Wal-Mart Plays Big Role in Bringing New Christmas Film to Masses

Retailer to Distribute Marketer-Filled 'Holidaze' Exclusively

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LOS ANGELES -- A new reindeer and his friends -- as well as a few marketers -- are getting ready to step onto Rudolph's holiday turf.

Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola Co. and Campbell's Soup are part of Madison Road's animated movie "Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn't Hapen."

Madison Road Entertainment, which produced this summer's brand-filled reality show "Treasure Hunters" and lined up marketers for Mark Burnett's "The Apprentice," has produced the stop-motion animated movie "Holidaze: The Christmas That Almost Didn't Happen," starring Rusty the reindeer. The company is hoping the film's characters become a holiday franchise.

$2 million to produce

Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola Co. and Campbell's Soup are part of the production, which Madison Road self-financed for less than $2 million.

In the film, which includes music from two "High School Musical" scribes, Rusty the reindeer (no relation to Rudolph and his red nose) runs away from the North Pole and struggles to find the meaning of Christmas in the big city. Disney Channel regulars Dylan and Cole Sprouse ("The Suite Life of Zack and Cody") and Emily Osment ("Hannah Montana"), as well as Fred Savage, Paul Rodriguez and Gladys Knight, provided voices for the characters. And the script was penned by "American Dreams" producer Jonathan Prince and "Hope & Faith" producer Peter Murietta.

The marketers and their products are integrated into the 60-minute film in various ways.

Wal-Mart's pivotal off-screen role

A pivotal scene takes place inside a Wal-Mart store. The Coca-Cola bears make a cameo, and Coke cups are placed in front of judges in an "American Idol" spoof, "Holiday Idol." Mrs. Claus also cooks Campbell's Soup in a cooking show she thinks she stars in.

But Wal-Mart is also the exclusive retail distribution partner for the DVD, and it plans to promote the film and characters. In addition to in-store displays pushing the DVD, Wal-Mart plans to use the film's characters on its in-store TV network to promote other merchandise that the retailer sells. To do that, Madison Road and Bix Pix Entertainment, which produced the film's 120 puppets and animation, created original content to play throughout the stores on the screens.

As part of its deal with Wal-Mart, Madison Road will split an undisclosed percentage of the revenue collected from sales of the DVD, which have already hit Wal-Mart's seasonal section. The DVD, priced at $9.98, will become part of the company's new-release offerings Nov. 21.

Wal-Mart's TV operation is said to reach more than 130 million viewers every month.

"It's very difficult to launch a new series of characters," said Jak Severson, CEO of Madison Road Entertainment. "When you're attempting such a feat, you want to go in with as many ways to get the audience familiarized with them as quickly as possible. Wal-Mart has all this time and exposure [with its in-store network], and we wanted to use this as a way for shoppers to get to know the characters."

Courting fans of CBS's 'Rudolph' special

A shortened 43-minute version of the film will also air on ABC on Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. A cable run is being negotiated. Madison Road is viewing any TV specials as a way to market and sell more DVDs, and it is trying to court the same viewers that have turned "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" into an annual hit on CBS. Last year's ratings were the highest for the special in five years -- the program was watched by 15.7 million people.

Initial plans had called for Coke and Campbell's to also help promote the film through additional media spending, but the two companies couldn't finalize their plans in time for the release. That's partly because the film's production was rushed in order to make its November release. It got the green light in May and was completed in October.

It is still yet to be determined how much Wal-Mart, Coke and Campbell's will pay Madison Road for their integrations into the film. The final figure will be based on the "number of eyeballs" the movie generates, along with sales figures of the DVD and TV ratings.

Reasonable expectations of success

"The marketers are participants in the form of the exposure they'll get," Mr. Severson said. "We get paid depending on the level of audience." But that level must meet expectations that Madison Road and the marketers came up with. "There are reasonable guesses on lows and highs."

Madison Road wanted to include the brands not only for their potential media support, but because "I'm a firm believer in that anytime you can make things more real, it helps make the story seem more real," Mr. Severson said. "We're not selling anything. Brands play more of an innocuous role, but it's fairly humorous."

As an example, he pointed to the sequence that features the Coca-Cola bears. "They're such great icons," Mr. Severson said. "They're instantly recognizable. We thought it would add a lot of value to the project."

Representatives from Wal-Mart, Coke and Campbell were unavailable for comment.

Other marketers have tried to launch their own holiday characters in the past. Target, for instance, brought out its snowman Snowden in 1997, complete with a line of licensed merchandise, TV commercials, an animated holiday film and even an ice-skating show.

If successful, "Holidaze" would give Wal-Mart its own entertainment property to push throughout the holidays and not just around Christmas. Last year, the retail giant had a similar exclusive deal with Disney to distribute the animated film "The 3 Wise Men" direct to DVD.

Other holiday titles planned

Madison Road plans to produce several more holiday features starring characters from "Holidaze." They include titles for Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, Easter and Halloween, featuring Albert the Turkey, Cupid, the Easter Bunny and two ghosts, respectively.

"The aim is that each of these characters will have their own special related to their own holiday," Mr. Severson said. "Depending on how well it goes [with 'Holidaze'], by January, we'll be in production on the Thanksgiving show."

No brands have yet been approached for that film.

"We will write the script and see what the writer's built in to see what makes sense," Mr. Severson said.
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