The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Did CBS Films play hide and seek with its 'Extraordinary Measures' TV ads?

January 19, 2010 |  5:22 pm

No matter how Harrison Ford's new movie, "Extraordinary Measures," ends up doing at the box office this weekend, you can't say that CBS Films didn't go all out to promote the medical drama, which is the debut release for CBS' new film division.

For the last few weeks, whenever I've gone for a run in my neighborhood, I've passed a giant billboard on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica promoting the film. Whenever I turned on oldies stations like KRTH-FM or KCBS (Jack-FM), I've heard ads for the film. And when I watched the big NFL playoff games on CBS this past weekend, it was impossible to avoid a series of 30-second spots promoting the film.

It's no wonder the ads got terrific penetration, since they were all displayed or broadcast on entities owned by CBS, which has an extensive network of radio stations and a huge billboard division in addition to its local and network TV stations. But something important was missing from the "Extraordinary Measures" TV spots. Even though CBS has been going out of its way to promote its new film division, which is the brainchild of CBS President Les Moonves, the latest TV spots for its first movie didn't mention CBS Films anywhere.

Moonves Warner Bros. had its logo on its TV spot for the new Mel Gibson film, "Edge of Darkness." Lionsgate's logo was on prominent display in its TV spot for the upcoming film "From Paris with Love."  So why didn't CBS have its film company's logo on its "Extraordinary Measures" TV spots?

As Moonves explained to me over the phone today, he realized he had a problem when he was at an recent investor conference and talk turned to "Extraordinary Measures." There seemed to be some confusion about what kind of film it was. "Someone said to me, 'Is this a real movie or is it something you're doing on Showtime?' " Moonves recalled. " I told them, 'No, this is a real movie.' But that set off a little bit of a warning signal for us."

So even though the film's initial TV spots had a "CBS Films Presents" logo, Moonves decided, after discussing the issue with CBS Films chief Amy Baer, that it would be a good idea to avoid any audience confusion. "Our logo is still on the trailer, the poster and the outdoor ads," Moonves said. "But after Amy and I talked it over, we decided that we should do something, since CBS isn't identified yet as a movie company. CBS has been viewed as a TV network for 60 years, so we didn't want to give off the wrong signal. We didn't want people thinking 'Extraordinary Measures' was a TV movie or a Showtime film."

There has been widespread skepticism about CBS' entry into the movie business, especially considering the shaky track record of new film companies in recent years. Industryites have also scoffed at the new film division's plan to make $30-million to $50-million mid-budget movies at a time when the rest of Hollywood has been racing to get out of the mid-budget arena, pointing to a long list of "tweener" films that have crashed and burned at the box office, even with movie stars in leading roles. ("The Blind Side" was a recent mid-budget film that had enormous success, but most industry insiders view that film as a pleasant surprise, not a trend setter.)

However, Moonves contends that CBS Films has a unique built-in advantage over its rivals, especially when it comes to reining in the skyrocketing marketing costs that have eaten up much of the potential profits from mid-sized films' grosses. That's where those billboards and radio stations come in. Though Moonves won't give an exact figure, he says CBS will spend "significantly less" in marketing dollars to get the same marketing boost as rival studios who routinely spend $30 million to $40 million to open a new release.

"At any given time, whether the economy is good or bad, 30% of our billboards weren't sold," Moonves explains. "When times were bad, the pricing went down, but the occupancy was still 70%. So we've used all those empty billboards to promote our network and Showtime shows, and now we're putting them to use to promote our new films. It's a way to make your money go a lot further."

With the many new digital billboards polluting dotting the landscape, the same basic economics apply. CBS makes use of all the empty space available to promote its own entertainment products. "If someone pays top dollar, we'll take down some of our ads, but when we don't have a sale, there's a lot of space available, so we get a pretty big bang for our buck." (Moonves says his radio stations also often have a lot of unused inventory, also allowing for plenty of ads to promote CBS product.)

The one marketing coup Moonves won't take credit for is Ford's appearance last Sunday on the "CBS News Sunday Morning" show. The 10-minute feature on Ford's career offered plenty of free plugs for "Extraordinary Measures," with footage from the film liberally used throughout the segment. I'm not saying it was a puff job, although the feature offered the following dialogue:

CBS correspondent Rita Braver: "You know, for a lot of us who go to Harrison Ford movies, your looks are part of the draw."

Harrison Ford: "You oughta have your eyes examined, because I don't see myself as having -- ahem -- movie star looks."

Braver: "You don't?"

Ford: "Nooooooo."

Moonves insists he had nothing to do with prodding the CBS news division to plug its entertainment arm's new film. "Our marketing people went out and got the story after Harrison basically came to us and said he'd do anything to promote the film. Would the 'Sunday Morning' people have done it because it was CBS? Maybe. But not because I or anyone else approached them. I never spoke to anyone. In fact, I only heard about the story after they'd shot it."

Photos: Brendan Fraser (left) and Harrison Ford in "Extraordinary Measures" from CBS Films; Les  Moonves by John Filo / CBS