IT'S no secret that America is addicted to oil. But in Hollywood, the movie studios have an even more insidious addiction. They're hooked on peddling fat-saturated fast food to children.
In "Fast Food Nation," which opened this weekend, a roomful of marketing staffers at the fictional Mickey's Fast Food chain are mulling over possible promotional tie-ins for the Big One, the company's hot new burger product. One of the executives wonders if they're getting any traction with public television. "The PBS deal isn't happening," another executive informs him. "Apparently Burger King and McDonald's have the 'Teletubbies' all locked up."
Armed with a brace of top acting talent, including Greg Kinnear, Ethan Hawke, Kris Kristofferson, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Bruce Willis, "Fast Food Nation" transforms the raw reportage of Eric Schlosser's bestseller into a dramatic tale of how the nation's addiction to fast food is involved with everything from the exploitation of immigrants to a growing childhood obesity epidemic.
The film had a lousy opening this weekend, but as Schlosser told me the other day, the "Teletubbies" reference is no fanciful screenwriting touch. Both McDonald's and Burger King have done tie-ins with "Teletubbies," with Burger King even selling chicken nuggets shaped like the Teletubbies.
In fact, no one is a bigger supporter of the fast-food emporiums that have colonized the known world than Hollywood's studios. For the last 10 years, Disney had a cozy partnership with McDonald's, with promotions specifically aimed at introducing young fans of "The Incredibles" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" to the pleasures of Happy Meals. The 10-year pact, valued at more than $2 billion, has just ended, but Disney has not ruled out doing individual McDonald's tie-ins in the future. Disney's top executives have never publicly explained why they ended the deal, though it appears the decision was largely based on business issues. However, the studio has issued new food guidelines saying it will eliminate added trans fat from foods involved with promotional products by the end of 2008.
McDonald's had no trouble attracting a new Hollywood suitor. It recently signed a two-year deal with DreamWorks Animation that begins with the release of "Shrek the Third" in May. In a sign of how eager DreamWorks was to do the deal, studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg said the studio's beloved Shrek character would appear in McDonald's ads and the company would produce original animation for some of them.
DreamWorks is hardly the only studio in bed with fast-food companies. Warner Bros., which just released "Happy Feet," has a giant cross promotion with Burger King, giving away a cuddly penguin to every kid who buys a Burger King Kids Meal. 20th Century Fox recently partnered with Kellogg for the release of "Ice Age: The Meltdown," distributing kid-friendly "Ice Age" merchandise in such sugar-saturated cereals as Coca Krispies, Froot Loops, Honey Smacks and Frosted Flakes. Universal Studios had a similar promotion last winter promoting "King Kong" with Burger King, various candy bars and 18 million boxes of sugary breakfast cereals.
For Hollywood executives, the global marketing reach of fast-food outlets is the equivalent of the mound of "Scarface" cocaine. Marketers say one fast-food tie-in on a major film is often worth up to $30 million. According to advertising trade reports, Fox's combination of promotional partners on the "Ice Age" sequel was worth $100 million to the studio. Studio insiders say the deals are now almost as much about psychology as promotion. When an animated film is released, if kids don't see the movie's promotions in TV ads or at their favorite fast-food stop, they subconsciously suspect that it's not a big pop cultural event.
It's bothersome that studios are taking our kids' objects of affection and using them as shills for unhealthful food. To make matters worse, the whole enterprise has a pungent whiff of Hollywood hypocrisy. Most studio chiefs pride themselves on their devotion to good causes, be it Katzenberg's involvement with AIDS charities, 20th Century Fox Co-Chairman Jim Gianopulos' fundraising for children's organizations or Warners Entertainment President Alan Horn's embrace of environmental causes.
While I was reporting this story, I went to the annual dinner for Human Rights Watch, which honored a trio of activists for their selfless courage in fighting for basic human dignity. It was an inspiring evening. And much of the financial support for the dinner came from Hollywood, with major contributions from Warner Bros., Paramount, DreamWorks, Universal and 20th Century Fox.