Should Brands Become Movie Moguls?

Universal's Shmuger thinks so

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% Could a Hollywood movie studio act more like an advertising agency, getting into the trenches with a brand and co-creating content that would serve as both a compelling marketing message and a resonant piece of entertainment?

At least one studio marketer thinks the two sides, which have had their fair share of ups and downs, need to be more intertwined. One-off product-placement deals and tie-in partnerships can be shallow, and in a jam-packed media environment, there needs to be some deeper thinking, according to a speech given recently by Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures.

"My question is, can we work with brands so we're not force-feeding them our already-baked product?" Shmuger said. "Can we co-create something that's emotionally satisfying and powerfully targeted? I don't believe those have to be in opposition." This theme of collaboration and content creation is analogous to the ideas posited by Coca-Cola President Steve Heyer during his highly publicized call-to-arms speech at February's Madison+Vine conference on branded entertainment in Beverly Hills.

Shmuger himself talked publicly about the ideas for the first time during a recent entertainment-marketing conference in Los Angeles and afterward with Madison+Vine. He is the highest-ranking Hollywood studio executive to champion a co-production model for films that's similar to what's happening currently in unscripted television.

He plans to discuss the concepts soon with potential brand marketer partners. Among his suggestions: brands should allot a portion of their research and development budgets for script development; they should consider sponsoring a season or slate of movies, as they would a concert tour, instead of popping in and out of film promotion. Studios should streamline their processes to be more inviting to brands, and should be more resolute in getting talent to cooperate with corporate partners.

Robert Riesenberg, director of Interpublic's Magna Global Entertainment, said the story, and not the marketing message, must come first. "If you're trying to create a story for a brand, then you're starting at a very bad place," he said. "But if a creative idea has an application for a candy company or a car, that's great." The folks at BMW and Fallon might disagree.

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Miramax and Coors last year formed an ongoing partnership for product placement in films and at premieres, and Revolution Studios and Ford have aligned in a non-exclusive deal. The Coors/Miramax relationship does not extend to co-production; Coors did get its spokestwins into the recently released hit "Scary Movie 3." The Ford/Revolution agreement will give the studio access to the carmaker's R&D, and will put the partners together early in the filmmaking process, but it doesn't specify co-production either.

Co-producing films is "fraught with problems," said Lee Gabler, co-chairman and partner of CAA. "Brands already spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, why spend millions on movie production?" he said. "I can see it in television because there's an immediate response and it's not as big an investment." Gabler said he wouldn't recommend co-producing films to any of CAA's corporate clients.

Movies' ability to "emblazon an image into the popular culture" makes them an unparalleled marketing vehicle, Shmuger said. But Hollywood, known for its slick PR machinery, hasn't been good at communicating its own best selling point, he said.

"Brands are dependent on creating images that resonate," Shmuger said."There's no better place to do that than on a movie screen. If the project can be developed to be organic by design, the opportunities are endless for creating value to both parties. You have to approach it strategically, not exploitatively."

Pitfalls do abound. There's always the danger of over-commercialization. Talent, always a variable in film promotion, has to get in line, and studio execs have to be more forceful about making actors understand the value of brands' marketing muscle, Shmuger said. And there's still a huge cultural divide between those in Hollywood and those outside of it. Knocking down that wall would require better communication and a new level of candor that could be difficult to reach.

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