Studios use cell phones to promote movie blockbusters

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Peering from the top of a New York skyscraper, Spider-Man casts his web across the cell-phone screen and swings to the ground as menacing music signals an incoming call.

It's the adult equivalent of a movie-themed toy in your child's Happy Meal. Movie studios have started working with cell-phone carriers to promote their new releases with ringers, games and screensavers.

The deals are often complicated arrangements that may include provisions for featuring the carrier's phones in the film or footage from the movie in the carrier's advertisements.

In one of the latest deals, Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint Corp. has paid Sony Pictures an undisclosed sum to offer a line of Spider-Man-themed goodies. Sprint PCS customers shell out $1.50 to $2.50 for a ringer, $1 to $2 for a screen saver and about $6 for a game.

"It's definitely here to stay," said Adam Zawel, an analyst for the Boston-based Yankee Group, of the cell-phone promotions. "Most major movies aimed at the youth market are going to incorporate wireless in some form."

Movie studios and distributors have led this new form of marketing -- insiders call it mobile marketing. But Zawel says others are becoming interested in the new marketing venue as the handsets and the networks that transmit data to them grow more powerful.

Seamus McAteer, senior analyst for the San Francisco-based Zelos Group, said the percentage of U.S. handsets that can accommodate advanced downloads such as games is expected to grow from 20 percent at the end of 2003 to 40 percent at the end of this year.

"Once you reach about the 40 percent range, you are talking about something that is really mainstream," he said.

Some campaigns use the phones' text-messaging capabilities while others take advantage of the graphic capabilities of the next-generation phones.

Sprint first jumped into the fray when it promoted the July 2002 release of "Men in Black II" with screen savers, games and ringers. The telecommunications giant did the same thing when "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" was released in November 2003.

Sprint benefits from the "Spider-Man 2" deal because it gets to link itself to a movie that broke the opening-day box office record with $40.5 million, said Brent Sharpless, who is part of the team that manages the company's wireless Web offerings.

He said the arrangements also generate buzz for the films.

"The movie studios are becoming aware this is a natural extension of how they promote a movie," Sharpless said. "Just a year or two ago, most people had black and white phones. It wouldn't have worked. At 3G speeds [those found on type of high-speed transmission networks] you can download content. You have the ability to play songs on your phone."

When the first Spider-Man movie was released, Sony teamed up with a Sprint competitor, Atlanta-based Cingular Wireless, to promote the film.

Another Sprint competitor, Bedminster, N.J.-based Verizon Wireless, promoted "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," the second movie in the trilogy, with text-messaging trivia contests and chat groups. One of the groups allowed die-hard fans to chat in the language of the High Elves of Valinor. Participants paid a few cents for each message sent and received.

For the third movie in the trilogy, the carrier offered ringers, screen savers, a movie-themed action game and pinball game and continued the chat groups and trivia contests. The carrier also has a deal to promote DreamWorks' animated feature "Shrek 2" with an adventure game.

Sometimes the promotions take a more direct route. Jonathon Linner's New York-based firm, Enpocket, helped Warner Brothers promote "Two Weeks Notice" with a text-messaging effort. The romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant came out in late December of 2002, and Valentine's Day followed close on its heels.

Enpocket sent messages to a group of women who had opted to receive such messages from a women's magazine. The messages asked the women to respond with the cell phone numbers of their spouses or boyfriends if they wanted to be taken to the film. Enpocket then sent a personalized message to the men.

Linner said the agency also has encouraged potential movie-goers to use their phone's text-messaging capabilities to enter prize giveaway promotions and join movie-themed chat groups. He said some promotions attempt to direct people to services, such as Fandango, which allow callers to get show times and order tickets over the phone.

He said the cell phone is ideal for this type of advertisement because the promotions can reach people while they are dining out or driving to meet friends.

"It's a great way to get someone to do something right away," Linner said. "When you get home and relax, it's less likely you are going to get ready and go back out."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: