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Super Spots

Studios are taking advantage of Sunday's big game to promote their upcoming movies. Some think it isn't such a good idea.

January 24, 1998|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To football fans, the Super Bowl is the ultimate showdown between the two best teams in the game. For advertisers, it's the most-watched television event of the year. But for movie fans, the Super Bowl broadcast is also a sneak preview of some of the most anticipated summer movies.

"You can be assured that almost anyone watching the Super Bowl will be going to a movie this year," says Disney Studio Chairman Joe Roth. His studio is airing its first Super Bowl ad ever, a 60-second commercial for "Armageddon," an Earth vs. asteroid thriller due out in July. "If you have a big-event movie and you want to make a statement, this is the place to do it."

Most of the movie industry's enthusiasm for running movie commercials during the Super Bowl comes from the big splash 20th Century Fox got with its 1996 ad for "Independence Day," a special 30-second spot that showed alien invaders blowing up the White House, signing off with the cautionary tag line: "Enjoy the Super Bowl. It may be your last."

"Independence Day" went on to become the highest-grossing film of the year, and its Super Bowl ad debut got a healthy chunk of the credit. "That ad was probably the high point of our entire campaign," says Fox Domestic Film Group Chairman Tom Sherak. "We knew right away we'd grabbed people. Our phones were ringing off the hook, people were talking about it in restaurants. We accomplished what you always hope for--to hit everybody at once."

This kind of across-the-board exposure doesn't come cheap. A 30-second Super Bowl ad costs $1.3 million this year. Disney's 60-second ad costs $2.6 million, as much as what it cost to make many of the films that debuted this past week at the Sundance Film Festival.

In addition to Disney's "Armageddon," Warner Bros. Films is advertising "Sphere," Sony is promoting "The Mask of Zorro," while New Line Cinema is touting a trio of films: "Lost in Space," "The Wedding Singer" and "Dark City." With President Clinton's sex life back in the news, speculation has been rampant that Universal would run a spot for "Primary Colors," its thinly veiled Clinton satire due out March 20. Buffy Shutt and Kathy Jones, the studio's marketing chiefs, refused to say whether the studio was buying any ads, for "Primary Colors" or any other releases. But a top studio official said no ads were scheduled to run.

In fact, the Super Sunday ad strategy has its detractors. Some studios are staying on the sidelines, worried that the abundance of movie ads last year diluted their impact.

"Men in Black" may have been one of 1997's biggest hits, but director Barry Sonnenfeld doesn't credit its Super Bowl ad with helping the cause. He says he tried to prevent Sony from running a spot on last year's telecast because the studio lumped it in with two other movie ads in a 90-second spot that cost the studio $3.6 million.

"It's hard to make your ad stand out from all the other ads when it's part of three trailers, running back-to-back," Sonnenfeld says. "I'm not sure how many people really watch the ads anyway. In New York, the water pressure goes down during the commercial breaks because everyone rushes off to go to the bathroom."

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Surprisingly, the summer's biggest event film, "Godzilla," is absent from Super Bowl Sunday. Eager to separate its film from the pack, Sony debuted its "Godzilla" trailer with a cluster of spots that ran just before midnight on New Year's Eve and on the New Year's Day bowl game telecasts. The ads intercut film footage of Godzilla with clips from New Year's festivities to make it appear that the monster was wreaking havoc just as midnight struck in Times Square. "Welcome to 1998," an announcer intoned. "The year of 'Godzilla.' "

The New Year's blitz was more costly than a single Super Bowl commercial. "But cumulatively, we reached a bigger audience," says Sony marketing chief Bob Levin, citing a follow-up research poll of 1,000 households where 75% of the people surveyed said they had seen at least one of the "Godzilla" spots.

Unfortunately, most moviegoers have notoriously short memories. "Godzilla" doesn't come out until May 20, "Armageddon" arrives July 1, and "Mask of Zorro" won't hit the theaters until July 17. Will audiences really remember anything about the ads nearly six months later?

"What you're doing is creating a first impression," Levin says. "You want to do something that will excite or intrigue people so that, later on, when they're making that crucial decision of what movie to see, they'll go see your film. Somehow they've cataloged the film in their mind in a way that says, 'I'm interested in that.' "

Super Bowl movie ads are still an expensive roll of the dice. A lackluster ad can instantly alienate millions of potential moviegoers. Worse still, NBC's sky-high ad rates apply whether your spot airs at the start of the game, when everyone is watching, or near the end, when all too often, the game has become a blow-out. So placement is often part of the negotiation.

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