There is branded entertainment and there is branded entertainment. And then there is The Audition, the new Martin Scorsese short film for Macau’s Studio City casino. The 15-minute film stars Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese himself. More? Sure. The short film was written by Terence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street), produced by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour; X-Men) and paid for by Australian casino tycoon James Packer. Together Ratner and Packer founded film production company RatPac Entertainment (Horrible Bosses 2; American Sniper; Pan), which has financial ties to Plan B, Brad Pitt’s movie company. The entire film was shot in New York City.
At a reported $70 million, it is the most expensive ad ever made and is making some people go berserk. But compared to other budget-busting ads, it might be reasonable. It has at least provided a clear line between what critics see as art and what is “shilling.” Namely: Chinese money.
The Audition—about star actors meeting in Macau’s Studio City (新濠影匯 , xīnháo yǐnghuì) casino to vie for the same role in the next Scorsese film—was made to celebrate and promote the opening of China’s latest casino. The Hollywood-themed gaming palace reportedly cost $3.2 billion and is home to such attractions as Batman’s Dark Flight, a “4D Adventure with Gotham City’s hero“; a 40,000-square-foot family entertainment center; a Warner Bros. Fun Zone branded with Warner and DC Comics characters and rides; and a club that aims to “bring Ibiza-style nightlife to Macau.”
It bills itself as “a ‘next generation’ of outstanding entertainment-driven leisure destination” that aims to “deliver movie-star treatment to all visitors.” Hence opening night’s guests including Scorsese, Ratner, De Niro and DiCaprio. Mariah Carrey provided the music.
The Audition has already been screened in South Korea and will soon be attached as a pre-roll feature in Mainland China theaters. Pirated versions have popped up online.
The casino aims to draw in the world’s most lucrative gambling population with a little family-friendliness, a tactic most of Macau’s casinos have avoided. But East Asia has seen a drive toward family-oriented destinations. Shanghai Disneyland—the world’s largest Mouse House—will soon open. And the $3.2 billion Studio City is $5 billion cheaper than the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis to the north. That opened in 2013—and among many of the stars in attendance at the opening gala? DiCaprio. Dalian Wanda recently plunked down $2.5 billion to build a visitor immersion experience wonderland in southern China.
It’s laughable that The Audition would also result in charges of “selling out” leveled at Scorsese, Pitt, DiCaprio or De Niro, four of Hollywood’s greatest brand partners. For years, Scorsese was American Express’ pitchman.
Brad Pitt has appeared for Heineken, Chanel and Levi’s.
You advertisin’ to me? You advertisin’ to me? Then who else are you advertsin’ to? (Fun fact: De Niro was also an American Express pitchman.)
DiCaprio has been doing ads his entire life.
Chinese audiences will recognize Pitt and DiCaprio from their recent campaigns in the nation, with Pitt as the face of Cadillac.
And DiCaprio as the mysterious star of smartphone maker Oppo’s ads.
Most of the negative press in the West has been aimed at the $70 million price tag for the production. But in China (and other lucrative regional markets like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore), that $70 million bought a great deal of positive attention and sent a message: We splurge on only the best. That’s a message that will resonate in China.
And the fact that it’s China seems to ultimately be the Western media’s problem with the endeavor. For a case study, look to The Guardian, which called the spot: “an act of shilling undertaken in 21st-century Macau to be so hilariously embarrassing.”
But in 2004, when Chanel shelled out $33 million for a Baz Luhrman-directed branded film starring Nicole Kidman, The Guardian summed it up as “the ultimate case for marketing as art.”