U.S. casinos are seizing on a Justin Timberlake movie about the perils of unregulated online gambling to revive the industry’s stalled attempt to legalize Internet poker nationwide.
“Runner Runner,” from Twentieth Century Fox, opens tomorrow and stars Timberlake as a Princeton University grad student who believes he’s been swindled after gambling away his tuition money. The American Gaming Association, with members Caesars Entertainment Corp. (CZR:US) and MGM Resorts International (MGM:US), bought ads on Google, Facebook, Twitter and Imdb.com, the film website, calling for a national law. The message: If you bet on the Web, you risk losing your shirt to unregulated operators.
“Online gambling is here. It’s happening,” the ad reads, as ominous music plays in the background. “Let’s create a regulated market in the U.S. that keeps the bad guys out and lets players play ... safely.”
By highlighting the dangers of Internet wagering, the industry seeks to rekindle legislation that would let it dominate in the U.S. The group has backed measures that would at first grant only existing casinos rights to offer online gambling. They have also backed language that would limit online play to poker, protecting their more-profitable blackjack, roulette and slot-machine businesses in casinos.
New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware have already legalized online gambling for residents and visitors. So far, that has resulted in a patchwork of rules and no betting across state lines. A federal law would protect consumers, prevent underage gambling, help people with gambling problems and regulate Indian casinos, the group said on its website.
Illegal offshore gambling websites took in roughly $2.6 billion from U.S. players last year, according to Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, which represents the $37 billion industry. The business lacks proper oversight, he said.
The association’s online media campaign is designed to get online players to push Congressional representatives for federal legislation, Freeman said.
“Washington is changing,” Freeman said in an interview. “There’s less negotiating in the dark of night in smoke-filled rooms. We have to take other approaches.”
Casinos have lobbied unsuccessfully for a U.S. online poker law. With two bills stalled, the group took a campaign-style approach to raising awareness, buying ads that pop up when people search for “Runner Runner,” Freeman said.
“The time has come for the association to be more proactive, more zealous in telling our story,” Freeman said at a press event last week in Las Vegas. “We’re going to engage players.”
Fox, a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Inc. (FOXA:US), declined to comment on the gaming association’s advocacy.
“Runner Runner” cost about $30 million to make, according to a person with knowledge of the situation -- a sum that doesn’t include marketing expenses. It’s projected to take in $11 million at the U.S. and Canadian box office this weekend, the estimate of Boxoffice.com.
In the film, Timberlake travels to Costa Rica to confront an online gambling tycoon played by Ben Affleck. He’s also pressured to cooperate with FBI agents.
Receipts, typically split with movie theaters, are projected to reach $32 million for the film’s domestic theater run, according to Boxoffice.com. “Runner Runner” has generated about $11.2 million in overseas markets since Sept. 25, according to Box Office Mojo.
The film will go head-to-head with “Gravity,” a Warner Bros. science-fiction thriller with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Films and TV have helped the gambling industry before. “Rounders,” the 1998 Miramax film featuring Matt Damon, along with the televised “World Series of Poker,” contributed to a rise in the popularity of poker, especially Texas Hold ’Em. “Runner Runner” writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman also wrote “Rounders.”
The term “runner runner” refers to a situation in which a poker player needs specific, consecutive cards to win a hand. The film’s fictional account of a lawless online poker world is “not far from reality for millions of Americans,” Freeman said at the Global Gaming Expo trade show last week.
The trade association didn’t play a role in the making of “Runner Runner” and only became aware of it when an ad for the picture appeared online in July, according to Freeman.
The association contacted the film’s marketing team, which wasn’t interested in participating in an advocacy campaign, Freeman said. Leonardo DiCaprio is among the producers, according to IMDB.com.
The association’s ad, available at the website www.onlinevillains.com, says illegal offshore gambling sites lack safeguards against cheating, money-laundering and underage gambling. It argues for national regulation, referring viewers to the website of the AGA, whose members include most major U.S. casino owners.
“We were defensive,” Freeman said. “We will be zealous in talking about the economic dangers created by $2.6 billion in illegal play.”
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