In much the same way that millennials have been blamed for ruining everything from American cheese to sex, the coronavirus is taking its lumps for destabilizing a range of industries including travel, hospitality and the movie biz. And while the latter category may be conspicuous by its absence during our nation’s annual celebration of marketing prowess and frenzied consumption, the pandemic alone won’t account for the dearth of movie teasers during the Super Bowl LV broadcast on CBS.
Movies have been decoupling themselves from the Big Game for a number of years, and while the virus may ultimately administer the coup de grâce to the big theater chains, the industry has been ailing for some time. The average citizen last year went to the movies just 3.5 times, an attendance figure that marked a 100-year low. Even before COVID-19 effectively slammed the door on the moviegoing experience, shares in the big theater companies plummeted by more than 70% in the period spanning 2015 through 2019.
That same interval coincides with the major film studios’ gradual Super Bowl secession. Six years ago, NBC’s broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX featured 10 trailers from five studios, a barrage that generated $46.5 million in ad spend, per iSpot.tv estimates. And while NBC’s corporate sibling Universal Pictures enjoyed a bit of a friends-and-family discount, the overall spend for the theatrical segment made it the No. 2 Super Bowl category behind only the behemoth that is automotive ($105.6 million).
The dynamic remained the same during Super Bowl 50, with movies spend coming in a distant second behind the automakers while maintaining a slight spending advantage over beer (or, more to the point, Anheuser-Busch), but the power balance began to shift the following year, as Hulu and Netflix barged their way into America’s great secular holiday. Together, the two streaming upstarts forked over $15.7 million to hype up two episodic dramas (The Handmaid’s Tale and Stranger Things), which was about 40% the size of the aggregate outlay from moviemakers Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Paramount and Disney.
As Amazon Prime and YouTube TV began suiting up for the Big Game, the traditional film studios were scaling back their Super Sunday spend. When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers butted heads in Super Bowl LIV last February, Fox booked just five 30-second theatrical spots, which accounted for $27.2 million in spend. That made movies the No. 6 category; meanwhile, the streamers spent their way into third place with a $32 million outlay. In just four short years, streaming platforms had managed to elbow aside the traditional movie business.
That trend is expected to continue with CBS’s stewardship of Super Bowl LV, which is scheduled to kick off in Tampa on Feb. 7. With next to nothing in the theatrical pipeline—Warner Bros. last week all but shattered the traditional distribution windows by announcing a scheme to simultaneously release its 2021 slate of films at the multiplex and on HBO Max—football fans should expect to see few, if any, in-game teasers from the Big Five studios. The absence is unlikely to register with most viewers, and CBS isn’t going to feel bereft one way or the other.
Case in point: Back in 2008, when the Great Recession was in full, sickly bloom, the American auto industry was all but on the brink of extinction. Fox’s coverage of Super Bowl XLII (aka the David Tyree “helmet catch” game) featured just three-and-a-half minutes of in-game automotive advertising, and while network sales execs had to scramble to account for the deficit, they managed to do so thanks to a surge in non-alcoholic beverage buys and a deep run by the movie studios. Together, the two categories accounted for about 30% of the paid ad time in the New York Giants-New England Patriots game.
Which isn’t to say that CBS’s efforts to make up for a moribund movie market haven’t been complicated by a number of issues that are endemic to the entertainment space. For example, as much as Warner Bros. would seem to be a safe bet to serve as a representative of the Big Five, the studio hasn’t bought an in-game Super Bowl spot since 2006, when it spent $2.5 million on a 30-second V for Vendetta teaser. If that doesn’t seem like such a long time ago, consider this: Super Bowl XL was the last NFL title tilt produced by ABC, and the game’s winning quarterback, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, was all of 23 years old when the Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in Detroit.
For what it’s worth, Warner’s anti-Super Bowl stance may be better understood in light of the movies it did promote in the years leading up to that V for Vendetta buy. Among the more notable flops the studio promoted on Super Sunday were Swordfish, Wild Wild West and the Sly Stallone arm-wrestling curiosity Over the Top. Should Warners elect to reverse course and spend $11 million on a 60-second in-game spot, its top prospects may very well be the May 21 release Godzilla vs. Kong or the July 16 Space Jam reboot, starring LeBron James and Bugs Bunny.
A more likely scenario would find Warner riding the pine for a 14th straight year and letting HBO Max do all the blocking and tackling on the promotional front—provided that ViacomCBS higher-ups agree to afford airtime to a direct competitor of its own direct-to-consumer service, which will be in the midst of a re-branding campaign on Feb. 7.
In a sense, Super Bowl LV is uncharted waters for CBS, which has only had to grapple with the streamer conundrum once before. In 2019, CBS approved four in-game spots from the likes of Amazon Prime, YouTube TV, Hulu and Netflix, and while three of the streaming services used the airtime to hip viewers to standalone TV-style series, the Google buy was limited to a broad-strokes branding effort.
Fox in February showed how to achieve a balance between hauling in a big payday and ceding the spotlight to the competition when it sold $32 million worth of in-game airtime to five streamers. Four of the five digital natives ran wide-aperture branding spots, and of these $5.6 million investments, at least one demonstrably did not pay off in the near term. Just 261 days after its 30-second promo aired during Super Bowl LIV, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi announced it was closing shop.
CBS is keeping its own counsel as to how theatrical spend is shaping up in the upcoming Super Bowl. That’s to be expected; not only is the network beholden to binding non-disclosure agreements, but as is the case with all Big Game broadcasters, CBS isn’t about to free up any information that might put the kibosh on a last-second studio buy. (It pays to be particularly accommodating with the studios, which are notorious spendthrifts—an inevitable byproduct of a business in which more money is invested in promotional activity than in the production of the thing that’s being sold. Studio marketing execs also tend to make late buys by virtue of necessity; in more than a few cases, the final creative was only made available to the host network while the players were getting taped up in the locker room.)
As much as in-game dollars from the streaming services will balance out the studio losses, CBS is selling the Super Bowl during a moment in which its two oldest broadcast rivals are cranking up their newfangled DTC offerings. Disney+ may have secured a 30-second branding spot in the 2020 NFL championship game, but Fox’s acceptance was in some respects a function of its disinterest in developing a DTC service of its own. Given that ViacomCBS is trying to turbocharge its in-house over-the-top platform, it would be out of character for the network to tee up a Peacock or Disney+ call to action in what’s certain to be the most-watched broadcast of 2021.
However things shake out, CBS is all but guaranteed to book between $380 million and $420 million in Super Bowl LV ad sales revenue, with pre- and postgame inventory adding another $200 million or so to the pile. CBS’s winter windfall may very well be the only “normal” aspect of our disrupted era, which officially began just weeks after Fox wrapped its own very lucrative broadcast.
As with everything else that has happened over the last 10 months, the rules will have to be made up on the fly. This is a do-over year, a shake-the-Etch-A-Sketch year, and the sheer weirdness of what we’ve all been going through is evident by a quick look at the ad roster for last year’s Big Game: Of the five movies to get the Super Bowl LIV treatment, two of them have yet to be released.