In Tough Times, Is Excess a Laughing Matter?
LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Amid weekly stock-market paroxysms, rising bankruptcies, the continuing mortgage crisis and a surge in irrecoverable credit-card debt, Disney's Touchstone Pictures is readying what's looking to be an ill-timed release of "Confessions of a Shopaholic."
"The timing sucks," said one Hollywood marketing chief. "I don't envy them."
The romantic comedy is an adaptation of Sophie Kinsella's eponymous best-selling novel that producer Jerry Bruckheimer will bring to the big screen this coming Valentine's Day. In "Shopaholic," Australian actress Isla Fisher stars as Becky Bloomwood, a young woman who's piled up $9,400 in credit card debt snapping up Zac Posen dresses, Todd Oldham belts, Gucci handbags and Prada shoes -- even though as a journalist at a personal-finance magazine, she ought to know better.
People familiar with the production say that what could have been a valentine to brands and a love affair of soft marketing dollars now is causing some hand-wringing at the Bruckheimer bungalows. The Dow is repeatedly shown cresting 12,000 points. One character secures a massive credit line he doesn't need just to show off how powerful he is. And Hollywood talent reps familiar with the project say that concocting a new ending in some way acknowledges the uncertain economic climate is also being considered.
Moreover, many of the high-end fashion brands featured prominently in the film's trailer -- at least so far -- have neither integration deals nor tie-ins to capitalize on the free exposure that "Shopaholic" might generate. Whether that's unintended or by design isn't clear.
Sarah Rosen, public-relations director for Zac Posen, said that despite being featured in the trailer, it was a "happy accident" that the designer's fashions were chosen. Todd Oldham belts are mentioned, and the attention came as "a total surprise to us," said Jennifer Nielsen, the designer's assistant. Neither clothing label has plans to tie into the film formally. A spokeswoman for Henri Bendel said that the high-end store, featured in the film and owned by Columbus, Ohio-based Limited Brands, "would love to tie in" to the movie, but hadn't received any clear marketing plans from Disney as to how it might do so.
Last June, Revlon's Almay Cosmetics announced it had hired model-turned-actress Leslie Bibb, who has a supporting role in the film, as a "brand ambassador." But Revlon spokeswoman Katrina Bobell could not confirm that any tie-in program was in the works.
Mr. Bruckheimer declined to comment. A studio spokeswoman, Heidi Trotta, wouldn't comment on marketing plans, but said Disney was not making any changes to the film, which wrapped in May.
But several marketing executives at rival studios, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Disney has a tough and tricky sell ahead, and offered sympathetic advice.
"I would play up the cartoon-y nature of it," said one, "I mean, how can you make light of a girl being $9,400 in debt? You never saw "Sex and the City" as a show about love in the time of AIDS: They kept it light and presented this fairy-tale version of life. 'Sex and the City' doesn't show the reality of what it's like to be 40 without a man. It's cotton candy."
At odds with brands
But the same marketing chief noted that such a strategy is at odds with the consumer brands the studio might seek to court. "Your partners at Maybelline or Revlon [are] fighting to keep people buying makeup. They're asking themselves, 'Do we want to do this, or do we cut back and focus on our core business?'"
Bantam Dell, the publisher of Ms. Kinsella's "Shopaholic" franchise, is banking that it will benefit it, regardless of which brands integrate or tie-in. Barb Burg, a spokeswoman for the imprint, said an additional 1 million "tie-in" copies of "Confessions" -- with Ms. Fisher on the cover, naturally -- were being printed in trade and mass-market-paperback editions that will hit stores Dec. 30.
But then there are those who say escapist fare might be more important than ever in a recession. "If its good entertainment, it won't matter what's going on in the world," said a studio marketing chief. "'Iron Man' was the same way: It used the current war on terror as a backdrop, but was a hit. If it's entertaining, it can withstand any circumstance."
Others in Hollywood are not so sure. "How can you make a comedy about a shopaholic when the economy is in dire straits?" asked an incredulous Stanley Weiser, screenwriter of "Wall Street," Oliver Stone's now-classic tale of '80s greed run amok, adding, "I find it kind of obscene, frankly."
Mr. Weiser, who just wrote "W" for Mr. Stone, knows about life intruding on art: With hedge funds hemorrhaging, 20th Century Fox earlier this month threw out another screenwriter's draft of a sequel to his "Wall Street" -- wherein a recently released-from-prison Gordon Gekko returns to run a hedge fund.