Nike's Phil Knight on Show Business vs. Shoe Business

Q&A: Founder Turns to Wieden to Promote Laika Animated Film 'Coraline'

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Phil Knight easily could have hung up his track spikes by now. Instead, the 70-year-old billionaire founder of Nike has teamed with his company's longtime ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, to successfully market the first animated film shot entirely in 3-D, "Coraline."

'Coraline' is produced by Phil Knight's Laika and distributed by Universal Pictures' Focus Features.
'Coraline' is produced by Phil Knight's Laika and distributed by Universal Pictures' Focus Features.
The movie, produced by Mr. Knight's Laika and distributed by Universal Pictures' Focus Features, is based on a dark Neil Gaiman graphic novel adapted and directed by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas"); Mr. Knight's son Travis served as chief animator. Laika is an animation company that specializes in feature films, commercials, music videos and short films, among other projects. Mr. Knight first invested in the company in 1998 and officially took control in 2003.

That "Coraline" opened to an impressive $16 million in its first weekend is a testament to what Mr. Knight calls "pinwheel" marketing -- niche promotion and publicity working in concert with traditional Hollywood movie marketing.

Wieden identified some 15 niche demographic "spokes," then set about courting the knitting aficionados, comic-book geeks, collectibles mavens, emo rockers, crafts makers and casual gamers that would help "Coraline" open to $7 million more than Focus initially projected for its first weekend.

Madison & Vine: The obvious question here: You're worth $10 billion --

Phil Knight: [Interrupts, laughing] Well, not lately.

M&V: Well, the point is, Hollywood usually salivates when rich guys like you express even a passing interest in getting into film. Whose advice did you solicit before you bought Laika, and what did they tell you?

Mr. Knight: Oh, the honest truth is nobody. It was just kind of a question that was thrust upon me. The old Will Vinton Studios [the stop-motion animation house behind Fox's animated series "The PJ's"] had very suddenly become insolvent. In maybe 72 hours, I had to decide whether I was going to save it or let it go bust. I just went off to the mountaintop by myself and said, "Well, I guess I'll try and salvage this."

M&V: Why'd you want to save it?

Mr. Knight: My son worked there and loved it. I'd gotten to know some of the people. I just thought there was something that was worth saving.

M&V: Let's talk about "Coraline." First of all, it's not typical for someone to tell a Hollywood studio, "Hey, you're releasing this, and by the way, we've got our own ad agency to sell it." How did Universal and Focus Features react to that?

Mr. Knight: [Laughs] You should see video of those meetings.

M&V: Really?

Mr. Knight: The original agreement was that Focus would do the advertising, but in some of the early meetings, it was clear that we had a difference of opinion on the advertising -- "target audience" being one. They were used to doing "data" advertising: They wanted to push this more as a kiddie film, because that's what the data told them. And Nike and Wieden & Kennedy together had grown up with what I call "emotional essence advertising" -- the essence of the product is its emotional core, and you push that. It was two very different approaches, and it kind of became clear in some of those early meetings that we had a very strong difference of opinion. And to Focus' credit, they said, "OK, why don't you guys try it? There's no use in fighting this thing. Let's negotiate a different way to market this thing."

M&V: So what's the difference between the shoe business and show business?

Mr. Knight: One is a risky business, and the other is just plain gambling. [Laughs] But I do think there's some commonality. I think there's such a thing as managing creativity. And we've approached the marketing similarly between two companies [Nike and Laika]: The most important marketing tool is the product itself. Everything comes out of that.

M&V: Are you cognizant of Laika as a brand the same way you were about Nike? Because there's a saying in Hollywood: People don't watch channels or studios; they watch shows and movies.

Mr. Knight: Yeah, I think that's basically true, and that's the big difference with the footwear and apparel business. I do think there is a brand element to [Laika], too, but the key is making great movies.

M&V: A lot gets made about Pixar and, in particular, its isolation from Hollywood. Do you feel like you need to get closer to Hollywood, or that you need to stay away from it? [Laika is based in Portland, Ore., home to Nike and Wieden.]

Phil Knight
Phil Knight
Mr. Knight: I think geography plays a real part in a company's culture. And with modern communications and transportation, it really doesn't make much difference, so I am quite comfortable where we are.

M&V: What lessons have you learned from your Hollywood adventure thus far?

Mr. Knight: Well, as my old track coach used to say, "Let him boast who takes off his armor." We'll wait until the movie is done with its first run in March. I do think the Wieden & Kennedy's niche, "pinwheel" approach generated a lot of interest.

M&V: You have the time and the resources to bring any story you want to the screen now. Is there anything you want to make into a film?

Mr. Knight: I don't see myself that way. I didn't sit down and say, "Hey, I want to make movies!" Our objective is to be a good company, and we're not there yet. We've improved the creative immensely, but we've got a ways to go. But if we can make the same progress we've made over the next four years that we've made in the last four, I think we'll make it.

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