"Star Wars" may be the king of the box office, but when it comes to summer fast-food promotions, the competition is proving to be much stronger.
Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC trotted out a series of characters from the George Lucas-directed film earlier this month, but that promotion has run up against stiff competition from Burger King's "Teletubbies" promotion, based on the popular PBS television show.
Burger King officials said the promotion has been such a runaway success that many restaurants have run out of the clip-on finger puppets, while others are rationing them.
So far, no shortages of "Star Wars" toys have been reported, despite the amusing television spots, which feature KFC's white-haired Colonel, Taco Bell's talking Chihuahua, and a new female character from Pizza Hut fighting off bad guys, that are blanketing the airwaves.
The commercials mark the first of a slew of summer movie promotions from the nation's fast-food chains. These big-bucks collaborations between movie studios and fast-food chains have become an annual rite of summer over the last 10 years.
The cross-promotions not only offer free publicity to the films during an exceptionally competitive period at the box office, but they also can boost sales for the restaurants too.
"It's pretty much a win-win for the studio," said Paul Dergarabedian president and head researcher of Exhibitor Relations Co., a Los Angeles box-office tracking firm.
"They are paid by the chain to have the rights to use the name of the movie on their products."
The fast-food promotions typically last as long as a month and begin just before the movie opens. The tie-ins, particularly those aimed at children, have become an increasingly important competitive tool for the nation's big fast-food chains.
So much so that in 1996, McDonald's Corp. signed a 10-year, multi-million-dollar deal with Walt Disney Co. to be the exclusive fast-food promoter of the entertainment giant's annual animated summer flick.
This year, that means "Tarzan," which opens in theaters June 18. For McDonald's, the Tarzan promotion begins the same day as the movie's release and includes Happy Meal toys and soda straws that replicate the famous Tarzan yell when you slurp through them.
McDonald's is doubling-down with Disney this summer. In July, the hamburger chain will promote "Inspector Gadget" with a Happy Meal program that McDonald's marketing Vice President R.J. Milano said "is unlike anything that has been done in the industry and unlike anything we've ever done as well."
The promotion, which begins a week before the movie's July 23 release, no doubt will send some parents to a McDonald's at least eight times this summer. The Happy Meal prizes are a series of eight interactive toys that connect to form a 15-inch-tall "Gadget Man."
Following its Teletubbies promotion, Burger King is hitching its wagon to Warner Bros. Studios' "Wild, Wild West," which stars Will Smith and opens June 30.
In a sign of how competitive the summer fast-food sweepstakes has become, Burger King officials decline to release any details about the upcoming promotion.
Burger King ruled in past summers thanks to the Disney hits "The Lion King" and "Pocahontas," before being aced out by the McDonald's deal.
Meantime, hamburger chain Wendy's International has high hopes for Columbia Pictures' "Muppets in Space," which opens July 30. Wendy's Muppets promotion begins July 26.
"The Muppets have been and always will be a time-honored family tradition and this partnership is the perfect tie-in for families," said Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch.
But it's Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC--all units of Tricon Global Restaurants--that are expected to make up the team to beat this summer.
"I think [the "Star Wars" promotion] certainly has the potential for the three chains to build traffic quickly," said Robert L. Sandelman, president of a Brea-based market research company that specializes in the restaurant industry.
"This is going to be huge because of the positive history that surrounds 'Star Wars' and the fact that there has been so much hype over the new film," he said.
Tricon officials would not say how much they paid for the "Star Wars" deal, but they make it clear that they consider it invaluable publicity.
"Our goal is to extend the experience of the movie into our restaurants," said Lauren Heller, vice president of media, entertainment and licensing at the Taco Bell unit. "If they keep coming back, then we know we've succeeded."
The "Star Wars" tie-in marks the first time that three different fast-food chains have shared promotion of a single movie. The three chains together make Tricon the nation's second-largest restaurant company behind McDonald's.
If the promotion is a hit, it won't be the first time Taco Bell has profited handsomely from that particular movie franchise.
Following the first series of "Star Wars" promotions with Taco Bell in 1997, then-parent PepsiCo Inc. saw a 4% increase in sales at stores open at least a year.
Taco Bell first struck gold in 1989 with a movie campaign tied to "Batman," when stealing life-size cardboard cut-outs of the Caped Crusader from Taco Bell restaurants became a national craze.
But campaigns tied to movies are only as good as the movies themselves.
In 1995, Taco Bell staked its summer fortunes on Paramount Pictures' "Congo," which had a $24.6-million opening weekend, but whose ticket sales dropped sharply soon after. The "Congo" promotion proved no match for Burger King's "Pocahontas" and McDonald's "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" campaigns.
Burger King also has stumbled, most notably in the summer of 1993 when it committed to what seemed like a can't-miss hit: Columbia Pictures' "Last Action Hero" with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The film, which cost $70 million to make, was one of the year's biggest flops, taking in only $50 million in U.S. box-office receipts.
Adding to Burger King's woes that year was the fact that rival McDonald's had teamed up with "Jurassic Park," which was a huge box-office hit, eclipsed only by last year's "Titanic."
Tricon's Heller, who is supervising the current "Star Wars" promotion for Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, said she tries to finalize movie tie-in deals at least a year in advance.
"We go and meet with all the studios and try and make sure that whatever property we select and partner with [best] targets our consumers . . . and offers things from a merchandising standpoint that customers want to buy or collect," she said.
In addition to the debut of a movie-related game, "Defeat the Dark Side and Win," at all three Tricon chains, characters from the film come tucked inside kids' meals or can be purchased individually, along with other merchandise, for $1.49.
There are 28 collectible toys in all, but to collect the entire set, customers must visit all three chains, because various items are available only at that particular chain's outlets.
Eating lunch at a Taco Bell in Mission Viejo one day recently, Dana and Laurel Kemper seemed resigned to the fact that their 9-year-old twins, Matt and Christina, are going to be afflicted with "Star Wars" fever for months to come.
"They've been waiting for these toys for months," said their father.
"I imagine we'll end up having all of them."