Why Gatorade's Soccer Flick Is a Branded-Entertainment Rarity

'Gracie' Is First Marketer-Backed Movie to Find Distributor Before Cameras Rolled

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CHICAGO -- Like its PepsiCo sibling Mountain Dew, which financed a successful action-sports documentary in 2005, Gatorade has entered the moviemaking business. But the marketer is risking big bucks by attempting to communicate its "will to win" message through a teen sports drama with a triumph-over-obstacles theme.
Gatorade's involvement with the independent movie "Gracie" was contigent on the film getting studio commitment for distribution.

In financing "Gracie," a soccer drama to be released June 1 through Time Warner's Picturehouse, Gatorade said it is the first marketer to land a major studio-distribution deal for an independent motion picture before the first scene was shot. That's a ground-floor entry most Madison & Vine players would love to have.

Based on actual events
The film is a fictionalized account based loosely on the real-life Shue family. Set in 1978, the story follows Gracie Brown, a teenager who overcomes obstacles to get a chance to play soccer on the high-school boys team after her older brother, the team's star, is killed in an accident.

Andrew Shue stars in the film with his sister Elizabeth, an Academy Award nominee for "Leaving Las Vegas"; her husband, director Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth"), helmed the story in the family's home state of New Jersey.

Andrew and Elizabeth's older brother died while Andrew was in college; Elizabeth, without a girls' team to play on, played for years on boys' teams.

Gatorade's involvement dates back to 2004, when Mr. Shue approached Dave Burwick, then Pepsi-Cola North America's chief marketing officer, with a treatment of his film after seeing Mountain Dew's success with the snowboarding documentary "First Descent." (Mountain Dew formed MD Films to fully finance and release action sports and music-driven feature films; it produced "First Descent" with branded-entertainment shop Embassy Row.)

"I told them our personal story, then the movie's story, and he thought it matched up with Gatorade," Mr. Shue said in a phone interview during the film's promotional tour.

Marketer wanted studio commitment
"We fell in love with Gracie's will to win. But we were looking for a studio commitment before we even rolled one foot of film, and that's never been done before," said Dustin Cohn, director-innovations for Gatorade and Propel.

After final negotiations with two studios, Mr. Shue and Gatorade inked a domestic-distribution deal with Picturehouse in May 2006; filming began last August.

To make a deal viable for Gatorade, Mr. Shue, a freshman producer, had to get the film distributed to at least 1,000 theater screens for a guaranteed release date. Besides Gatorade, several other investors -- including the state of New Jersey and Octagon Asset Management, an asset-based lender -- backed the $10 million production. Gatorade contributed about a third of the cost, Mr. Shue said.

Gatorade will promote the film through in-store displays; 8 million 15-bottle packs in national grocery and mass merchant chains will carry a Gatorade-produced instructional DVD starring soccer stars Landon Donovan and Mia Hamm. (A condensed version of the instructional video will be included in the film's DVD.)

Other sponsors, including Bed, Bath & Beyond, CafeMom and Goldman Sachs, did not pay for production, but kicked in with promotional tie-ins and funds to defray advertising costs.

Post-championship slump
If successful, "Gracie" could be a turning point for Gatorade's sales as the sports-drink brand is going through a post-championship slump. In 2006, sales volume broke the million-gallon mark to make it the No. 5 liquid-beverage brand. But for the first quarter of this year, Gatorade's sales performance has been not been as strong.

Gatorade volume grew only 0.2% in grocery and mass merchants in the first quarter as market share fell 2.4%, according to Beverage Digest. Rival Coca-Cola Co.'s Powerade, by comparison, grew volume 18.7% and share 2.3%. Sports drinks as a category saw growth slow dramatically, up only 3.2% in the first quarter compared to an 18.3% burst in the year-ago period.

The film has received mostly positive reviews for its family-friendly fare, and one critic called wrote it was "like 'Karate Kid' but with soccer." However, Slant.com reviewer Ed Gonzalez panned the movie: "It comes to play out like an extended television commercial, which it practically is given the very suspicious prominence of Gatorade bottles throughout."

Subtle and organic placement
Not so, said Mr. Shue. "They were really cool in not wanting to push themselves in the movie," he said. The review "surprises me," said Mr. Cohn, noting that Gatorade had written into its contract that there would be only very subtle and organic product placement. For example, Gracie kicks a soccer ball to knock over a Gatorade bottle; the beverage is seen in a refrigerator and on the sidelines during game scenes. "It has to be authentic and credible."

Mr. Shue thinks brand-financed films may be the way of the future. "There's a real reason to do this in this way, especially for smaller films," he said. "Brands have to figure out ways to get their messages out and the emotion of their brands out in different ways."

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Jean Halliday contributed to this report.
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