In a controversial marketing gamble, Sony Pictures quietly made a deal with four theater chains to pay for the placement of previews for upcoming films that previously were shown at no cost to studios.
The move is being criticized by executives from other major studios who worry that, at a time costs are skyrocketing everywhere in the movie business, the free advertising may be in jeopardy.
Jeff Blake, Sony's president of worldwide marketing and distribution, said he made the payments to ensure that a 60-second trailer for "The Animal," an upcoming comedy starring Rob Schneider, would play before showings of "The Mummy Returns," the biggest hit to date among releases for the summer movie season.
The studio payments covered a two-week period in early May during the theatrical launch of "The Mummy Returns." "The Animal" opens June 1. Blake refused to say how much Sony paid, but sources close to the company say the payments probably totaled as much as $100,000.
"It was a minimal amount of money, but it was well-spent," Blake said. "I don't apologize for anything we did. A picture like 'The Mummy' doesn't come along every week, and it gave us a unique opportunity to get 100% placement in many situations to expose our movie to the broadest possible audience."
The precedent of paying for exposure that had previously been free caused an uproar among rival studios.
"People are upset because this puts the industry on the beginning of a very slippery slope," said DreamWorks SKG marketing chief Terry Press. "If you do it once, why wouldn't you do it again? As soon as it happened, other exhibitors started approaching other studios to see if they would pay for trailers too."
Ten major cinema chains representing more than half the 36,000 screens in the United States are operating under bankruptcy protection.
Top marketing executives at General Cinema Theatres and AMC Entertainment Inc., two of the theater chains that received payments from Sony, could not be reached for comment.
Competition among studios for the placement of trailers is always fierce. Typically, five trailers are shown before the running of a feature film; two are given to the studio that released the movie, leaving three slots open to plug movies from other studios. The running time of each trailer is limited to 2 1/2 minutes.
So far the fight for trailer placement for summer movies has focused on "The Mummy Returns," which has made $150 million at the box office and was viewed as the premium launch pad for new releases. In the hopes of getting more trailers played before "The Mummy," a number of studios, including Sony, cut special 60-second trailers of their upcoming films.
Sony was in a bind because it had already made an arrangement with exhibitors to have its trailer for "Final Fantasy," another upcoming film, played before "The Mummy." When exhibitors balked at playing two Sony trailers, the studio opted to pay to ensure that "The Animal" preview would get blanket exposure.
"I told exhibitors that I wanted to see it played as religiously as the Los Angeles Times advertisement is played," Blake said. (Many theater chains show promotions for The Times in exchange for a discount on advertising rates in the newspaper.)
Blake said he went to great lengths to get the trailer played because "The Animal" is an important summer release for his studio.
Industry rivals believe Sony is under intense pressure to have a successful opening for the film, which was made by Revolution Studios and Adam Sandler's production company, two key movie suppliers at Sony. The pressure has been especially heavy since "Tomcats," Revolution's first Sony release, bombed at the box office in late March. Revolution is run by Joe Roth, the former chief of Walt Disney Studios whose name has surfaced regularly as a possible successor to Sony studio chief John Calley.
Blake insisted that Revolution received no special treatment. Tom Sherak, a Revolution partner, defended Blake, saying "Jeff shouldn't be criticized for finding a way to get his trailers better play. If anything, he should get a raise."
It's unclear whether Sony will get its money's worth. However, an industry audit of trailer play for May 4 through 6, the first weekend of release for "The Mummy," showed that "The Animal" was No. 6 in total trailer play, appearing on 46% of the 552 screens surveyed. It ranked far ahead of MGM's "What's the Worst That Can Happen," a film opening on the same day as "The Animal." But it ranked behind other early June releases, such as "Evolution" and "Atlantis."