,’ adds Caslin, a cost that can range from $5,000 to $10,000.

Ian McKinstray, marketing manager for Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Suzuki Canada, is convinced these national promos are a good deal. For the cost of a $14,000 motorcycle, Suzuki was able to leverage more than $100,000 worth of airtime on Space: The Imagination Station for a three-week campaign put together by 20th Century Fox for last summer’s release of X-Men.

The industry rule of thumb for return on investment of promotional dollars is a ratio of five-to-one, says McKinstray. Suzuki achieved eight-to-one.

Of course no deal is a good deal if it doesn’t reach the intended target market. ‘Whenever we get approached for movie tie-ins we take a long look at the demographics and how they would tie in to our products,’ says McKinstray. The target demo for the sport bike is ages 16 to 38 and the movie targeted 10 to 28. ‘There was a bit of a crossover, but if we can get them early, that’s great.’

Suzuki was also happy with the deal because it was a chance to expand its reach. The company frequently uses captive market vehicles like cycle magazines. ‘However, this allowed us to get exposure in non-traditional demographics, but still target the age category we want to bring in,’ says McKinstray.

Suzuki was particularly keen to sign the deal because it coincided with the launch of its new GSXR 750 motorcycle. Huge cutout

P-O-Ps of the X-Men with the motorcycle could be seen in Blockbuster video stores across the country.

Brand launches are a recurring theme because of the extra oomph a movie event can deliver to establish a new product. That was the thinking in New York when Clairol signed up to introduce its new Herbal Essences Haircolor line in the U.S. in conjunction with the pending MGM summer release of Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon.

This is a case of a natural tie-in, rather than one that’s simply demographically driven. ‘Hair colour is a heritage business for us,’ says Andrea Davey, senior brand manager for the Clairol product line, ‘and with such a great title, it is a great opportunity for a hair colour brand.’ Davey likes the positive image of the film, too. ‘It’s about a blonde who triumphs and throws that myth of dumb blondes up in the air.’ Of course, the demographics also work. The movie targets females aged 18 to 34, ‘perfect for a successful young trademark,’ concludes Davey.

The main plank of the multi-faceted campaign is an Internet-based contest inviting consumers to log onto the Web site. Entrants receive a free box of product and a chance to win a grand prize trip to the movie’s Hollywood premiere. The winner gets to be a movie star for the night and bring three friends along for the limo ride.

With a six-month prep period, Herbal Essences’ media manager Bart Gedney says he too felt the time crunch. ‘The industry usually likes 10 to 12 months lead time for this type of promotion.’ He can’t divulge the cost of the campaign, but in terms of the company’s overall marketing mix, it is second only behind TV advertising.

The hair colour line has already been launched in Canada, so the promotion will not be extended here. That does not mean, however, that another hair colour company can pick up the category rights where Clairol left off: competitors in the same category are verboten.

The only exception is when the U.S. company does not sell into Canada, which was the case for Imax Corporation’s new in-your-face concert film ALL ACCESS: Front Row. Backstage. LIVE!. U.S. promo partner Verizon is one of the largest suppliers of wireless communications products State-side, but does not have a presence in Canada.

‘Finding somebody in Canada to cover the category would have been acceptable,’ says Cindy Aylward, senior VP of sponsorships and partnerships at Imax’s Los Angeles office, but again, ‘the time frame did not allow for it.’

Two years is a preferable time frame, says Aylward. Six months are needed just to find a sponsor; 18 months to give partners enough time to be able to fully exploit the promotional opportunity.

ALL ACCESS is also Imax’s first foray into product placement. Besides helping to defer the costs of production, promotional partner Certs also brought a huge marketing budget to the table. As the film’s ‘presenting’ sponsor, the breath mint’s corporate name is forever part of the opening credits of the film.

Promotional partners are attracted by Imax’s high-income and highly educated family demographic, says Aylward, as well as its association with high technology. That’s why new tech companies have come on board: To launch its new Pentium 4, Intel signed up for two years to sponsor Cyberworld, Imax’s first 3-D animation flick. As well, in a deal that includes online programming, AOL has entered into a five-year arrangement with Imax and the Smithsonian Institute to promote the 3-D picture Galapagos, which explores the biological diversity of the famous archipelago.

Long-term deals suit Imax because, ‘it does not follow the Hollywood weekend formula,’ says Aylward. With fewer theatres, an Imax film does not make US$100 million in the first week. It needs a couple of years to show a profit and for promotional relationships to mature.

Back in Canada, long-range deals help save time and add cumulative value to partnerships. The Alliance Atlantis promoters are excited about their first three-picture ‘strategic alliance’ with the youth-oriented fast-food chain, New York Fries. The fact that their product is available in many movie theatres is an added bonus. The first movie of the deal was Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky last November; the second is another Jackie Chan flick, Rush Hour 2, to be released in August (the third movie has yet to be selected).

Always on the lookout for innovative ways to package new partnerships, Alliance Atlantis’ Smythe and Caslin are on the brink of their greatest opportunity yet. There are seven whole months before the release of the highly anticipated epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, so for once, time is on their side in the search for perfect partners.