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SUMMER SNEAKS

HOLLYWOOD ATTACK of the KILLER TOT MEALS

So Disney has a 10-year deal with McDonald's, and Burger King has its pick of the rest of the pack. What's the beef? Read on.

May 11, 1997|James Bates | James Bates covers the motion picture industry for The Times' Business section

What does it say about the state of Hollywood when Ronald McDonald secures a spot on Premiere magazine's annual compilation of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood, a notch above former list topper Michael Ovitz?

Or, when the Walt Disney Co. recruits a former Burger King executive to head its film marketing?

Or, when one of the VIPs visiting the set of the upcoming Disney film "George of the Jungle" during a location shoot in San Francisco is a McDonald's executive there to make sure that a Big Mac will be, uh, "presented" properly during the five seconds or so it will appear in the film.

In a word (or, in this case, an acronym), it's all about QSR.

QSR is Hollywood's acronym of the moment. It stands for Quick Service Restaurants. In an earlier era, they were called fast-food joints. These days, QSR might as well stand for Quantities of Spendable Resources, which is what the fast-food industry is willing to throw at Hollywood by the millions when it finds a movie that it believes can lure even more people through the doors to add to the billions and billions already served.

It may seem odd that moguls who religiously eat lunch at 1 p.m., order swordfish or salmon and wash it down with San Pellegrino are queuing up to do business with fast-food companies as if they were a noontime crowd in Tulsa lining up for 55-cent Big Macs.

But these days the Golden Arches really are golden to Hollywood studios already spending like drunken sailors to sell their movies. Who wants to say no to someone willing to pitch in another $25 million or more to persuade a family in suburban Chicago to buy tickets to your movie on its opening weekend, and follow it up with a visit to one of its burger restaurants?

*

Fast-food promotions aren't exactly new, but the wrinkle now is the seismic shift in the competitive landscape over the last year caused by the decision by Disney and McDonald's to join at the hip for a decade. It locked the doors of the world's No. 1 fast-food chain to any other studio. No Batman, Superman, Spielberg & Co. or any other non-Disney franchise. Just "Hercules," "George of the Jungle," "Flubber," "101 Dalmatians" and the like. Everyone else please head down the street to a Burger King or Taco Bell.

It's as if Disney took away a sleeper sofa in the middle of a game of musical chairs. Now, studios have to scramble to find a seat, working 18 months or more in advance to secure a spot at the fast-food table. Sitting pretty is the industry's No. 2, Burger King, as the main alternative of choice.

"Burger King is clearly the belle of the ball," says Steve Ross, senior vice president of worldwide promotions for 20th Century Fox, which will promote its upcoming animated feature "Anastasia" with Burger King. "They have the pick of pretty much any property."

The exclusive McDonald's-Disney arrangement reportedly was done largely at McDonald's behest after Burger King cleaned up with such Disney promotions as "The Lion King." It has led to growing speculation by Disney rivals that McDonald's franchisees will eventually grow restless with the company passing up such top promotions as "Batman" and Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" sequel "The Lost World" because of its betrothal to Disney.

"Ten years is longer than most marriages last," says one rival.

Adds Richard Taylor, Burger King Corp.'s director of worldwide promotions: "We liken McDonald's position to saying, 'What kind of ice cream do you like? Vanilla? OK, you get vanilla for the rest of your life.' We have a choice of flavors."

But McDonald's defends the deal as far more than the narrow movie-by-movie relationship some are viewing it as being.

"I have no doubt this will be a great relationship, unparalleled for our two industries," says Dean Barrett, McDonald's vice president of marketing. "A lot of people can't get used to the fact that two big global brands with this kind of credibility can forge this kind of working relationship. With Disney, it's not just about their next movie. It's about their theme parks, their next movie, their characters, their videos and the whole way they do business. It's bigger than a hamburger. It's about the integration of our two brands, long term."

With the competition so intense for fast-food promotions, which when successful can boost the restaurants' business 10% or more, still another concern is emerging. Is Hollywood, as it usually does with anything successful, overdoing it with the fast-food promotions, threatening to kill the golden goose (or arches, in this case)? And, is Hollywood being overly seduced by the lure of fast-food promotions, viewing them not only as ways to enhance a successful movie campaign but to also bail out a bad film? If that was possible, "Last Action Hero" might have been a hit.

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