>From the WSJ:
April 30, 2001
Page One Feature
Brand Managers Serve as Star Agents
In Threshold's Latest Movie 'Foodfight'
By BRUCE ORWALL
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Early in the production of a forthcoming film called "Foodfight," there
was a whiff of trouble on the set. One of the stars, a well-known TV
muscleman making his wide-screen debut, was balking at a scene that called
on him to be pushed around. His handlers drew the line.
"Mr. Clean would not be beat up by a wimpy person," declares Michael
Burkeen, assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble Co.'s cleaning
product. Concerned that an early version of the script was not portraying
Mr. Clean as a "strong leader," Mr. Burkeen offered some suggestions for
"what we think you should do." The scene was fixed.
For a Santa Monica, Calif., company called Threshold Entertainment, making
a movie with trademarked characters turns out to be just as politically
fraught as working with other superstars. In the computer-animated
"Foodfight," slated for release next year, supermarket products come to
life after the checkout clerks and baggers have gone home. The stars of
the film, also animated figures, aren't related to real products.
But dozens of the supporting roles are reserved for characters like Mrs.
Butterworth and Uncle Ben, Chef Boyardee and Chester Cheetah -- who have
been drilled into our brains over the years by TV advertising. Threshold
says the characters are necessary to create an "authentic" supermarket
environment, so the company has had to make many deals with the folks who
own the little pitchpeople. There are parts for the Dinty Moore Stew
Lumberjack and Mr. Owl, who has spent years calculating how many licks it
takes to get to the chewy, chocolatey center of a Tootsie Pop.
But you can't hire Count Chocula or the Alphabits without jumping through
hoops. Larry Kasanoff, Threshold's chairman and chief executive, and Josh
Wexler, the company's chief interactive officer, are the $50 million
film's creators. Their company, which makes movies and TV shows and
operates Web sites, considers itself an intellectual-property-management
firm. And the pair has spent about two years cajoling companies to let
them use their characters, with some of the negotiations still in
Like any Hollywood production, this one involves navigating around the
stars' egos, carefully crafted images and lofty notions of how much the
public loves them. Movie stars have agents. These characters have brand
managers to defend their honor in Hollywood.
"We have to protect the brand image above all else," explains Patti
Ganguzza, president of Aim Productions, a company that has helped several
companies put their products in the film. "When you're talking about
animating a character like Mrs. Butterworth, there are going to be a lot
of legal issues and creative input. She does have a voice. She does speak
in commercials. So when she speaks in the film, we have to talk about what
that voice is, and who she is."
Charlie the Tuna, longtime spokesfish for H.J. Heinz Co.'s StarKist brand,
is known as the tuna with good taste who doesn't understand that StarKist
only wants tuna that tastes good. Yet StarKist senior brand manager
Duminda Ariyasinghe says, "part of the strength of Charlie is that he's
got a fair depth beyond the 'Sorry, Charlie' line." He has the range to
"deliver more than just a one-liner."
That, Mr. Ariyasinghe says, is one reason Charlie enjoys a special status
in the movie. While some of the other brands may end up cheek by jowl with
rivals -- cereal characters from Post and General Mills, for example --
Charlie is the only tuna, and there is no Chicken of the Sea mermaid.
"They recognized what Charlie was bringing to the table," Mr. Ariyasinghe
Mr. Kasanoff agrees that Charlie is "funny, and works, so he gets a good
role." But contractually, StarKist doesn't have "category exclusivity" in
the film, because Threshold didn't offer that to anybody. "It's like
telling a talent manager, 'Good news, no other blondes but your actress!'
" Mr. Kasanoff says.
Threshold didn't make traditional "product-placement" deals in which a
company pays for exposure. Companies are paying nothing to be included in
"Foodfight," and Threshold retains full creative control. That arrangement
is meant to give Threshold the latitude it needs to make an entertaining
movie, not a feature-length commercial. Thus, in one scene Threshold hopes
to include an M&M candy confessing to "peanut envy."
But Threshold is willing to make accommodations, as it did for Mr. Clean.
"We don't want to disparage the brands," says Mr. Wexler, who has visited
some of the companies two or three times to make sure they're happy.
Threshold has another reason to be nice. It hopes to persuade companies to
launch products based on characters Threshold itself created for the
movie, Dex Detective and Daredevil Dan, for example. Mr. Kasanoff sees
potential riches in a long-term licensing deal with, say, General Mills.
But he is adamant about this: "I don't want to be beholden to anyone who
might say, 'We'll license Daredevil Dan if you give us a line in the
Indeed, none of the corporate characters are guaranteed screen time,
meaning that any character that doesn't "serve the film" could wind up cut
out. Threshold stopped pursuing rights for "the Contadina lady," a
character based on the smiling woman whose head and shoulders are on cans
of tomato paste. The script called for her to play a scene with Chef
Boyardee, but Mr. Kasanoff says that "by the time we put a body on her and
styled her, she looked so different from the artwork" that the idea was
Things are looking brighter for some others. Mike Redd, vice president of
cake marketing for Interstate Brands Corp. says its Hostess brand is
pleased with the role landed by the Twinkie guy. "In my mind," says Mr.
Redd, "Twinkie the Kid takes on almost a kind of sheriff's role. He's
there to fight the good fight." He also has hopes for Interstate's Dolly
Madison character, whom the script has brushing off a pick-up artist with
a sassy: "Get a shelf life."
The key appeal for the companies, however, may be the
Corporate-America-style happy ending. In the film, the real-life
supermarket brands find themselves under attack by an evil force known as
Brand X. "The brands win, as they always do," says Ellen Gordon, president
of Tootsie Roll Industries Inc., which is lending two characters to the
film. "That's true in life. There have been a lot of things that have
tried to take over. But what has staying power? Brands."
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