Advertisers have long linked up with Hollywood by placing their products within films or trotting out stars as their official sponsors. But some companies are now going a step further, investing directly in movie productions in the hopes of striking even deeper connections with film audiences.
In what could be the latest trend in the financing of independent films, Unilever brand Dove has agreed to invest $3 million -- about one-fifth of the budget -- into "The Women," the first theatrical movie by Diane English, the creative force behind the hit television series "Murphy Brown." Gatorade, the sports drink maker, quietly put up $3 million for the production of "Gracie," a story about a girls soccer team that is coming out this weekend.
"With low-budget movies you have to have different ways to create marketing efficiencies and leverage your ability to fund them," said Andrew Shue, producer of "Gracie." He said the seed money from Gatorade enabled him to raise an additional $7 million from a hedge fund. "This is absolutely something in the future for these kinds of movies that are smaller budget and under the studio threshold."
Independent studio Lions Gate has been discussing potential producing partnerships with several corporations.
The investments are crucial for independent producers struggling to cobble together funding for their movies. National brands can give smaller movies a broader marketing appeal and can often give them the aura of a bigger studio movie.
Some Hollywood executives, however, are skeptical that corporate financing will grow into a broader movement. They point to the experience of PepsiCo Inc.'s Mountain Dew, which invested nearly $4 million in the snowboarding documentary "First Descent." The film grossed only $988,368 in worldwide ticket sales, although Mountain Dew was less interested in making a box-office profit than reaching a specific demographic: snowboarders.
"I don't see any signs that it's a significant trend," said Steve Gilula, chief operating officer of Fox Searchlight. "But it is interesting to see another source of funds flowing into filmmaking."
Some talent agencies, however, see an opportunity. ICM has hired a former marketing executive to look for potential deals to marry brands with the agency's clients.
"When it's a perfect fit, it isn't a stretch, it is organic," said Lori Sale, head of global branded entertainment for ICM, who put Dove and English together for "The Women." "It's very much matchmaking: What does the brand do for the movie? What does the movie do for the brand?"
Typically, the major studios partner with corporations to market big-budget movies, as DreamWorks Animation did with McDonald's for "Shrek" and as Sony Pictures did with NASCAR for "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."
But in today's increasingly fragmented market, with digital video recorders enabling viewers to skip TV commercials, advertisers are desperate to find new ways to reach people.
"Three million dollars is not a big deal for these people," said Claudia Caplan, chief marketing officer of Mendelsohn Zien Advertising in Los Angeles. "Everybody is trying to find new ways to reach consumers."
The companies view investment in niche movies as a way to promote a lifestyle, rather than a brand. Dove, for instance, plans to launch a marketing campaign for "The Women" that plays off of its "Campaign for Real Beauty," which garnered attention in 2004 with innovative ads featuring real women of all shapes and sizes in their underwear.
"The movie will give us an opportunity to reach women in a real way," said Kathrine O'Brien, Dove's marketing director. "It addresses the challenges that women face in society today."
English plans to create a director's blog for the Dove website, www.campaignforrealbeauty.com. In addition, she will make a short film for the site that will chronicle the making of "The Women" featuring the movie's stars and crew.
With "Gracie," Gatorade saw a way to increase its reach with young girls, the target audience. "Consumers get turned off when film or TV shows become too commercial," said Dustin Cohn, director of strategic innovations for Gatorade and Propel, a fitness water. "We didn't want to say 'put X amount of drink shots or X amount of branding in the movie....' We did not get involved in the film to make a film. It is about leveraging an asset to help communicate our support for women in sports."
The sports drink manufacturer has produced 9 million 15-packs with a picture of the movie's lead, Carly Schroeder. The packs also have information to receive an instructional soccer video featuring soccer stars Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan.
Neither Dove nor Gatorade demanded product placement in the films in return for their investments. However, the soccer players in the movie will be drinking Gatorade, Shue said. "She wasn't going to be slugging down milk," he said. And three Gatorade executives will receive a producing credit.
English has not ruled out the possibility of inserting a Dove product into the film if it fits seamlessly into a scene. A remake of the 1939 classic comedy, "The Women" is set in contemporary New York and stars Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith and Candice Bergen.
"I was being very, very careful about this," said English, who also wrote the screenplay. "I didn't want to be put in a position where the product was running the show. Their campaign is about reaching out globally to women and girls about self esteem and empowerment and that is what we are saying in our movie."
Although the company will not get a producing credit, Dove is entitled to a certain percentage of the profit once the $15-million investment in the movie is recovered.