Sadly, no amount of coaxing could fire up Warner Bros.' blockbuster gone bust -- and that's left the studio stuck with the prospect of having to deliver Madison-meets-Vine "make-goods," or at least find ways to appease tie-in partners that got far less exposure than expected.
"Speed Racer" was meant to be one of the summer's brightest vehicles, a resplendent return to form for the billion-dollar "Matrix" visionaries Larry and Andy Wachowski. It was also intended to recast the infamous blood-and-bullets Joel Silver, of the wildly profitable "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" film franchises, as a kid-friendly producer. And, finally, "Speed Racer" was to have been another perfect summer thoroughbred for consumer brands -- including McDonald's, Target, General Mills, Lego, Yokohama tires, Esurance and Puma -- to climb onto.
In the end, it would do none of those things.
"Racer" crashed badly, right out of the gate: A week after its opening weekend, it had barely crossed $21 million in domestic grosses -- and that was after the $120 million film had opened at barely $19 million on May 9.
TV model ported to movies
In the TV business, when a show's ratings underperform, the network issues a "make-good" -- essentially, an offer to run the sponsors' ads in better-performing shows to mop up the viewers missed the first time round.
But what about the movie business, where promotions involve some 70 million "Speed Racer" Happy Meals or thousands of custom-made sneakers?
Is Warner preparing the "movie make-good"?
Warner Bros. Senior VP-Worldwide Promotions Gene Garlock was unavailable to comment on "Speed Racer," but Mr. Silver, to his credit, was.
Reached at his offices on the Warner lot, Mr. Silver answered his phone dispirited: "I've had better weeks. But being an R-rated kind of guy, this is a whole new world for me -- having promotional partners at all."
Asked about the studio's plans to do damage control with those promotional partners, he said, "There's nothing good that can come of this, but, yes: I am sure they'll make good with them. I can't say Warner will go, 'Here's two "Harry Potters" for one "Speed Racer,"' but there are lots of movies around here."
Few "Racer" promotional partners were willing to speak on the record, but one who did was remarkably unruffled. "Most of our promotion was leading up to the movie," said John Swigart, CMO for San Francisco-based Esurance, a company well-known for its animated TV commercials featuring -- what else? -- a race-car-driving special agent.
"We wanted to find another brand that was relevant and that had our look and feel. We feel that was accomplished, whether it opened at $20 million or $80 million," Mr. Swigart said.
He added: "The situation would be very different if we'd paid for placement in the movie, because in the contract, the studio makes no guarantees about [a film's] performance."
So despite being a box-office disaster for Warner, "Racer" was actually quite lucky on that front: It had few discernible product-placement deals, thanks largely to directors who insisted that "Speed Racer" inhabit a totally fantastical world.
Given the film's $80 million in promotional partnerships, there may be more than a little discord, but because "Speed Racer" seems to lack any paid integrations, it could actually escape with few seriously aggrieved promotional partners.
Toy-playing audience happy
There's good news on the licensing front, too. Mr. Silver noted that the very reason the film flopped at the box office is the same reason it will be counted at least a modest success when it comes to consumer products: The New Yorker's critic, Anthony Lane, dismissed the film as "of no conceivable interest to anyone over the age of 10," and in point of fact, he was right: Young boys were the only ones to turn out in droves for it.
"Usually, when a film doesn't do well, it can have an adverse affect on sales," said Brad Globe, president of Warner Consumer Products. "But this film violates that premise: We're selling as well as any film we've ever made, because boys 4 to 8 are the ones who buy the toys."
So outside of its charred box-office results, "Speed Racer" has skirted disaster in ancillary markets. But any brands considering a costly product integration into a seemingly sure-thing summer blockbuster might do well to remember Speed Racer's on-screen speech to a dirty corporate fat cat: "In our house, the major sponsors are kind of like the devil. I don't mean to offend you, sir, and I do appreciate your offer, but after all we've been through, I don't think this kind of deal is for me."