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Originally published Saturday, February 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Academy's red carpet big stage for advertisers

This year, the advertisers are better known than the movies. After being threatened by the Hollywood writers strike, the 80th annual Academy...

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — This year, the advertisers are better known than the movies.

After being threatened by the Hollywood writers strike, the 80th annual Academy Awards telecast will roll on Sunday with its customary glamour and coterie of stars.

That's a relief for the Walt Disney Co., which had sold most of its commercial time before November, when the strike began, for a record $1.8 million for a 30-second commercial, an increase of nearly 6 percent from last year.

The Oscars remain one of television's biggest events and a favorite draw among advertisers who plunk down millions to be associated with Hollywood — even during a year, like this one, when TV viewing levels are down and many people haven't seen the films that have been nominated for top honors.

Only "Juno," the story of a pregnant teenager, has topped $100 million at the box office. The other films competing for best picture — "No Country For Old Men," "Atonement," "Michael Clayton" and "There Will be Blood" — each have grossed less than $65 million in theaters.

"This year we don't have the 'Lord of the Rings' or any other big blockbuster, nor do we have any great enthusiasm about the host, Jon Stewart," said Kelly O'Keefe, an advertising professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University.

Still, advertisers and ABC are betting that this year's obscure films won't diminish the appeal of the program. The show's producers have added several crowd-pleasers to the list of presenters, including Jack Nicholson and Miley Cyrus of Disney's "Hannah Montana" fame.

"The show is bigger than the individual movie titles," said Geri Wang, ABC's senior vice president for prime-time sales. "It's larger than the sum of its parts. We believe there is a lot of pent-up demand for this program not only within the entertainment industry but also among our viewers and advertisers."

Over the years, the audience for the Academy Awards has fluctuated.

The peak was a decade ago, when more than 55 million people watched "Titanic" win 11 Oscars, including best picture.

The nadir came five years ago, when 33 million viewers tuned into the broadcast that came just two days after the U.S. invaded Iraq.

ABC cut away from the program to its news anchor, the late Peter Jennings, who gave somber updates on the war. The winner was the musical "Chicago," which had generated only $65 million in ticket sales before it was nominated, about on par with most of this year's nominees.

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"Coming-out party"

In 2007, when "The Departed" won best picture, 40.2 million people watched the broadcast. Network executives are hoping that because the writers' strike derailed Hollywood's other prizefests, including the Golden Globes, there should be less award-show fatigue than in previous years.

"It's a coming-out party for Hollywood," said Chris Jogis, vice president, U.S. Brand Development, MasterCard Worldwide.

Even if the show posts lower ratings, it would not affect ABC, which makes about $10 million to $20 million a year in profit from the awards show it has hosted since 1976.

ABC does not provide ratings guarantees, which means that advertisers do not receive refunds or free commercial time if ratings fall short of projections.

"With live events, you pay your money and take your chances," said Ryndee Carney, spokeswoman for General Motors, which has bought 3 ½ minutes in this year's show to promote its Cadillac, GMC and Saturn car lines. "But the Academy Awards are always a premier property. People love to tune in to see what people are wearing and who wins the awards."

GM, MasterCard, American Express, JC Penney, Coca-Cola, Mars' M&M candies, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and L'Oreal are among the advertisers returning to the red carpet again this year.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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