A new film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” stars Ethan Hawke and takes place in the present day. It even gives one lead character a very current accessory: an electronic cigarette.
Throughout the movie, actress Milla Jovovich puffs away on an e-cigarette called a SmokeStik. In one scene, signs for the brand hang in a convenience store next to condoms and calling cards.
The product’s cameo appearance comes courtesy of Canada-based SmokeStik International Inc.—in just the kind of paid-product placement that has been off-limits to traditional tobacco companies in Hollywood for nearly two decades.
“I don’t see a problem with glamorizing something that saves lives,” says SmokeStik’s chief executive, Bill Marangos. Like others in his business, he considers e-cigarettes to be a less-harmful alternative to traditional smokes.
“Cymbeline” is a movie with limited distribution. But the SmokeStik deal has far-reaching implications for Hollywood and big tobacco—two industries that have been entwined in a complicated relationship for more than half a century.
The film business was hooked on smoking by the time Audrey Hepburn wielded an elegant cigarette holder in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Humphrey Bogart lighted up at Rick’s Café Américain in “Casablanca.”
But for the past 16 years, cigarette companies have been blacklisted in Hollywood. Thanks to a sweeping settlement agreement between the state governments and big tobacco intended to minimize smoking’s glamorous sheen, cigarette brands aren’t allowed to pay for product placement in films or hire celebrity spokespeople.
E-cigarette companies, however, aren’t bound by that 1998 agreement with 46 state attorneys general, and are moving quickly to enlist Hollywood in pitching their products.
At the same time, big-tobacco firms have been snapping up the makers of e-cigarettes, whose exemption from traditional marketing rules opens the door for the old guard to do business with Hollywood once again through their new subsidiaries.
The collaborations come as federal and state authorities have yet to issue broader rules on marketing and permitted use that would cover most of the e-cigarette industry.
“I think they’re quite aware that at some point, regulation is going to happen,” says Pamela Ling, a professor at the University of California San Francisco who studies tobacco marketing. “There is a spirit of, ‘As long as we can get away with this, let’s do it now!’ ”
Meanwhile, e-cigarette sales grew to more than $710 million last year, up from $2.2 million in 2009, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market-research firm. That doesn’t include sales conducted over the Internet or at specialty tobacco or “vape shops,” pushing the number closer to $2 billion, according to some industry estimates.
High-profile manufacturers have hired celebrity representatives to feed that growth, like Lorillard Inc.’s Blu brand, which enlisted former talk show host Jenny McCarthy. But the most aggressive moves have come from small, independent operators who say their distance from traditional tobacco makes Hollywood more willing to work with them.
Such is the case with SmokeStik, which plans to feature products in “Cymbeline” and about five other films, says Mr. Marangos. “Cymbeline” producers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Marangos wouldn’t say how much the company paid for the placements, but he does allow: “They know we pay well.”
Vapor Corp., a publicly traded company whose brands include Krave, is getting ready for its close-up with direct help from Hollywood: In March, Relativity Media LLC CEO Ryan Kavanaugh joined the Vapor Corp. board of directors. He is paid in company shares to present opportunities for Vapor Corp. integration into films and television shows.
Mr. Kavanaugh, whose studio has distributed movies like “Don Jon,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and produces MTV’s “Catfish,” described his marketing strategy at an investor conference in March.
“What I offer: having access to the other side of the world, which is access to entertainment and film and talent and athletes and television, digital, music,” said Mr. Kavanaugh, according to an audio recording of the presentation.
Vapor Corp. is a client of Relativity’s marketing arm, and plans for the company include a “natural, integrated, viral campaign” for Vapor Corp.’s products over the next two years, he said. In a media environment where viewers often fast-forward through commercials, an advertising campaign must be so integrated into a feature that audiences don’t know they’re being marketed to, he said.
Vapor Corp. CEO Jeffrey Holman said the promotional strategy is likely to involve product placements in Relativity movies and TV shows, beginning at the script stage. He wouldn’t comment on specific plans while deals are still being negotiated. Mr. Kavanaugh recently helped get the company’s e-cigarettes into glitzy parties at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, he added.
If a traditional tobacco company were to participate in such a promotional partnership, Dr. Ling says, it “would be seen as totally distasteful and unethical behavior.” Mr. Holman called that an “unfair analogy,” saying his industry shouldn’t be lumped in with combustible cigarettes. “We’re the guys in the white hats,” he said.
The e-cigarette’s arrival in Hollywood comes as tobacco products are still seen in many films—appearing as props written into the script rather than paid-placement items. About 38% of top-grossing PG-13 movies in 2013 featured tobacco imagery, compared with 80% in 2002, according to a UC San Francisco report.
The same study, which covered about 1,700 films over an 11-year period, found tobacco imagery in just over 20% of G- and PG-rated movies and in more than 80% of R-rated movies in 2013—the highest share since 2007.
When he founded SmokeStik nearly seven years ago, Hollywood wasn’t on Mr. Marangos’s mind. A Toronto engineer and former three-pack-a-day smoker, Mr. Marangos attracted new customers by giving away e-cigarette starter kits in Ziploc bags.
Then a business associate met actor Justin Neill about five years ago in a freebie “gifting suite” at the Academy Awards. Mr. Neill’s career was fizzling; he’d started in commercials as a child and hadn’t worked much since a bit role as a pushy jock in 2002’s “Spider-Man.”
Mr. Neill, now a 33-year-old marketing executive, quickly became SmokeStik’s man in Hollywood.
His tactics were on full display on a recent Thursday night. He began the evening at a party for personal assistants of celebrities. Carrying a box of complimentary SmokeStiks for the crowd, he said, “I’ve seen firsthand the power of assistants.”
An old friend of Mr. Neill’s who worked for “Grey’s Anatomy” star Katherine Heigl got a SmokeStik to the actress. When Ms. Heigl used it during a 2010 appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman “—something SmokeStik says it didn’t ask her to do—the company couldn’t keep up with demand for two months. SmokeStik thanked Ms. Heigl by donating a portion of sales to an animal-rescue charity that the actress founded.
While Mr. Neill was spreading SmokeStiks across Hollywood, the e-cigarette began making its first unpaid appearances on screen. The effect wasn’t exactly glamorous.
In “The Hangover Part III,” for instance, actor John Goodman plays a mob kingpin who smokes e-cigarettes. The movie’s writer, Craig Mazin, appreciated the irony of an overweight hit man with the affectation of an e-cigarette.
Traditional cigarettes are “part of our collective film vocabulary,” says Mr. Mazin. “The e-cigarette is such a ridiculous analog. It just seems like such a goofy substitute.”
“Cymbeline” was recently screened at the Venice International Film Festival and was acquired for distribution in spring 2015 by a branch of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
For Mr. Neill, placing a SmokeStik into the hand of Ms. Jovovich, a former supermodel, can only enhance the product’s status.
“If Hollywood is doing it,” he says, “then it must be the best.”
Originally posted in the Wall Street Journal On Sept 14th 2014 by Erich Schwartzel | View the full article: Coming Soon to Theaters Near You: E-Cigarettes