Wanna slink into the leather pants Shannen Doherty dons on Charmed? Fancy slipping on the loafers Dr. Evil wears in Austin Powers? Or, heck, just covet that cutting board you glimpsed on 7th Heaven? All these (and more!) can be yours, as savvy Internet sites begin mixing old-fashioned product placement with newfangled e-commerce.
Sound like a scenario from The Jetsons? It’s happening right now. At AsSeenIn.com (http://www.AsSeenIn.com), officially launching in September, surfers can troll through the homes of Charmed‘s Halliwell sisters, 7th Heaven‘s Camden family, or Any Day Now‘s Mary Elizabeth (Annie Potts). Clicking on on-screen pillows, paintings, chairs, TVs, and clothes brings up links to the manufacturers: Pier 1, Sony, Farberware, Kenwood, and dozens of other suppliers. “If they’re sitting there [watching TV]], see something that’s really nice, and wonder how to get that,” says Sam Baldoni, president of AsSeenIn, “most people won’t pick up the phone and try to call [the studio]. Now all they have to do is go to their computer.”
A lot of folks have already done just that. In its first few days, the AsSeenIn test site received more than 40,000 hits, helped in part by links from Charmed fan pages. And this is only the beginning. Baldoni, who negotiates production deals for Spelling Television, won’t restrict the site to his boss’ shows: Come fall, AsSeenIn will be hawking wares from dozens of movies and TV programs. In return, the site plans to receive a flat linkage fee from each retailer and a percentage of product sales — to be shared, in turn, with the shows and films that feature the product. Industry watchers agree that this represents a major new online revenue stream. “What if I said, ‘That’s a Calvin Klein sweater, and it’s also worn by your [favorite] star?'” says Michael Tchong, the editor for San Francisco Internet marketing newsletter Iconocast Inc. “Then you have two reasons to buy it. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
He will. Studio sites are scrambling to strike similar deals with manufacturers whose products are featured in TV shows and movies. Cash-tight networks have been the most aggressive: On General Hospital, cast members donned T-shirts that could conveniently be purchased at ABC’s site (http://www.abc.go.com). More blatantly, a recent Guiding Light story line had a popular character, Reva Lewis, receiving a bracelet from her daughter — the same bracelet now doing brisk business at the CBS site (http://www.cbs.com).
All this synergy raises a question: Will product marketability begin to dictate the creative content of movies and shows? Do plotlines and dialogue about Serta Sleepers and Gap Relaxed Fit Khakis loom in our future? Tchong is hesitant: “They could make TV shows [into] complete fashion shows to sell branded merchandise,” he says. “We really haven’t seen the start of it yet.”
For her part, Barbara Esensten, a head writer for Guiding Light, is forthcoming about her show’s e-commerce collaboration: When the marketing department introduced a Guiding Light-inspired bracelet, stamped with such words as passion, courage, and honor, Esensten decided to use it in Reva’s story line. She denies that product placement would ever be a creative force, however. “I can see that this can be used for ill as well as for good,” she admits. “It shouldn’t be someone saying, ‘I’ve got some soap to sell, write a story about Reva in the bathtub.'”
Although movie studios have less of a bottom-line compulsion, that doesn’t mean they’re sitting this one out. Fox Searchlight Pictures (http://www.foxsearch light.com) plans more film-related tie-ins, prompted in part by the release of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in May. Fans began barraging Searchlight trying to find the movie’s promo “dream pillows” (what we mortals call sleep masks). Several turned up at online auction sites, suggesting a market outside the usual video and soundtrack tie-ins. Marc Weinstock, director of marketing, insists, however, that Searchlight’s is not a money-driven plan. “We’re not going to make a million dollars doing it. The purpose of the site is to make people happy: Here’s your trailers, here’s music from the film, here’s props or anything you want.”
Even more e-assertive is the New Line Cinema site (http://www.newline.com). When people began calling the studio to find out where to buy the shades Wesley Snipes sports in Blade, Nevin Shalit, VP of new-media projects, struck a deal with manufacturer Black Flys. Along with Dr. Evil’s aforementioned Hush Puppies, the site offers the line of Mojoware T-shirts seen on Scott Evil in the Austin Powers sequel and an Austin-inspired male-symbol medallion — also a result of fan inquiries. Shalit and staff now make it a practice to see early cuts of films to search for stuff they think will sell online; such persistence has helped the site’s sales grow fourfold in the last year. “People love it and are very passionate,” Shalit says. “I do think it helps the movie, and I think it helps people feel connected to the movie and even to the company.” And, oh, yes, it can be a moneymaker — with items like the Black Flys shades, Shalit acts as a retailer, buying product at wholesale and marking it up.
The most recent addition to the New Line site: auctions (auction.newline.com) of actual movie props and costumes from Boogie Nights, Rush Hour, and Austin Powers — and all New Line films in the future. “We’re trying to think more and more outside of the traditional framework,” Shalit says. “People do love T-shirts and posters, but if you stop there you’re really missing the boat.” Hey, speaking of boats, where do we get that one from Baywatch?