The Universal Pictures comedy "Identity Thief" is nearing $100 million in U.S. ticket sales in its third week of release, making it so far the top-grossing film of 2013 and a surprise hit for the studio.
While the film has found a large audience, the R-rated buddy picture is the sort of movie that is considered a tough sell when it comes to the product placement and cross-promotional opportunities that studios capitalize on these days.
After all, "Identity Thief," centers on a criminal, played by Melissa McCarthy, who steals people's identities to finance her shopping sprees, among other activities. In other words, it's not necessarily a subject matter with which blue-chip firms would want to be associated.
But one company saw it as the perfect fit.
LifeLock Inc., an identity theft protection company based in Tempe, Ariz., viewed the film as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Erick Dickens, vice president of marketing for the publicly traded firm.
Under an arrangement with Universal, LifeLock aired a television commercial that promoted "Identity Thief" and the studio included the firm's signage in the film.
LifeLock was Universal's only cross-promotional partner on the movie.
Cat Stone, partner at Beverly Hills-based brand consultancy Stone Management, said that like many other R-rated movies, "Identity Thief's" storyline would have made it difficult for most brands to embrace. In the film, a mild-mannered man played by Jason Bateman tries to track down McCarthy's character and bring her to justice after learning she has stolen his identity and used a credit card in his name to buy clothes and alcohol.
"The movie does have to do with things that brands would shy away from, because anything [McCarthy's character] does she gets it through theft," said Stone, noting that companies rarely want their products and services to be used by or associated with films' "bad guys."
Stone said car makers, for example, want to avoid having their vehicles driven by on-screen villains, or destroyed in fiery wrecks that could make the automobiles appear unsafe.
But LifeLock was eager to be involved with "Identity Thief" at an early stage. Dickens said that as soon as he learned of the project in early 2012, he reached out to Universal for a meeting. "We committed to doing the deal right there on the spot when they gave me the synopsis," he said.
The deal involved Universal including LifeLock signage in a scene set at a police station and at the movie's premiere in Westwood, where the company also had access to the red carpet.
In exchange, Universal provided LifeLock with footage of the movie, which the company used in a spot that aired on cable networks in the weeks before "Identity Thief's" Feb. 8 release. It also ran for one week after the film premiered, featuring footage of the film intercut with imagery of a LifeLock worker in action.
A voice-over implores the viewer to see "Identity Thief," and, of course, use LifeLock. (The advertisement, which Universal had the right to approve, can be viewed on LifeLock's Facebook page and YouTube channel.)
Like most films' brand integration deals, the one between LifeLock and Universal did not involve a monetary payment. Instead the parties committed to the promotional exchange. Dickens declined to say what LifeLock spent on its marketing efforts for "Identity Thief," but noted it typically spends $1 million to $5 million on a cross-promotional agreement.
The company has struck product placement deals with other films and television shows, but Dickens said that from a narrative standpoint, none has made as much sense as the "Identity Thief" arrangement.
Stone estimates the exposure generated by LifeLock's association with the picture was worth from $8 million to $10 million to the company.
Dickens wouldn't disclose how much business the deal generated, but said that "the number of people that became members of LifeLock during the promotional period of the movie exceeded our expectations."