'Babies' Documentary Recruits Marketers Like a Blockbuster

Focus Features' Film Works With Johnson's Baby, March of Dimes to Connect With Moms

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- As "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "March of the Penguins" have proven, sometimes documentaries can compete among the biggest blockbusters at the box office. That's why Universal Pictures' Focus Features is releasing "Babies," a documentary about motherhood all over the world, on May 7, the same day as "Iron Man 2." Of course, there's just as many feature-length docs that don't find a mass audience. That's why "Babies" will be supported by what is believed to be the largest promotional program ever for a documentary, with no less than 10 marketing partners attached.

For "Babies," Focus is teaming up with Johnson's Baby, Kodak, the March of Dimes Foundation, the Medela hospital network, Stonyfield Farm's YoBaby Yogurt, MacLaren, Parents Network, Pampers, Tasty Baby snacks and Safety 1st car products. In addition, the studio is working with Buzz Agent for a social-media ambassador program to entice mommy bloggers and other moviegoers to promote the film on their blogs for a chance to win prizes and other incentives.

Stephanie Sperber, president of Universal's partnerships and licensing, likened the documentary's commercial appeal to that of "March of the Penguins," which won the Academy Award for best documentary and is the second-highest-grossing documentary behind "Fahrenheit 9/11." Except, unlike the broader target of families and animal enthusiasts for a movie such as "Penguins," the intended audience for "Babies" -- new moms -- is a bit tougher to lure to the theater.

"It's harder to be marketed to when you're sucked into that new-mom world. I have a 7-year-old, and I don't think I saw a movie for the first four years of her life," Ms. Sperber told Ad Age. "But everyone who sees the movie is blown away. That was the imperative -- to reach these people where they are through partnerships and allow influencers to see our film and create this overwhelming advocacy."

J&J Babies ad

A Johnson's Baby ad for the movie.

Universal declined to comment on production or marketing budgets, but if the $8 million budget for "Penguins" is any precedent, it's likely that partners for "Babies" are spending well into the mid-seven figures to promote it. And should "Babies" yield even half the $77 million "Penguins" grossed in 2005, it will still be considered a success by documentary standards. Even Disney's "Earth," a reassembling of footage from Discovery's "Planet Earth" series, managed to eke out $32 million despite that movie's successful TV and DVD runs.

The deals, executed by Universal's Holly Frank, director partnerships and licensing, are all tied to the film's message of sharing and connecting. Johnson's Baby, for example, is using its BabyCenter parenting network to get the word out about the movie while also promoting its line of products. "We really want to be the brand the mom reaches to for baby's first bath and the message of the movie really aligns with that," said Caitlin Pappas, general manager of Johnson's Baby Care.

The March of Dimes is taking a similar approach with a series of "Babies"-themed public-service announcements rolling out in cinemas and on radio, and it's hosting screenings across the country with a roster of celebrity-mom partners such as Julie Bowen, Melissa Joan Hart, Nancy O' Dell and Kellie Martin.

Chad Royal-Pascoe, March of Dimes' managing director-national strategic alliances, said the foundation has turned down promotions for baby-themed movies and TV shows in the past that they felt were "too sensationalized or dealing with the fringe issues of pregnancy." At its heart, "Babies" felt like a "90-minute commercial for the March of Dimes" because of its global scope and release on Mother's Day weekend. "The film is a good reinforcement that babies are what the March of Dimes is all about," he said.

Kodak is also launching a major social-media push encompassing a photo contest, online ads, e-newsletters across Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for "Babies." Premium brands such as MacLaren, Pampers, Tasty Baby and Safety 1st are focusing more on sweepstakes and giveaways.

With so many endemic partnerships geared toward new moms, David Brooks, Focus' president of worldwide marketing, hopes "Babies" strikes a chord with a broader female audience as well. "Beyond the moms who can't get out of the house, moms of any age are very nostalgic for that first year. We want to reach everyone from new moms to grandparents," he said.

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