Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Film Marketing in the NBA Finals

Since 2009, ABC/ESPN has made a habit each year of selling heavy advertising promotion during the NBA Finals to one comedy film of questionable quality. The trouble with these advertising segments is not merely that the movies are bad, but that ABC constructs the features as "advertorials" that blur the line between the network's basketball coverage, on the one hand, and its revenue-generating function on the other.

In '09 we saw constant promos for the Jack Black stinker Year One, which hit theaters on June 19th that year. NBA fans hoping to learn how Orlando rookie SG Courtney Lee would oppose Kobe Bryant's offensive assault, or how the Lakers could deal with Hedo Turkoglu on the P&R, were instead subjected to this inane banter of Black and Michael Cera talkin' hoops:

On June 3, 2010, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James, and David Spade oddly showed up at courtside in Staples Center for Game 1 between the Lakers and Celtics. Getty Images published a pic, purportedly just another paparazzi snap, of the four actors enjoying themselves. But by more than wacky coincidence, these guys were ready to promote a new movie, Grown-Ups, set to debut on June 27th of that year. Finals viewers soon realized that they were booked for seven games worth of Sandler and his buds cracking jokes in ABC-branded promos during NBA airtime.

Last night, during Game 1 of Dallas-Miami, viewers saw (more than once) an ABC-branded promo for Kevin James's new film, Zookeeper, ready for release on July 8th. I am partial to cute animals, so I am not yet ready to call the movie stupid, but the previews have not looked compelling. If you couldn't get enough of James on a Segway in Mall Cop, James promises to bring even worse obloquy to the profession of wildlife caretaker. ESPN/ABC apparently thought that the NBA's talking-basketball promos from this season's playoffs were clever and iconic enough that a meta-ad featuring James, sitting next to a talking gorilla character from his movie, watching the talking-basketball ad on a television would be snappy. [The original talking basketball bits this spring were fairly amusing, but nothing like the "There Can Only Be One" campaign from 2008, also delivered by ad agency Goodby, Silverstein.]

Surprisingly, none of these movies were produced or owned by the Walt Disney Company (owner of ABC/ESPN); distribution rights for all three belonged to Sony/Columbia. Apparently Sony has a good deal with Disney and the former plans to milk the latter's NBA platform every June for summer movies with shaky pedigrees. Of course, film economics are hard to predict. Year One cost about $60 MM to produce, but earned only $43 MM at US theaters. The Sandler movie, missing any special effects that would drive up costs (though perhaps featuring too many high-salaried actors), earned over $160 MM domestically. Sony's marketing strategy may be an example of the sunk-cost fallacy: having spent a lot of money on a lemon of a project, the sponsor figures he needs to spend even more to gin up some revenue out of it. Sometimes this calculus works, but sometimes it doesn't. "Zookeeper" looks more like a "Year One" redux than a "Grown-Ups"-like hit. Meanwhile, NBA fans must gird for a couple weeks of Kevin James.

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