Warner Bros. First Studio to Ink Promo Deal With Pharmaceutical Giant

Cartoon About Dancing Penguins Ideal Vehicle for Roche's Flu Message

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LOS ANGELES -- Better movie marketing through chemistry?
Drug maker Roche will run an anti-flu TV and print campaign using the tap-dancing penguins from 'Happy Feet,' a distinct advantage of aligning with an animated film -- no prima donna actors.

Warner Bros. Pictures has made a deal with Roche Laboratories around the coming family flick "Happy Feet" in a first-of-its-kind alliance between a Hollywood studio and a pharmaceutical giant. With its winter theme and cuddly characters -- singing and dancing penguins at the South Pole -- "Happy Feet" was an ideal vehicle for Roche to tout its health and wellness message in the heart of cold and flu season. Roche is the maker of prescription antiviral flu drug Tamiflu.

The deal shows that new categories of marketers are willing to take a risk on Hollywood's unpredictable box office.

An odd-couple pairing

While it might seem an incongruous match between a pharmaceutical company and a young-skewing animated film, the ground has already been broken by car makers, tourism bureaus and other adult-targeted marketers that have used entertainment-linked programs to reach out to children as influencers of family purchases.

As entertainment marketers are increasingly under fire for using junk food to help promote their fare, studios are looking at other categories for a media and promotional boost to draw crowds to the theaters. Hollywood executives have turned to wireless carriers, insurance companies and high-traffic retail chains instead of continuing to rely on the traditional fast food, soda and snack partners. In such an environment, deep-pocketed pharmaceutical companies could become a prime contender for tie-in status.

Those marketers have dipped their toes in the water ever so slightly up to this point. Pfizer signed a deal with the William Morris talent agency to try to wedge brands like Lipitor, Viagra and Celebrex into TV shows, movies and other entertainment. The deal later lapsed amid a flap with the Food and Drug Administration over some of Pfizer's products and advertising around them. Airborne, a popular immune-system booster, set up shop at the Sundance Film Festival in January to woo A-list celebrities and young tastemakers who attend the winter event.

Big seller for Roche

Roche, a Swiss firm, markets prescription drugs such as Boniva, Accutane and Naprosyn and other medicines used to treat everything from anemia and high blood pressure to osteoporosis and HIV. It's the world's largest producer of cancer medicines. The marketer recently reported a 20% increase in third-quarter sales, attributed mainly to cancer drugs and Tamiflu.

Roche executives said they were drawn to "Happy Feet" because of its wholesome storyline and wintry setting as a backdrop to talk to moms about flu season. "The Flu Facts campaign represents a new approach for the industry, combining disease awareness and education with pop culture and creativity," Mike McGuire, VP-anti-infectives at Roche, said in a statement.

The marketer, which has never done an entertainment tie-in before, specifically said the campaign around "Happy Feet" is not Tamiflu-branded, per legal regulations on direct-to-consumer advertising of medicine. People who go to flufacts.com can be directed, though, to the Tamiflu home page, and TV, print and online ads connected to the movie mention Roche by name.

Cartoon stars willing to shill

The marketer will run a TV and print campaign using the movie's tap-dancing penguins, a distinct advantage of aligning with an animated film. Some advertisers that have hooked up with Hollywood's live-action films have been stymied in their efforts to use high-wattage stars in their campaigns. That's not a problem with animation, and in fact, studios have gone out of their way to create custom art and animation for use in partners' ads.

The campaign broke this week, and in an interesting move, Roche opted not to promote a specific drug in the spot, but gives viewers "steps" to diagnosing and treating the flu and sends them to the website flufacts.com, which further hypes the movie. Ad copy says, "To fight the flu, the stars of 'Happy Feet' would like to show you some new steps," as a baby penguin happily tap dances away on screen. One is, "Ask about prescription antivirals." While no product is named, that, of course, would include Roche's Tamiflu.

Roche also is expected to use its clout with doctors, pharmacies and other health-care venues to promote "Happy Feet," which will put movie, which opens Nov. 17, into places that the studio's usual media buy would not reach.

There's been a glut of animated fare this year, and industry pundits have been warning of audience fatigue toward the genre. That's been in evidence in some recent releases such as "Everyone's Hero," "The Ant Bully" and "The Wild," all of which fizzled at the box office. On the other hand, Sony, in its first animated all-family fare, scored with a $23 million launch of "Open Season." The movie has gone on to make $70 million so far.

Crowded holiday schedule

More animation is headed to the multiplex around the holidays, including "Flushed Away" from DreamWorks and Paramount and Paramount's "Charlotte's Web," which is a mix of live action and computer-generated animation. A perennial powerhouse is missing from the frame. Pixar, now owned by Walt Disney Co., has adopted a summer release schedule for its animated fare, allowing for a holiday release of the DVD. (This year, it's "Cars.")

In "Happy Feet," Warner Bros. executives hope they will have a holiday hit to buoy an otherwise lackluster year. The studio was first in box-office receipts in 2005, with $1.38 billion from major blockbusters such as "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and "Batman Begins." But this year it has been punctuated by losers including "Poseidon" and "Lady in the Water." The violent gangster flick "The Departed" has been one of the few bright spots on its recent slate.

"Happy Feet" was created in motion capture, an animation style that's been refined since its feature debut with Warner Bros.' "Polar Express." Savion Glover served as the model for its tap-dance sequences. It aims to capitalize on the popularity of the cute critters ever since the Oscar-winning documentary "March of the Penguins."

Blockbuster's unusual promotion

Warner Bros. also has lined up Blockbuster as a promotional partner. The struggling video-rental chain will go the unusual route of touting the movie's theatrical release with in-store signs and merchandise, displays and events, and online sweepstakes. The retailer also is cross-promoting with other "Happy Feet" partners. The goal is to boost traffic to the theaters and the various promo partners which will, in theory, drive people to Blockbuster.

Build-a-Bear Workshop, another partner for the film, has created special movie-themed characters that children and parents can build. There will be additional heat around the film from Atlantic Records, which is releasing a soundtrack with performances by Prince, Chrissie Hynde, Patti LaBelle, Jason Mraz and Pink.
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