How Far Away Are We from Sponsored Movies?

Editor's Note: With a respectful nod toward Morgan Spurlock's latest film (The Greatest Movie Ever Sold) when will the first tentpole film go with a named sponsor?

We are bombarded by advertisements. It is a fact gleefully spun into a thousand dystopian and bitter storylines (They Live, the book Jennifer Government, Wall-E, Dawn of the Dead, Robocop, etc.) and something we lament as getting worse and worse. But advertising has dominated media since we invented media. The first newspapers are choked with snake-oil ads, and billboards have been around since the 19th century. With every new form of media comes a new way of advertising. It's simply unavoidable.

But it does seem incredibly unfair to have our entertainment soaked in unsubtle product placement. It's one thing to buy the new ad-driven Kindle -- you've entered into an agreement of a lower price for a bit of sponsorship. It's another to buy a ticket (a full priced movie ticket, no less!) and be subjected to a barrage of conspicuously placed products dotting the film. One would think audiences could at least receive a free Coke or Pepsi from the concession stand in exchange for watching it chugged onscreen, a gesture that would undoubtedly pay off by making us even thirstier and more appreciative of the brand. But no. Our reward is merely to see them placed attractively in the hope we'll subconsciously wish to purchase them post-movie.

Again, we pretend this is a new phenomenon, but it's actually as old as the movies themselves. New media begets new ad placement, remember, and critics were denouncing this particular version as early as the 1920s. Before films had sound, they had product placement. The first film to win Best Picture – the silent film Wings – featured a prominent (and purchased!) use of Hershey chocolate bars. Ah, capitalism!

But even if the practice is (nearly) as old as the Hollywood Hills, it certainly has reached new heights of mercenary ugliness.


E.T. eating Reese's Pieces is almost quaint compared to Will Smith's "vintage 2004" Converse moment in I, Robot or every minute of Michael Bay's The Island. (Or, really, any Bay film of recent memory.) Even Bay seems like a poet in comparison to the drunken consumerism of The Wizard (a film that was actually partly financed by Nintendo) and Mac and Me. At least The Wizard and Bay's Transformers are honest about their use of brands; the filmmakers of Mac and Me still allege no money exchanged hands for their commercial-cum-movie. (The director can actually be seen in the film waving $400 around as Mac drinks a Coke which can't just be a snarky "People will think I was bribed!" joke. Particularly since Bay then springs out of his head, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It's was a moment of cinema verite that remained unexplained until Bad Boys came out.)

As budgets spiral out of control, how long will it be before a movie is completely sponsored by a company? Does 2014 sound like a good guess to you? It does to me. Because according to PQ Media, product placement (and this is a number that encompasses all forms of entertainment – Internet, movies, television, and video games) is projected to be a $6.1 billion market in 2014. There are now agencies whose sole purpose of existence is to add brands into story scripts making, in the words of PQ Media's CEO Patrick Quinn, "the real estate of the screen that much more important." With $6.1 billion at stake, someone is going to realize the cleaner and simpler way to sell a product via cinema.

But 2014 might be cutting a little close. Perhaps we should estimate it closer to 2015 or 2017. By then, the real estate of the screen might be so cluttered by Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron gamely pimping BeBe, Guess, Nike and Starbucks that companies are seeing a little loss as audiences strain for the script amidst the logos. Sales are booming, but not as much as they ought to be. Where else could a hungry corporation slap a logo? How could they dominate that real estate?

By sponsoring the movie itself, of course. If Transformers VI became Lexus Presents: Transformers VI, that increases advertising by a number I can't even calculate. The brand name is stamped on everything, from the television spots to the actual tickets purchased. It would guarantee Lexus full domination on the screen, ousting all other brand names, except for what shares they might grant to food or clothing. I'm not sure how that would work, as I'm not that well versed in marketing synergy. I can imagine it would be whatever companies Lexus shareholders had stakes in. Perhaps they own a lot of Apple or Pepsi stock. But Lexus – whose parent company is Toyota – would dominate and make the lion's share of profit. The studio would also benefit, as a massive global brand would shoulder the budget burden, ensuring they would be in the black from the green-light.

If you're skeptical, just look at Disney. They embraced this with their rides long ago. Even some of their restaurants are "presented" by some company or other. I've never understood the reasoning exactly, since Disney must generate enough revenue to keep up The Tiki Room without requiring Dole to sponsor it. But, if Dole or M&Ms wants to throw money at a particular ride, and pay Disney to do so, what company turns down money? (Hint: The dumb ones.) Most major musical acts also have their tours sponsored by a corporation, despite that their labels are usually part of a massive conglomerate, and the arenas they play in are branded ... and so on.

Really, it's a wonder that Hollywood hasn't done it already. (The Internet has – visit YouTube, where Lexus is proud to present Girl Walks Into Bar, a full length feature starring Carla Gugino.) But I suppose we should never underestimate the fervent -- if sometimes laughable – belief that an I, Robot or The Island is pure art and not a commercial. And who among us would care if they did go commercial? If Hollywood could get a few big popcorn films underwritten, perhaps that might shake up enough money to throw at small scripts – like the small sci-fi stories I recently praised -- that would satisfy their vague artistic yearnings and the audience's hunger for something not presented by Red Bull. I could certainly live with some capitalist compromise, though I suspect that once that door is open, it wouldn't close until it collapsed under the weight of Kelloggs Presents: Avatar 3.