“The Secret Life of Pets” was based on a simple premise: What are your furry friends up to when you’re not around? That, and people’s never-to-be-underestimated love of their animals, turned the 2016 animated movie into an $875-million global hit.
For the sequel, which hits theaters this weekend, Comcast Corp.-owned Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment have gone to extreme lengths to exploit that formula in their marketing efforts.
The studios have courted publicity from Kim Kardashian West and her dog Sushi, dozens of pet “influencer” accounts on Instagram and the hairdo chain Drybar, which is offering free blowouts for dogs at designated “Barkbars.” (Four-legged customers in Manhattan and West Hollywood can select from a menu of styles based on characters from the movie, including “The Gidget”: “Big hair, lots of volume.”)
A recent episode of the ABC series “The Bachelorette,” produced by Warner Bros., promoted the “The Secret Life of Pets 2” by having the male contestants do a photoshoot with cute animals. Bachelorette Hannah Brown watched in a secret room to see whether the men would flirt with the show’s attractive animal handler and makeup artist as they got ready to pose with the critters.
“I guess you could call this the secret life of Hannah’s guys,” said Demi Burnett, a former “Bachelor” contestant who appeared in the episode to explain the 10-minute segment.
A stretch for the sake of product integration, perhaps.
But such unlikely cross-promotions have increasingly become the norm for studios hyping their films in an entertainment market saturated with popular franchises including Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Endgame” and Walt Disney Studios’ “Aladdin.” The crowded multiplex — not to mention competition from prestige cable dramas, streaming and video games — have forced studio marketing departments to step up their game.
It’s now commonplace for studios to spend more than $100 million to market their biggest movies. And the omnipresent tie-ins and partnerships — which get films promoted in fast food chains and on grocery store items — can generate up to $400 million worth of additional publicity.
An average consumer can expect to be exposed to a movie’s marketing efforts more than 50 times before the film comes out, said marketing expert Gene Del Vecchio.
When you’re battling against other behemoths, you have to use every tool you can.
“They want to make sure every member of the audience is bombarded with messages,” said Del Vecchio, who wrote the book “Creating Blockbusters” and teaches entertainment marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “When you’re battling against other behemoths, you have to use every tool you can.”
The stakes are high for “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” which hits theaters two weeks before the highly anticipated Pixar sequel “Toy Story 4.” “Pets 2” is expected to gross $50 million to $60 million Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. That would be a solid start for the $80-million film, but still down significantly from the first “Pets,” which opened with a massive $104 million domestically.
“Sometimes, the market expands to accommodate two similar films, and sometimes it doesn’t,” David A. Gross, a film industry expert who runs the consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research Inc.
Hence the need to generate as much attention as possible before opening weekend.
Flooding every available advertising space is a familiar concept for “Pets 2” animation studio Illumination, the NBCUniversal-owned company behind the “Despicable Me” franchise and its “Minions” spinoff. The yellow, gibberish-spewing Minions from those movies have been used to sell Tic Tacs, paint and Chiquita bananas.
But even in an industry packed with out-of-left-field branding initiatives, some of the stunts for “Pets 2” have stood out. In a paid Instagram post last week, for example, Kim Kardashian West put up a photo of herself in a revealing black dress, next to a jarring image of her fluffy dog in the same outfit.
“Guess who’s trying to be the family favorite… SUSHI!!!!” read the caption for the post, which got 3.4 million likes. “Do your pets compete for attention when there’s a new [baby emoji] in the house??”
No demographic is left untargeted. The studio created a Snapchat filter that would allow users to give their dogs and cats animated mouths and voices in the app. An ad featuring Chloe the cat played before the online premiere of Taylor Swift’s video for her song “Me.”
Ads shown during the NBA playoffs featured players Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers and Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder with their dogs. “Secret Life of Pets 2” booked 16 ad spots during the first four games of the NBA Finals.
The studio also reached out to operators of popular pet accounts on Instagram, offering free swag in exchange for promoting the movie.
Corrine Scheffers, a 35-year-old underwriter near Kalamazoo, Mich., was contacted by a person working on the “Pets 2” campaign who asked her if she would be willing to post about the movie through the account she created for her 5-year-old Maltipoo, Cooper, for National Pet Day.
Scheffers, whose 10-year-old step-daughter is a fan of the original “Pets” movie, agreed. She received a package with a set of bright red “Secret Life of Pets 2” bandannas to put on Cooper and her new puppy, Kenna, along with a list of suggested hashtags to use in her post. Cooper and Kenna have roughly 9,370 followers, qualifying them as “micro-influencers.” While working with such small accounts isn’t necessarily new for advertisers, they can be a clever way to reach specific target audiences, such as pet-lovers, according to marketing experts.
It seems unlikely that such posts could do much to boost a film’s box office prospects. But the modern Hollywood strategy is to advertise everywhere, all the time, and that now includes your pooch’s Instagram account.
“Social media has become such an important thing for advertisers,” said Scheffers, who says she was not compensated beyond the “Pets” apparel. “Plus, what’s not to love about cute animals in oversized bandannas?”
Times staff writer Wendy Lee contributed to this report.