Less than a week before the Super Bowl, only two movie ads are confirmed for the game -- a steep decline from last year, when eight pricey plugs yielded decidedly mixed results.
Neither of the pics is a summer release; summer pics have historically used the winter showcase as a launch pad.
Time has not run out on inventory, and network and studio execs said a couple of studios are in talks with CBS over the last remaining fourth-quarter spots. Those positions are usually the least watched, especially in a lopsided contest.
Universal and Warner Bros., according to two sources close to both studios' marketing departments, have deliberately avoided the game, diverting those millions of ad dollars to primetime berths. With record ratings for "American Idol" as well as strong new series from "Grey's Anatomy" to "Prison Break," TV provides opportunities aplenty.
The two studios that have locked down game time are Lionsgate and Disney.
Lionsgate is advertising for the Terrence Howard-Bernie Mac pic "Pride," about an inner-city teacher who turns troubled kids into champion swimmers. Lionsgate is planning a wide bow March 23.
Disney is advertising for "Wild Hogs," a comedy starring John Travolta, Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence that bows March 2.
Paramount is sponsoring an hour of the six-hour pregame show, a promotion for its Eddie Murphy film "Norbit." That pact could also involve inventory during the game, veteran marketers noted.
Studios are not alone in pulling back. Blue-chip consumer product firms Procter & Gamble and Unilever are also reported to be taking a pass. Both have indicated they can get better value out of less fishbowl-like environments, where the "game within a game" invites scrutiny not just from viewers but also from business partners.
"The biggest nightmare with Super Bowl spots is telling other producers on the lot why you aren't buying ads on the game for their movies," said one studio marketing vet.
Hollywood's jitters reflects wider concerns about capturing eyeballs as money shifts toward the Web. The Super Bowl is perhaps the last bona fide communal campfire, but viewers are often at large parties when watching, and many are overly saturated with $1 million 30-second spots and the accompanying Ad Bowl sweepstakes.
Plus, many major summer titles, especially those bowing in May, are new editions in well-established franchises, so generating awareness is the last concern. Would a 30-second enticement for "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" or "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" yield more B.O. or would it just raise that always-bedeviling level of expectations?
Rates for the game's fourth quarter are typically steeply discounted, and CBS is giving big discounts for the last remaining national spots, in some cases cutting nearly a million off the $2.6 million asking price.
"We're very happy where we are right now; we have a couple of units left, but we are going to be sold out by game time," said CBS exec veep of sports sales John Bogusz.
Since 1991, the first year a movie was promoted during the game, 87 pics have been advertised during the Super Bowl with mixed success.
In the last four years, all eight movies promoted during the game and released after Memorial Day broke in at No. 1, including "Cars" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."
The biggest winner may have been Sony's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," a perfect fit for the male-skewing Super Bowl aud. Action pics "Mission: Impossible III" and "Poseidon" both ponied up. The former benefited from short-term reaction only to underperform for other reasons. "Poseidon," according to post-game focus groups, did not score well on the game and ultimately fizzled.
"The problem is, if you're not ready with your creative, you are left way too exposed," noted one gun-shy marketing consultant. He cited the now-classic example of "The Hulk" spot, which was TiVo-ed and endlessly picked apart frame by frame by feverish film geeks. With an f/x-dependent film that typically gets locked only a few days before release, that can be too much attention too soon.
The shift this year is interesting in historic terms. A decade ago, "Independence Day" was the only film advertised on the game. Its theatrical launch was monstrous, leading seven studios to take ads the following year. Studio spending has remained at a high level ever since, with film trailing only beer as a category.
Time Warner and Disney have been the fourth- and fifth-biggest advertisers in the Super Bowl over the last 20 years, spending $63.4 and $43.5 million, respectively, according to TNS Media Intelligence.