Leave it to Steven Spielberg to produce a film about aliens that could yield the most memorable product tie-in in a summer studio executives are calling the most competitive in memory.
Some 15 years ago, "E.T." propelled Hershey Foods Corp.'s Reese's Pieces to astronomical heights. Now Bausch & Lomb's Ray-Ban brand hopes "Men in Black" will color its sunglasses with deeper shades of cool this summer.
In the movie produced by Mr. Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play alien-battling agents whose Ray-Bans not only make them look snappy but protect them from alien weaponry as well.
"I can't imagine a more playful and emblematic product to promote alongside our film," said Bob Levin, president of marketing for Columbia/TriStar Pictures, its distributor.
This summer, Hollywood studios will need all the help they can get in supplementing their media budgets, which average $20 million to $25 million for event films.
Historically, the summer movie season begins Memorial Day weekend. But with most studios ceding that weekend to Universal Pictures' "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," more of the summer films are opening later.
July is crowded with the likes of "Air Force One," "Contact," "The Conspiracy Theory," "Men in Black" and "Titanic." The bulk of New Line Cinema's biggest releases open after Aug. 1.
Many movies are opening weeks before May 23, sparking debate among studios as to what can truly boast of being a summer movie.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. would argue it begins April 25, with "Volcano." New Line would say it begins the week after with "Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery." Columbia is pushing for May 9, when "The Fifth Element" starring Bruce Willis opens.
"The tonnage of movies has forced the definition of the season to be re-examined," said Chris Pula, president-theatrical marketing at Warner Bros. "Releasing big movies early psychologically launches the summer season, but let's face it, the summer doesn't begin for another month and a half, when school gets out."
But it is aggressive marketing, not crafty scheduling, that will most likely produce the biggest films of '97.
"The three films that will dominate this summer are 'The Lost World,' 'Batman & Robin' and 'Men in Black,'*" said Michael Wolf, head of media and entertainment practice at Booz Allen Hamilton, a prediction shared by many in Hollywood. "In a business that judges success by marketing power, which includes promotion partners and licensing programs, these three films will make it hard for most others to break out."
MARKETERS PLAY IT SAFE
As usual, marketers have played it safe by linking with established franchises that reach the broadest possible audience.
"The Lost World" is backed by $250 million in global promotion support, led by Burger King Corp., Mercedes-Benz of North America and Tropicana Products, and a licensee program expected to generate $1 billion at retail.
"Batman & Robin," the fourth flick in the $1 billion "Batman" merchandising franchise, is backed by $125 million, its largest program ever, with Apple Computer, Kellogg Co. and Taco Bell on board.
The summer's other promotion magnet is Walt Disney Co.'s latest animated musical. And yet, despite the tie-in support of Choice Hotels, General Motors Corp., McDonald's Corp., Nestle USA and Quaker Oats Co., "Hercules" is projected to be only the fourth-biggest film of the summer, at best.
"It will do well by anyone else's standard but not as well as past Disney releases," said Mr. Wolf. "I don't think the Disney brand is weakening, but I do think its Broadway musical format is getting old."
MTV ALSO TIES TO 'MEN'
At present, "Men in Black" can only boast of Ray-Ban and cable's MTV, which is planning a major programming effort around the film in July.
Until recently, the sci-fi comedy was seen as a sleeper, passed over by marketers. Now, on the strength of a popular trailer and positive reaction by theater owners, the buzz is growing, and marketers are knocking.
But the studio is being choosy, looking for brands-like Ray-Ban-that have an organic fit. A deal with fast-food chain Carl's Jr. was nixed; there are talks with one brand pledging extensive media support.
Ray-Ban has long been proficient at placing product in movies, and especially on Tom Cruise, who has worn Ray-Bans in "Jerry Maguire," "Risky Business" and "Top Gun."
But the company's "Men in Black" program is unprecedented: a $5 million to $10 million TV campaign and extensive point of purchase, all from Arnell Group, New York. The effort breaks next month, two months in advance of the movie's July 4 opening. Ads feature Mr. Smith issuing what promises to be the film's catch-phrase, "I make this look good."
Ray-Ban's different approach to "Men in Black" comes as more brands from more varied categories, including the automotive industry (see related story on Page 53) are seeking-and being sought by-Hollywood studios.
"It has evolved beyond the fast-food and soft-drink companies looking to latch onto movies that transcend culture," said Scott Woodward, Ray-Ban's global image marketing director. "And on the other side, studios are looking around to see which brands can help them achieve strategic objectives."
Indeed, "promotions that penetrate the culture" are the rules of thumb guiding Fox agency J. Walter Thompson USA, Los Angeles, now putting together a campaign for "Speed 2" from its client list.
"Our clients are looking for properties that can break through the clutter. Likewise, so is Fox," said Brian Goldner, senior partner-group management director.
Studios don't just seek consumer products for marketing support; branded media companies are also key in delivering impressions and selected demographics.
New Line's "Austin Powers" program will be supported by TV specials on MTV and Comedy Central, sweepstake promos with Seventeen and Premiere, a joint promotion with Live! and TicketMaster. "Powers" has Internet activities planned with America Online and in-restaurant exposure via Planet Hollywood.
"It's more important to have a promotion partner that has distribution into places you can't get into and has the same demos as your film, and less important if that marketer is a No. 1 in its category," said Mary Goss, New Line's VP-national promotions.
4 'BATMAN' TV SPECIALS
Studios controlled by larger media companies have an even greater edge because their sister divisions can serve as marketing partners. Warner Bros. has four TV specials on tap for "Batman & Robin" and two planned for "Conspiracy Theory." Most of them will air on the WB broadcast network and the Turner Broadcasting System cable networks.
But Warner Bros.' Mr. Pula said massive promotional campaigns don't mean studios can save money on their own ad spending, especially since studio research shows 80% of decisionmaking about movies is based on TV ads.
Aside from stunt advertising, outdoor and transit ads that can hit months in advance, Mr. Pula said most studios launch the bulk of their media support three to four weeks before the movie's release.
The week of May 15 will see a "Batblitz," composed of a new trailer, TV spots and spread newspaper ads in the top 10 markets.
"The likes of Taco Bell and Apple allow us to be more prudent but we can't be stupid about it," said Mr. Pula. "In the summer, you can never underestimate the