Sony, Rovio hope $400 million promo surge will help ‘Angry Birds’ soar

Above, a scene from "The Angry Birds Movie." (Photo credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Above, a scene from “The Angry Birds Movie.” (Photo credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

By Ryan Faughnder
Los Angeles Times

The “Angry Birds” video game has been an object of obsession for celebrities, public intellectuals and government officials.

And now Sony Pictures Entertainment and game developer Rovio Entertainment are hoping to turn the addictive mobile app into a much needed summer box-office hit. Sony, which releases the movie Friday, is using every tool at its disposal to make sure the ill-tempered, multicolored flock is everywhere in sight.

The marketing push, including promotional partnerships and the studio’s own spending, has reached an estimated $400 million, making it the biggest-ever campaign for an animated Sony movie, according to executives at the company.
Partnerships with the likes of McDonald’s and Ziploc have generated more than $300 million in promotions and ads for the computer-animated film — a big number even for a major studio release, analysts said. Promotional tie-ins for a high-profile movie would normally total around $200 million.

“What they’re trying to do is make this a perennial pop culture property,” said Robert Marich, a movie industry analyst and author of “Marketing to Moviegoers.” “If this fails, ‘Angry Birds’ could wind up on the trash heap of properties like Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch dolls.”

The big marketing push reflects the rising competition in the animation field. Sony and Rovio are hoping to make their movie stand out in a crowded field of summer animated movies that includes Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” Universal Pictures’ “The Secret Life of Pets” and 20th Century Fox’s new “Ice Age” film.

Sony and Rovio are betting their efforts will be enough to turn “Angry Birds” into a long-term cultural staple and profit driver, the way the “Despicable Me” and “Lego” films are for Universal Pictures and Warner Bros., respectively.

Rovio produced the new Angry Birds movie and financed its $73 million production cost, limiting the financial risk for Sony. The Finnish company, which first released the avian-themed mobile app in 2009, wants to keep the characters alive so it can sell more apps and merchandise based on the cuddly fowl.

“This isn’t just a quick choice to exploit a brand that has already been successful,” said Joe Lawson, who leads promotions for Rovio Animation, a division of Rovio Entertainment. “We’re treating this as a tent-pole movie.”

Sony in particular is in need of new franchises. It currently ranks in seventh place among the studios in terms of domestic ticket sales so far this year, lagging behind even the struggling Paramount Pictures and mini-major Lionsgate, according to data firm comScore.

Despite the birds’ worldwide fame, turning the game into a box-office draw is a gamble for Sony and Rovio. Movies based on games and toys have traditionally struggled both creatively and commercially, especially when the source material lacked a story line or well-defined characters to draw on. The “Angry Birds” game, which requires a single finger to play, gave the birds no backstory, personality characteristics or clear motivations.

And the games, while still ranked high on the iTunes app charts, are not the cultural phenomenon they were five or six years ago. Last year Rovio had to cut 260 jobs, or about a third of its workforce, because the company said it expanded too aggressively after the success of its signature game.

“The game’s popularity was really at its height a while ago, but it’s still got some good brand recognition,” said Wade Holden, a research analyst at SNL Kagan who follows the media industry.

Holden and other analysts expect the film to produce a solid showing at the box office. “The Angry Birds Movie” is projected to gross about $40 million in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. It has already raked in about $43 million overseas.

The Culver City studio has teamed with more than 100 companies to get the word out — from go-to kids brands like McDonald’s, to less obvious partners like the Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt chain, the Happy Egg Company and even French automaker Citroen.

“The Angry Birds Movie” may not have the ubiquity of Universal Pictures’ “Minions” from last year (partners for that film generated a jaw-dropping $600 million). Still, the studio and its partners have been aggressive, said David Maisel, executive producer of the “Angry Birds” movie and former Marvel Studios chief. Sony’s own marketing budget on the picture was about $100 million.

“This definitely has the marketing campaign of a major summer blockbuster,” Maisel said. “There’s been no hesitation.”

If it works, the birds will join the ranks of Sony’s recent successes in the animation business. The studio has enjoyed wins including the “Hotel Transylvania” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” movies, though the studio stumbled after its launch in 2002 with such misfires as “Open Season.”

Sony and Rovio are hoping to draw not just the kids who normally fill theater seats for animated movies but also the grownups that played it on planes and car rides.

“Angry Birds” games have generated 3.3 billion app downloads and have made famous fans out of Anna Kendrick, Conan O’Brien, Salman Rushdie and, reportedly, British Prime Minister David Cameron. Maisel said he was first inspired to make the movie after seeing his then-84-year-old mother playing the game on her iPad and hearing her curse in frustration at the birds and pigs.

To better appeal to adults, the filmmakers cast a wide array of well-known actors including Peter Dinklage (of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), along with Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and Sean Penn.

“The merchandising is obviously a play toward bringing in kids, but the voice cast may further help appeal to parents, and perhaps adults who enjoy the games on their own,” said Shawn Robbins, an analyst with Boxoffice.com.

Additionally the companies tried to use the game’s digitally savvy audience to their advantage, by marketing directly to the game’s players. The McDonald’s stores and Happy Meal boxes will feature codes that mobile phone users can scan to access features in the most recent “Angry Birds” game.

To better reach international audiences, McDonald’s tailored its overseas campaign with special menu items in some countries, including a Naughty Green Burger in China, an Angry Matcha Parfait in Thailand and Bomb’s Black Sesame McDip in the Philippines.

Other companies participating in the campaign included the Novotel European hotel chain, Home Depot, Nestle, HSBC and Telefonica, a roster that typically wouldn’t be expected to get in line behind a children’s movie, said Ziad Toubassy, Sony Pictures’ vice president of international promotions.

“The fact that there was a broader demographic that played the game opened some extra doors for brands that wouldn’t normally make sense as a tie-in for an animated movie,” Toubassy said.

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