Special Report: Motion Pictures

LOS ANGELES When it comes to the upfront, movie studios want to have their popcorn and eat it too. On the one hand, they don’t want to test the tried-and-true impact of a $50 million TV campaign while promoting a $100 million movie. Meantime, they realize that so many other emerging media platforms cost less and are more relevant to young consumers whose rears they want to put in multiplex seats.

With the rising costs of making a film—the average outlay topping $100 million, with as much as half that amount going to marketing, according to the Motion Picture Association of America—one can expect more studios opting for an integrated approach to marketing, with smaller expenditures devoted to the networks during the upfront negotiations. Further, studios will likely depend more upon their promotional partners—McDonald’s, Coke, Heineken and the like—for above-the-line-spending support. Last year, the studios spent $933.1 million promoting films via network prime time, down from $966.7 million in 2005, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

“As the 30-second commercial becomes less relevant, so does the upfront,” says Julie Mulholland, founder of the brand- integration agency Mulholland Drive Entertainment. “Networks are charging more for less, which has made the cost/value relationship increasingly illogical. So at some point, you have to know that advertisers are going to say, enough.” Still, she says, while they have options, “The market is so fragmented that it’s hard to compete with the critical mass that broadcast delivers.”

Last year, releases such as New Line Cinema’s Snakes on a Plane demonstrated that a movie can take on a life of its own independent of TV marketing. But as that example also shows, Internet chatter doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. The movie famously tanked at the box office.

On the flip side, 20th Century Fox last year supplemented TV spots for Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with such viral elements as sneak peaks at trailers “leaked” to YouTube and MySpace.

According to Yahoo, consumers devote about 16 percent of time spent with all media on the Web, while marketers invest only 7 percent of media dollars in Internet. Those who follow the sector expect the studios to pour more bucks into alternative media options, as they become more adept at developing sophisticated, original multichannel marketing plans.

The movie business is such, of course, that buying blocks of TV time as early as the upfront is a difficult prospect. Unlike the launch of a consumer product line, which has been researched and planned for years in advance, studios start each year with a likely-to-be-changed list of potential movie releases. Most release dates are rough estimates. Filming schedules get bogged down, movie titles get changed, edits get made and release dates get pushed back—all of which makes the upfront an afterthought for studio marketing execs.

Furthermore, as every armchair Roger Ebert knows, tentpole films tend to be released during the summer months— also known as TV’s no man’s land, rerun season. Films released on holiday weekends notwithstanding, the studios’ fall and winter slates—which coincide with premieres of network series—tend to be reserved for more critically praised, lower-budget art and awards fare.

Among the theatrical releases likely to generate the most media spending in late 2007 are Enchanted from the Walt Disney Co., The Golden Compass from New Line Cinema, Bee Movie from DreamWorks, Sweeney Todd from Paramount and Foodfight! from Lionsgate.

Those who follow the movie business believe that in order to get studios to stay tuned in to TV, the broadcast networks must offer more than increasingly expensive ad slots amid considerably more clutter.

“Networks can offer value that can only be gotten during the upfront, such as storyline integration, product placement, co-promotion of marquee programming and digital components to enhance and drive brand associations across multiple platforms and properties,” says Mulholland. “If the networks can bundle their assets for the ‘here and now only,’ they will give advertisers the incentive they need to come to the table in May.”

As for those marketers who do commit big dollars ahead of a motion picture’s release, Mulholland says she has seen cash-strapped clients overspend too early in the season, missing chances for marketing tie-ins that pop up down the road. “I constantly see opportunities that are great for my clients,” she says. “But they say, ‘I spent all my money at the upfront last year.”