Aqua Teen movie tries not to 'bomb'

A movie based on the cult Cartoon Network show is due out on April 13. But will fallout from the publicity fiasco in Boston help or hurt?

By Paul R. La Monica, editor at large

NEW YORK ( -- Is there really such thing as bad publicity? Time Warner and its Cartoon Network unit are about to find out.

A movie based on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a bizarre animated series that features talking fast food items, will hit theaters on April 13. Yes, that "Aqua Teen Hunger Force."


The Cartoon Network and its parent company Turner Broadcasting Systems got into a bit of trouble back in late January, when a guerilla marketing campaign for the show went awry. (Turner and the Cartoon Network, like, are all owned by Time Warner (Charts).)

Battery-powered signs depicting a character on "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" making an obscene gesture were mistaken for bombs in Boston. The discovery of the signs created a mini-panic in Boston, snarling traffic for hours.

Two men working for the ad agency hired by Turner to carry out the ad campaign were arrested on hoax charges. Turner subsequently agreed to pay the city of Boston $2 million to settle any potential legal claims against the company and the head of the Cartoon Network resigned in February following the marketing mishap.

So will the Boston fiasco cause the movie to, well, "bomb?"

Gitesh Pandya, editor of movie industry research Web site, doesn't think so. He said that the mainly young male audience that the movie is targeting might be more interested in the movie because of the Boston brouhaha.

"This is the kind of film that appeals to a daring audience. I don't think they'll be turned off by the controversy. If anything, they might pay more attention to the movie," Pandya said.

Charles Merzbacher, an associate professor and chairman of the Department of Film and Television at Boston University, agreed with that assessment.

He even joked that Turner's $2 million settlement with Boston was well-spent marketing money.

"My feeling is the 'bomb scare' is entirely working in the favor of the movie," Merzbacher said. "It was a huge boon in terms of raising public awareness. Plus, the audience this is targeted to is skeptical about everything, including the war on terror. So that demographic may be sympathetic. The irreverent quality of the marketing gives the movie an edge."

Pandya added though that the box office expectations for the film should be fairly low.

He points out that the movie will face tough competition in its opening weekend from "Perfect Stranger," a film released by Sony (Charts) that stars Halle Berry and Bruce Willis, "Disturbia," a thriller from Viacom's (Charts) DreamWorks SKG studio and "Redline," a "Fast and the Furious"-like car movie from privately held Chicago Pictures that is also expected to attract a young male crowd.

But the Cartoon Network concedes that it is not expecting the movie to be a huge blockbuster. In an e-mail, Cartoon Network spokesman James Anderson said that there isn't going to be a big-budget marketing campaign for the film.

Anderson said the Cartoon Network plans to mainly promote the film through online ads, billboards, grassroots campaigns on college campuses and on the Cartoon Network during its late-night Adult Swim programming.

Anderson added that the Boston controversy did not affect the company's marketing for the movie. "The plan was always to target the loyal core audience for the Aqua Teen series," he said in the e-mail.

With that in mind, Pandya said the movie probably won't be a huge hit. He doubts that people who never heard of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" before the Boston scare will have any desire to see the movie.

But movies based on niche TV shows can be quite profitable even if they do little in the way of box office. To that end, a movie based on the Comedy Central show "Reno 911" that was released earlier this year has generated $20.3 million in ticket sales in the U.S. -- not bad for a film that had a $10 million production budget, according to figures from research firm Box Office Mojo.

Anderson said that the "Aqua Teen" film, which officially has a "Borat"-esque lengthy title of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters" only cost $1 million to make.

So if the "Aqua Teen" film is a financial success, then that could be a further boost to Time Warner's movie business, which is enjoying a strong start to 2007 after a mixed 2006. The company's Warner Bros. studio has released "300," which is the biggest blockbuster so far this year with $182.2 million in the U.S. box office.

This summer, Warner Bros. will release the fifth movie in the "Harry Potter" series and "Ocean's 13," the latest in the crime caper franchise starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

The reporter of this story owns shares of Time Warner through his company's 401(k) plan.