Artistic license

Product placement, common in film and television, makes a rare appearance in the theater.

The National Post, November 11, 2002 

When Baz Luhrmann’s production of Puccini’s opera La Bohème opens at New York’s Broadway Theater on Dec. 8, audience members will notice many of the liberties he’s taken. Luhrmann’s Bohème is set in Paris’s Latin Quarter, like the original. But it’s Paris in 1957, not the 1830s. The look of the production is a mix of film noir visuals and Henri Cartier-Bresson photographs, blended with vintage postcards.

‍     The set is made of partly deconstructed buildings that shift to mimic the effect of a moving motion picture camera. Perhaps less apparent: the product placement. Swiss luxury-goods maker Montblanc, a unit of Cie. Financière Richemont AG, and Piper-Heidsieck champagne, owned by Rémy Cointreau SA of France, are providing marketing help for the show. In return, their names and logos are featured prominently in the set: a Montblanc sign sits on a building’s second story; a Piper-Heidsieck poster adorns a wall.

‍     La Bohème’s producers say it’s a way to extend the marketing budget for a show rumored to cost US$6.5-million to put on. The average ticket will cost about US$100. Jeffrey Seller, one of those producers, hired an outside agent to find marketing partners for the production.

‍     In return for having its name prominently displayed onstage, Montblanc will put La Bohème posters and photographs of the cast in its 49 U.S. boutiques. It’s also paying for magazine advertising and direct mail marketing pushing the production. Montblanc also sells a pen named Bohème.

‍     Rémy Cointreau is also launching displays in New York liquor stores twinning its Piper-Heidsieck champagne and La Bohème. The company will donate the champagne for parties connected with the production, including its run in San Francisco — now almost finished — and the New York opening. In addition, Piper-Heidsieck will be served at the opera’s Cafe Momus in Act II, although nobody has said whether the play’s broke, tubercular, bohemian characters will be ordering it. Or how they could afford it.

‍     Product placement is non-existent in the theatre business so far. But Mr. Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, the production designer who is married to him, are familiar with it. The idea for this deal may have come from them. The American productions of La Bohème will mark the third and fourth times they’ve put on this particular show; they mounted the opera in Sydney in 1993 and again in 1996. In their first film, Strictly Ballroom, a key scene in the first act unfolds around a massive rooftop Coca-Cola sign, some version of which has appeared in every one of their movies. In Romeo+Juliet, Mr. Luhrmann and Ms. Martin used signs and posters as visual jokes and commentary. Advertising imagery was also important in their movie Moulin Rouge. Ms. Martin said she was careful to include advertising from companies that were in business in Paris in 1957 in her stage design.

‍     Product placement is already big business in film and television. The forthcoming James Bond movie, Die Another Day, for example, has deals for US$50 million in marketing support and product placement with automaker Ford, cosmetics company Revlon and Swatch. There are also agreements with videogame company Electronic Arts and Visa credit cards. Finally, in this picture, Bond has forsaken Smirnoff vodka in his shaken-not-stirred martinis for Finlandia.

‍      Procter & Gamble has a “product integration deal” with CBS, as well as its subsidiary networks MTV and the American version of the Discovery channel.

‍     Product placement’s reach and frequency are growing. But expressing that growth in dollar terms is impossible.

‍     “How big a business is it? That’s the Holy Grail. Nobody knows,” said Hank Kim, editor of a new newsletter titled Madison And Vine which covers the confluence of entertainment and marketing. “Some companies are trying to figure out some means of measuring the size of the product placement business and how effective it is as a marketing tool, but nobody has a working model yet.

‍     “We haven’t done any product placement in our productions, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be interested,” said Nisha Lewis of the Canadian Opera Company. “Sun Life sponsors our surtitles, and they get their logo on the surtitle screen as part of that deal. Our school tour in the spring is now the Zellers Ensemble School Tour because Zellers underwrites it.” Members of the COC tour 50 grammar schools every spring with a program comprising an operatic take on Brothers Grimm fairy tales by Dan Burry, and a 45-minute highlight version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. By contrast, New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company does not have sponsors for its surtitles.

‍     “We have had opportunities come to us on a couple of occasions here in this market over the last couple of years. But it’s not a major part of what we do,” said Dave Newton, president of product placement firm Premier Entertainment Services. His company has put together product placement deals for movies and television productions including The Sopranos. “It’s not a major part of what we do because the opportunities aren’t as abundant as the number of filmed opportunities.”

‍      This product-placement Puccini could be facing other problems. Playbill Inc., which makes the programs handed out at Broadway theatres, has contracts giving it the rights to all advertising at a venue. In the early 1980s, Playbill demanded Cats alter its scenery to cover part of a poster for a brand-name product that was part of the set.

‍     And more recently, the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago asked for 14 Nokia cellphones and US$10,000 in cash for a show called Ariadne’s Thread. Nokia said no.

‍     While theatrical product placement remains rare, Premier’s Mr. Newton didn’t rule out its potential for growth: “You never know.”



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