Studios prepare for worst

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Movie studios are girding for a triple-whammy should one or two entertainment-industry strikes hit.

"It's a perfect storm," said Jon Mandel, co-managing director of Grey Global Group's MediaCom, New York, putting a twist on a film title from client Warner Bros. "We don't know what to do yet."

A potential strike by the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Radio & TV Artists looms June 30. That, combined with another threatened strike from the Writers Guild of America starting May 1, is causing movie studios to reassess marketing plans for the crucial summer months. First, movie budgets may need to be adjusted should actors not be available for media interviews, thus eliminating a main component of their marketing plans. Second, studio executives are scratching their heads over what to do concerning the coming TV network upfront advertising market, where studios cut their ad deals for next season's movies. And third, a prolonged strike could halt production long enough to endanger new films for next year.

Initial concern is with this summer's releases. While newspapers, magazines, TV and radio can write stories about films, as well as doing reviews, they won't be able to interview talent. And without celebrity interviews, marketing executives may resort to more paid advertising. "It depends on the movie," said Terry Press, head of marketing for DreamWorks Pictures. "For instance, on a wide-release movie you can live without publicity, but you can't live without advertising."

SAG/Aftra still hasn't decided whether, in the event of a strike, actors can appear in interviews with the TV or print press. But one studio executive said if the unions were to issue a ban, studios will look to make up the difference in other ways, including possibly increasing the amount of advertising.


It's the more niche releases that may be particularly subject to a rise in their ad budget, since those films depend more on publicity to market their movies. "Smaller niche films with unusually heavy casts could get hurt," said Peter Graves, theatrical film marketing consultant.

Movie studios, however, are cognizant that TV interviews, reviews and newspaper coverage of films tend to lend more legitimacy to a release, leaving them hesitant to start advertising more if they are left without the option of publicity by the actors. "There can be a certain shrillness to just an advertising message," said Mr. Graves. "It's like only turning up the treble, without support of the bass."

Studios are already banking a large amount of electronic press kits-prearranged TV and radio sound bites from actors for use by local stations-for their summer releases. "We are banking some interviews in anticipation," said Brad Ball, president of theatrical marketing for AOL Time Warner's Warner Bros. But as far as spending more in advertising dollars, he added: "We wouldn't advertise our way through this."

Other studio executives said as long as all studios are in the same boat, there may be no need to boost ad spending. "If you are still operating in the same competitive environment, you only have to generate a similar level of noise as everyone else," said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures.

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