Movie Tie-Ins Sting Like a Bee

You won't find turkey on the McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) menu. An expanded sandwich menu at Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) could serve up a little carved turkey, but you won't be gobbling down a Gobble Latte anytime soon.

However, McDonald's and Starbucks do have a hand in dishing out turkeys of the Hollywood variety. Happy Meal toys at Mickey D's have been featuring characters from Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) The Wild, and Starbucks has been promoting Lions Gate's (NYSE: LGF  ) Akeelah and the Bee. Both have opened poorly at the box office.

These disappointments force us to question whether the movie world's move to warm up to chains with wide reaches is ineffective or, even worse, counterproductive.

The Akeelah idea
When Starbucks announced back in January that it would be promoting the feel-good spelling-bee flick, it sounded like a pretty ambitious plan. Many baristas would be able to screen the film before its release, and Starbucks was hoping to move a ton of movie soundtracks now and a lot of the DVDs when they come out early next year.

Creating a grassroots groundswell is not a bad idea. Informed baristas would have the appropriate incentive to talk up the movie and pitch the related merchandise. Critics were generally kind in reviewing the inspirational tale of an inner-city girl working her way up to compete in the National Spelling Bee, so it's not as if the movie let the marketing down.

So how do you spell "disappointment," Akeelah? It starts with a lame opening weekend gross of $6.3 million. That placed it eighth among a rather uninspiring batch of springtime releases. Depending on how you look at it, Lions Gate Films took in just about a million filmgoers over the weekend -- or 2 million Mocha Valencia servings at your local Starbucks.

No one was expecting Akeelah to trump more hyped openings like United 93 or R.V., but there's no way that having seven movies gross more this past weekend can be classified as anything but a failure.

Happy Meal's unhappy turn
Then we have the McFiasco at Mickey D's. For weeks, McDonald's has been loading up its kids' meals with toys based on characters from Disney's The Wild. Unlike the movie that Starbucks got behind, most critics panned this one. In one case, thanks to the film's absurd similarities to DreamWorks Animation's (NYSE: DWA  ) Madagascar, a critic brilliantly tagged the movie as Badagascar.

Three weeks in, the computer-animated feature has grossed $28.4 million domestically. That may not even be enough to cover its marketing budget, much less the film's alleged $80 million production budget.

Because of McDonald's deal with Disney, you can't fault the fast-food giant for backing a dud. In a few weeks, McDonald's will benefit from promoting Pixar's (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) Cars, so it has to take the good (meaning anything by Pixar) along with the bad (meaning everything else).

Besides, the point isn't whether a company that knows how to pour a mean venti decaf latte or flip a Big Mac is qualified to pick a celluloid blockbuster. The real question here is whether it's an appropriate marketing approach for the actual filmmakers.

Betting against the masses
The argument in favor of promoting through established hubs of foot traffic is one of numbers. Starbucks has more than 11,000 locations worldwide, and McDonald's kicked off the year with nearly 32,000 units globally. The companies provide a captive audience. That's something that can't be said for most of the other platforms -- radio, TV, the Web, print outlets, or billboards at busy intersections -- that can be easily circumvented.

In theory, customers at these stores should make up a great group to market new films to. Folks who are on the go to the point of eating out or sipping premium coffee are also likely to be predisposed to taking in a movie. It doesn't hurt that the Starbucks brand implies paying up for quality and that even McDonald's has been busy in recent years upgrading its menu.

Whether the films are spectacular or horrendous, there should be enough ammo in Starbucks and McDonald's to at least drive a strong opening weekend to a new film.

Reality, however, teaches us otherwise.

I have argued in the past that kids'-meal playthings may siphon off actual toy sales for the related properties. But I never could have fathomed that the entire angle won't help theatrical runs and could possibly even dampen the prospects. Too much exposure -- too much information -- can be as dissuasive as it persuasive, it seems.

There's a perfect balance to strike in marketing a new film. These two recent disappointing releases open the door to avoiding the use of quick-service chains as a gateway to a built-in audience. Even if there are examples where it has worked out in the past, the disparity between hit and miss renders the approach as little more than random at best and a non-event at worst.

Dinner and a movie? Follow up a flick with a cup of joe? Don't bank on it.

Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have been recommended to readers of theMotley Fool Stock Advisornewsletter service.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz can walk to two Starbucks from his home, but he's still not much of a coffee sipper. He does own shares in Disney and Pixar. TheFool has a disclosure policy. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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