Strategy & Competition

Brett Ratner, Hollywood's Ad Impresario


The movie director Brett Ratner recently brought his brand of Hollywood salesmanship to the Manhattan headquarters of the global casino chain, Kerzner International. Ratner, best known for the $850 million-grossing Rush Hour action-comedy franchise, was keen to show CEO Sol Kerzner his latest opus—a collection of print ads, TV commercials, and online games that Kerzner hopes will generate some cinematic glamor for his Atlantis, Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas.

"Sol!" Ratner exclaimed, wrapping the 74-year-old mogul in a hug. The two men then repaired to a conference room. "We approached this like we were doing a blockbuster," Ratner told Kerzner and his team. After watching the presentation, Kerzner said: "I'm very excited. I wanted to get out of the ad agency thing. This takes it to a different level." The campaign rolls out this month.

Many Hollywood directors make TV commercials, but no one before Ratner has so aggressively blurred the line between corporate work and his day job. With the film studios cutting back, he sees a future when directors increasingly buddy up with companies, exchanging advertising concepts and product placements for money to make and market movies. "Filmmakers should align themselves with brands," says Ratner, 40. "They can help each other."

Brett Ratner Brands is helping Revlon (REV) liven up Mitchum deodorant and has made a series of Guitar Hero commercials for the video game publisher Activision (ATVI). Ratner says he expects to win Wendy's (WEN), the fast-food chain, as a client soon. "Brett's got a young, fertile mind" and a knack for captivating an audience, says billionaire Nelson Peltz, whose company owns Wendy's.

Ratner has made a string of succesful movies, but his greatest talent may be schmoozing. He talked his way into New York Film School at 16, then persuaded Steven Spielberg's production company to finance his first short film. Since then, he has displayed a knack for talking his way into high-profile gigs when another director walks, as with Money Talks, the 1997 action-comedy, and 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. Now, Ratner is schmoozing his way into potentially lucrative business opportunities.

THE UNDERWEAR DANCEIn December of 2007, when a writers' strike put movie-making on ice, Ratner got to talking with Robert Kotick. The CEO of Activision was about to launch the next iteration of its popular Guitar Hero video game. Kotick recalls asking Ratner for two things. First, he wanted Ratner to direct a Guitar Hero commercial featuring American Idol finalists. They would re-enact the famous scene from Risky Business in which Tom Cruise dances in his underwear. Second, Kotick wanted Ratner to help him name the new version of Guitar Hero.

Ratner came back with the title "World Tour" and a handful of promotional ideas. "He's an intuitive marketer, and he cuts through the clutter," Kotick says. "I thought he'd make a great resource for CEOs." If Ratner formed an agency, Kotick proposed, Activision would be his first client. So on May 22, 2008, the day after the Risky Business ads aired, Activision announced "Guitar Hero: World Tour," and Ratner announced the creation of Brett Ratner Brands, a partnership between him and the marketing department of Creative Artists Agency.

For a $1 million annual retainer, says Ratner, he provides clients with advice, advertising ideas, and Hollywood contacts. When it feels natural, he says, he incorporates the brand in his other projects. While shooting a Miley Cyrus video, Ratner asked the star to make like a grunge rocker and smash a Guitar Hero controller. Ratner made sure a photo ended up online where it was seen by millions. Ratner has since inserted Guitar Hero controllers in videos by Mariah Carey and Jamie Foxx. "If you get him engaged on a brand, whatever he's working on, he'll figure out a way to get the brand in there," says Kotick. There is a presumed quid pro quo at work. If Activision turns its games into movies, Ratner says, "who do you think is the first director they're gonna talk to about developing them?"

At least one of Ratner's ad hoc product placements proved to be a conflict of interest. He says Miley Cyrus' label, Walt Disney (DIS)-owned Hollywood Records, prohibited him from putting the Guitar Hero controller in the final cut of the video (Hollywood Records did not comment). Others simply shrug. "At the end of the day, a director is going to put in the movie what he wants to put in the movie, and we're going to make the best of it," says LeeAnne Stables, executive vice-president for Worldwide Marketing Partnerships at Paramount Pictures, which will distribute Ratner's Beverly Hills Cop IV (showing is not yet scheduled). Stables says she hopes any brand integrated into that film would assist the studio's marketing effort, as is standard practice.

Ratner's business relationship with Kerzner began when the South African casino mogul phoned the director asking whom he should call to refresh Atlantis' image after the recession. At the time, Kerzner says, he had no idea Ratner had started a branding agency. Ratner suggested himself.

As a film director, Ratner has never been critics' favorite. And the advertising world is less than enthusiastic about his Atlantis campaign, which sells the notion that a stay at the resort will transform vacationers. In one ad, a family of dolphins swims toward the resort. As they reach the shore, they morph into a vacationing family who walk onto the beach. "The effects do serve the strategy of communicating a fun, tropical, family, destination, but other than that—big deal," says Bob Garfield, advertising critic at Advertising Age. "If Ratner is supposed to bring Hollywood magic to the land of advertising, so far not so good." Ratner, surprised to hear that there are critics in the ad world, too, says: "As long as it gets people to book hotel rooms, I'm happy."

Ratner can help deliver those bookings, a key difference between himself and traditional agencies. This year the director plans to include the Atlantis resort as the setting for an episode of a show he just sold to the CW Television Network, called Lost Weekend. Then there is the attention Brett Ratner attracts for simply being Brett Ratner. On Jan. 4, Entertainment Tonight aired a segment devoted to the director's work for Atlantis. In it, Ratner trumpeted the resort's various charms. "It's not just a hotel," he said. "It's a destination." Later, an ET host invited viewers to visit ETOnline to watch an "exclusive Director's Cut" (a 2-minute version) of the ad. Kerzner also paid for ads to run on TV and the Web, but Ratner was the draw. "We wouldn't normally focus on a commercial campaign," says Marc Weinhouse, an executive at CBS Television Distribution, which owns ET. "But it made a lot of sense because of Brett."
Helm is marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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