Hollywood moguls watching the next Super Bowl may well choke on their cigars when they see the cavalcade of movie commercials on their TV screens in these frugal times.
At first blush, it may be hard to understand why film distributors are paying upward of $3 million a pop for one 30-second spot. Movie ads, which are really just shortened trailers, usually rank at the bottom of "most memorable" commercial lists. Why spend all that money when movies get lots of free publicity, particularly on websites, and when a look at box-office history shows that quite a few films with Super Bowl blast-offs went on to bomb in theaters?
Yet, films will again be a big category in the Feb. 1 game (though NBC isn't providing specific names yet), and this embrace should be no surprise. Hollywood needs "quick load" media because movies have short shelf lives -- typically four to six weeks in theaters -- and the Super Bowl is an ideal marketing vehicle for just about any male-oriented film.
Movie ads are essentially free samples of movies. The brief montages of clips over time have been proven to be the most effective selling approach for this particular product, though they're rarely as fanciful as Madison Avenue's imaginative Super Bowl spots. While the selling purpose and sponsor are largely forgotten, who can ever forget that 2000 Super Bowl commercial showing fake gerbils being fired from a cannon? In the growing tradition of viewers replaying and dissecting Super Bowl ads online or on DVRs, quick-cut movie-trailer ads with famous faces and high production values are engrossing in repeats.
Finally, the movie industry is not in the poorhouse like automobiles, financial institutions and retail. Domestic box office is up 1.8% year-to-date, according to Boxofficemojo.com, while other larger parts of the movie industry are strong: DVDs are being revitalized by the Blu-ray high-def format, and cable TV networks continue to scoop up movies for their own audiences.
Movie marketing executives who sprung for Super Bowl blasts will certainly sweat their decisions. Sure, Paramount's ad for "Iron Man" a year ago is credited with starting a buzz that launched the movie to a blockbuster $318 million in domestic box office. And in 1996, Fox's "Independence Day" commercial created a sensation with the "money shot" of the White House being obliterated by aliens; the film went on to gross $306 million domestically.
On the other hand, commercials for "Pride," "Running Scared" and "The World's Fastest Indian" have run in Super Bowls since 2006. Don't worry if you can't quite place these films. They all bombed, with none even reaching a meager $10 million in box office.~ ~ ~
Robert Marich is author of "Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics," whose second edition SIU Press will publish in January 2009.