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Marketing Without Toys, Action Figures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to entertainment, Wal-Mart is better known for banning products from its shelves than for endorsing them. In recent years, the Arkansas-based discount chain has refused to sell a Sheryl Crow album with gun-related lyrics, Magic Johnson’s book “What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS,” scores of gory computer games and a Life magazine that featured a nude woman breast-feeding her baby.

But the nation’s largest retailer has found something to like in Hollywood: DreamWorks SKG’s Bible story, “Prince of Egypt,” which opens Dec. 18. Wal-Mart officials like the animated epic so much that next week, their 2,380 stores and 780,000 employees will join in a unique effort to sell tickets and family values at the same time.

Wal-Mart plans to promote the film via its weekly circulars and television ads, featuring employees praising the movie as “awesome” and “a real value.” Stores will be festooned with huge movie posters and displays. Wal-Mart’s “greeters,” who welcome shoppers at the door, will wear “Prince of Egypt” buttons and talk up Wal-Mart’s exclusive gift package: two tickets to the movie, a storybook and a music CD, all for $19.96.

For DreamWorks, this unusual partnership between a movie studio and a retail chain could solve a problem inherent to marketing “Prince of Egypt”: Merchandising and fast-food tie-ins, which play a vital part in publicizing most animated movies and making them profitable, are inappropriate (if not crass) when your lead character is Moses, the man who received the Ten Commandments from God. DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press says the beauty of the Wal-Mart gift package (available Nov. 24) is that it pre-sells the movie itself.

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“On an average week, 100 million people go to Wal-Mart,” said Press, who dismissed the suggestion that DreamWorks’ affiliation with a company that has occasionally been accused of censorship might be a bad public relations move. She called the promotion “the greatest word-of-mouth campaign ever.”

“When Wal-Mart speaks to its customers, it’s a very powerful tool,” Press said, noting that Wal-Mart subsidiary Sam’s Club will also sell gift packs with four movie tickets instead of two for $29.99.

“I’d be thrilled if a couple hundred thousand [gift packages] sell. But if one out of 100 [Wal-Mart customers] buys it, you’re opening the movie.”

For Wal-Mart, pairing with DreamWorks appears to be as much about advocacy as about sales.

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“We see this as an opportunity to offer our customers a family-friendly movie that speaks of hope and faith and miracles,” said Alex Clarke, spokesperson for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose store managers previewed a nearly completed version of the film in August.

This is by no means the first film to be promoted by a major corporation. Consumers who test-drove the Oldsmobile Intrigue, for example, got free tickets to 20th Century Fox’s recent movie version of “The X-Files.” And companies as varied as Sprint, Hallmark Cards and Gallo Salame have offered customers Movie Cash certificates, redeemable at participating theaters.

This is also not the first time a studio has sold tickets in advance, seeking to emulate the prestige of a Broadway show and to make a movie into an event. The Walt Disney Co. has pre-sold tickets in big cities for several of its animated movies and for live-action fare like “101 Dalmatians” and “Evita.”

But in the past, movie studios have handled the advance ticket sales themselves, taking phone orders for theaters in each city. What makes “Prince of Egypt” different is that Wal-Mart will handle the advance sales, sparing DreamWorks logistical hassles. The tickets in each gift pack are redeemable at any theater in the nation, any time.

“We’re not in the ticket-selling business,” said Jim Tharp, DreamWorks’ head of distribution. He compared the Wal-Mart partnership to “having 2,000 additional box offices out there.”

For this strategy to work, the nation’s movie theater owners must be on board. DreamWorks began wooing them 18 months ago, and Tharp said from the start, response was warm. Hopes are high that the gift packs will draw people into theaters who don’t usually go.

“When someone new comes into the business, you hope they’re going to be innovative and creative. That’s what DreamWorks has done,” said Page Thompson, vice president of marketing for General Cinema, which has 1,100 U.S. movie screens. “I think this will be the first animated film many people will see in a long time.”

Some observers say that between the cost of making the movie (estimated at $70 million, not including DreamWorks’ start-up equipment costs) and the price of publicizing it, the studio must take in as much as $150 million on “Prince of Egypt” just to break even. Given that two movie tickets go for about $16 in theaters, the less-than-$20 gift pack does not appear to translate into big profits.

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But DreamWorks has a few tricks up its sleeve. The “Collector’s Edition” CD in the gift pack, for example, features songs off the three albums that will be sold in conjunction with the film: the “Prince of Egypt” soundtrack, a gospel collection and a Nashville collection. It does not feature Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, the soundtrack’s biggest names--a strategy meant to whet, not sate, consumers’ appetites.

In the meantime, as the gift-giving season looms, DreamWorks hopes to meet the needs of stymied shoppers. With the “Prince of Egypt” gift pack, Press said, “there are no size issues. No return issues. This is a great item for people who are gift-challenged.”


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