Mark Burnett Is Ready for His Big-Screen Close-up. Are Marketers?

The TV Hit Master Options Books for Possible Brand-Packed Movie Adaptations

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LOS ANGELES -- Mark Burnett projects go hand-in-hand with marketers.
Because Mark Burnett's every entertainment move is calculated with marketers in mind, there's reason to believe he'll take the same approach to films.

In fact, everything from his well-known reality TV projects such as "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" to his new internet game show "Gold Rush" and an online movie promotion for the animated children's movie "Flushed Away" are jam-packed with advertisers.

But once Mr. Burnett makes the leap into feature films -- he's optioned rights to several books with plans to develop them into movies -- will the marketing community go with him? Can the business model he's created for TV and the web, where he's secured tens of millions of dollars in integration and sponsor fees, translate to the film world?

Options rights to children's fantasy books

Mr. Burnett recently optioned rights to the children's fantasy book series "The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel." The first volume in the planned six-part series, called "The Alchemyst," is set for a spring publication.

The book mixes elements of "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" but in a contemporary setting, making it a candidate for product integration. Other book options include a pair of "DaVinci Code"-like thrillers from Lewis Perdue, and Mr. Burnett has previously said he has other feature projects in the hopper.

Because his every entertainment move is calculated with marketers in mind, there's reason to believe he'll take the same approach to films. He's also dabbling in the feature world with one of his coming unscripted shows called "On the Lot." He's producing the series, which is reminiscent of the reality series "Project Greenlight," with big-screen maven Steven Spielberg for Fox.

"He'll do marketing-driven deals with marketing-driven studios. He'll option brand-friendly stories and distribute through brand-friendly studios," said one senior-level studio veteran. "Brands definitely want to get into film in a deeper, more meaningful way. It's a smart play for him, if he knows how to make a movie."

That remains to be seen, and Mr. Burnett hasn't yet announced a production partner, director or studio distributor. He declined to comment for this story.

Some Hollywood insiders say Mr. Burnett's enviable track record on TV could serve him well as he tries his hand at films.

Brands look for leadership

"Brands are looking for leadership to help them navigate this world," said Devrey Holmes, president of NMA Entertainment and Marketing. "He's been a leader."

At the same time, marketers are more educated about integrations and increasingly want to see a concrete return on their investment. The bubble -- during which time marketers flung themselves into branded entertainment for the sake of being there -- has burst.

"That's the environment he's dealing with now," said one senior-level Hollywood executive. "It's time for the serious-minded now, and they want some ROI analysis."

The feature-film world is fraught with challenges, especially to cost-sensitive marketers.

"For brands to invest millions of dollars in feature films, it's still a very risky, very high-profile proposition," said Ray Clark, founder and CEO of Omnicom's Marketing Arm, which works with more than 100 advertisers. "Very few marketers are willing to do that."

Marketers tend to get involved in iconic films, such as superhero flicks, and shy away from unproven concepts, perhaps putting Mr. Burnett at a disadvantage. But if his movies are based on strong-selling books with built-in fans, chances are better to draw in advertiser money.

Doesn't always have the golden touch

No one can hit a home run every time at bat, and Mr. Burnett has produced some disappointments, chief among them "The Contender." The boxing-based reality show, one of the most expensive ever created, went down for the count on NBC, never drawing more than 8 million viewers an episode. It switched networks, heading to Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN for its second season, where it's had decent ratings when compared to other cable shows.

Advertisers, who'd paid $10 million and up in integration and sponsorship fees, grumbled privately but stuck with the show as it changed networks. Toyota, which had forked over more than $14 million for season one, got that figure cut in half because of the poor ratings.

"Rock Star: Supernova," though it has a loyal fan base and helped CBS reach younger viewers, never reached the stellar levels of other talent competition shows such as "American Idol." Marketers, including Verizon Wireless, Microsoft's MSN and Honda, returned for a second season with stepped-up on-air and online sponsorship components.

Just this fall, there was a rash of advertiser defections from "Survivor: Cook Islands," though General Motors Corp., Home Depot, Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup executives said they'd decided during the upfront negotiations not to continue their sponsorship. They said they did not drop out of the show because of its controversial format that pits ethnic groups against one another.

Mr. Burnett's only foray into scripted programming, the half-hour "Commando Nanny," died before it ever aired on the former WB network. The show was based on Mr. Burnett's personal experience as a commando-turned-babysitter.
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