LeBron James’s ‘Space Jam’ Spurs Stampede of 200 Product Tie-Ins

Giant posters for the new film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” provided the backdrop for the iconic ’80s hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa as they blasted out their old hit “Push It” at the edge of downtown Los Angeles. So did a dozen visual reminders that the cost of this week’s premiere party for the Warner Bros. picture was at least partly covered by Xbox.

Microsoft Corp.’s video-game division is one of more than 200 partners that studio has enlisted in a blockbuster marketing blitz for the film, which opens Friday in the U.S. While the new “Space Jam” will probably generate only modest sales at the box office, it’s already a major commercial achievement off screen.

Warner Bros.’ merchandising efforts, roping in everything from Amazon.com-branded boxes to Space Jam chew toys for pets from BarkBox, are without precedent in the world of movie marketing. The sheer number of companies seeking to partner with the LeBron James-led film shows how hungry businesses are to link up with Hollywood, and provides insight into how much consumer behavior has changed since Michael Jordan starred in the original “Space Jam” in 1996.

LeBron James’s ‘Space Jam’ Spurs Stampede of 200 Product Tie-Ins

“We're just trying to get the movie in front of people in an engaging way,” said Louise Soper, senior vice president of global brand partnerships at Warner Bros., which is owned by AT&T Inc. “The property itself is just so appealing that this was definitely one of the films that partners were the most interested in.”

It wasn’t like this 25 years ago when the original “Space Jam” hit theaters. Sure, Jordan already had deep ties to many international brands, like Nike Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald’s Corp. Further, the entire film was inspired by a Nike commercial that ran in Super Bowl XXVI four years earlier, with Jordan and Looney Tunes star Bugs Bunny playing basketball. But the epic commercialization present in films today was still under development.

Walt Disney Co.’s 1994 hit “The Lion King” provided the template for many of the techniques the industry uses today, according to Pam Lifford, Warner Bros.’ president of global brands and experiences. Studios began to think more about merchandising their characters and films, digging into their archives and trying to ensure longevity. Disney still sells Simba products today, helped by a 2019 “Lion King” remake.

In the first “Space Jam,” Jordan holds a McDonald’s cup, there are Rice Krispies in his kitchen, and he wears Wilson baseball gloves. But Warner Bros. also missed opportunities. A co-branded Nike shoe didn’t hit shelves anywhere close to the release. A version of the Jordan Toon Squad sneaker was finally sold to the public in 2000.

That didn’t take away from the movie’s impact as a cultural phenomenon — and film and retail executives aren’t leaving anything to chance this time. Chad Jones, co-founder of the sneaker site Another Lane, said Space Jam had a lasting impact on the monetization of pop culture, even if the companies failed to fully capitalize. He recalls getting giddy with anticipation as a kid waiting to see what Jordan would have on his feet.

“Now I’m seeing all the product before I even see the movie,” said Jones. “It’s exactly opposite of what it was.”

LeBron James’s ‘Space Jam’ Spurs Stampede of 200 Product Tie-Ins

This time, Nike is selling at least five sneaker styles tied to the film, including Air Force 1s for toddlers and a new LeBron 19, and more under its Converse brand. The Warner Bros. team layered new partnerships into existing ones, creating a staggering network of deals.

For example, Nike shoes show up Epic Games Inc.’s battle-royale title Fortnite, where James debuts as a playable character, and one design is being paired for sale in tandem with a special-edition controller for the Xbox video-game console. In another arrangement, McDonald’s is offering  Space Jam Happy Meals with toys and Space Jam clothes designed by skateboarding label Diamond Supply Co. Consumers can win a jersey from the Diamond x McDonald’s x Space Jam collection if they order through Uber Eats.

The biggest chunk of Space Jam’s deals are with apparel and accessories brands. The studio has partnered with H&M, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Primark, Torrid, Forever 21, Vilebrequin, A Bathing Ape, Diamond Supply, Fanatics, Members Only, MeUndies, Pottery Barn Teen, Stance, Love Your Melon and New Era, among others.

LeBron James’s ‘Space Jam’ Spurs Stampede of 200 Product Tie-Ins

Whether all these deals pay off for Warner Bros. or its partners remains to be seen. Movie tie-ins can provide big benefits to sponsors, if not the studios, according to David A. Schweidel, a marketing professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. The studio doesn’t reveal the terms of its arrangements.

“I wouldn’t say that you can expect to draw new viewers to the movies with these partnerships,” Schweidel said in an email. “But, for the brands, these partnerships can be successful tools at attracting the attention of moviegoers.”

The film is expected to take in $26.4 million in opening weekend sales in North America, according to Boxoffice Pro. That’s not far from the $27.5 million the original delivered a quarter-century ago, when tickets prices were lower. That picture went on to produce more than $230 million in global box office sales and $1.2 billion in merchandise revenue, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2009. 

The new installment is opening in a tough environment for theaters, when even tentpole films like Marvel’s “Black Widow” struggle to generate a decent turnout. Moreover, Warner Bros.’ new release is also playing for free online for paying subscribers of the HBO Max streaming service.

Warner’s Soper and Bryan Warman, the studio’s senior vice president of digital partnerships, said there’s no way to know exactly who visited the cinema because they saw an ad on a General Mills cereal box or at Bloomingdale’s. It’s about building a vibe.

“I don't think that any of us could put a number on exactly the importance of these things,” Warman said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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