Rubbing Elbows

Today it was announced that the IZOD Indycar Series was shuttering its “entertainment division”, laying off it’s 3~4 employees, after two years in existence. Based in Santa Monica, California, this office was tasked with providing a bridge between Indianapolis and the entertainment industry and Hollywood. That is to say, this team was tasked with reaching out to the studios, shows, agents, managers – anyone to pitch an idea for a show or movie, or request a celebrity appearance at a race, or ask for product placement. The overall concept was to create connections in the industry to further expose the series, ultimately to create awareness and revenue streams. You market to make money, period. In the statement today, it was said that the division was not profitable and thus was eliminated to focus on the core business.

I applied at the office as soon as it was announced, because I thought it was exactly what Indycar needed – a presence on the west coast, and in the entertainment industry. I figured they wouldn’t be hiring in huge numbers, but thought I’d be able to help, for relatively cheap. I ended up taking another job and over the last year and a half, with the lack of news and information coming out of the LA office, it became pretty clear to me that it was probably for the best that I wasn’t able to fully pursue the job.

Profitability is a funny term in this instance if you take the time to think about it. Let’s say there were four employees: annually, let’s say the big chief was making $150k, little chief making $80k, and the other two making $60k. $350k in salaries. A small office isn’t much for four, so let’s take the total as $400k. Either these folks didn’t get the job done enough, or someone isn’t telling the whole truth.

But I get it. It wasn’t making money. Focusing on core business. I get that. But I still feel that the entertainment division was under-utilized, and that under-utilization and subsequent closing of the office is a bad, bad move. If your goal is to rub elbows with television, film, commercials, stars, agents, you aren’t doing that from Indiana. It was originally stated, two years ago, that New Media was going to be a huge point of emphasis. Los Angeles is the ideal place to make that point, due to the high density of video bloggers and content creators. You simply aren’t going to have the same reach from Indiana. You can’t reach out and touch the entertainment industry and be taken seriously from Indiana. Period.

Focusing on the core businesses. Again, I get it. But I don’t know if you need to throw the baby out with the bath water. I feel, even at a loss, having an olive branch in the heart of an entertainment hub is beyond crucial. If Indycar is desperate for revenue streams, then building an entertainment footprint in Hollywood, and everything attached to it outweighs the relatively small cost of running this office. It makes me wonder if Indycar was just stone-walled by the industry, and ultimately wasn’t embraced. I could see that happening, given the lack of publicity originating from that office, and it now closing. Everything in Hollywood starts with the pitch, and I’m not sure what the sales pitch is when you show up to the big studios, saying you’re Indycar. That’s a problem, and a problem far bigger than a west coast office that’s not turning a profit.

At the time of the announcement, many felt that a west coast office was a waste of money; that the focus should be on the immediate product, the on-track product. I feel it isn’t a waste because a) Indycar doesn’t exist in a vacuum and marketing, promotion, and exposure play as big a part of the overall relevance of a series as the on-track product, if not more; b) “improving the racing” isn’t the be-all-end-all solution to all of Indycars problems. If it were, Indycar would be astronomically popular, because the on-track product (the “racing”) is stellar. Absolutely stellar. And a majority of Indycar’s hardcore fans believe it to be so. It’s fairly evident that people aren’t seeking out Indycar, so in this world where more and more people seem less and less interested in the series, wouldn’t it make sense to invest in expanding Indycar’s exposure?

The biggest return the entertainment office has seen is the upcoming Dreamworks film, Turbo. The cast list is available, and we know it’s set at the Indianapolis 500, but there hasn’t been much else in the form of information. From what I know, Turbo is going to be launched on the big screen, and then expanded into a TV series, with all the merchandizing bells and whistles that come with it. But we’ve yet to see exactly what kind of exposure Indycar and the Indy 500 are going to receive, and how deeply both entities will be entrenched in the on-screen product. Industry professionals have the ability to project and road-map the popularity of an intellectual property like this (shows, toys, games, and all), and but we (as fans) certainly haven’t seen any of these plans, or any of the data. I believe Randy Bernard – former CEO of Indycar – knew the potential of this collaboration with Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox, and was slow-playing his hand until marketing began to really ramp up for the films release. I think Bernard saw this as the Golden Goose.

The release today states that the relationship with Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox will continue directly with the folks in Indianapolis. But my question is: what will happen after Turbo? What about when all of that interest and cache has run its course and diminished? Will 16th & Georgetown be able to initiate more connections and dialogues with the entertainment industry without the expertise of a Sarah Nettinga (who ran the Santa Monica entertainment office) and her team in California? If you believe so, why weren’t they able to do that in the years and decade prior?

I’m curious as to how involved Indycar is (or was) in the development process – providing source material, historical information, accuracy, general access to the sport). And I’m curious if they’re ensuring that Indycar and the Indy 500 come along for the ride, should Turbo take off.

Remember: Indianapolis Motor Speedway was included in Gran Turismo 5 – massively popular driving and racing simulator for the Sony Playstation 3. It was a big deal in gaming that players would be able to drive on the Speedway. That Sony/Polyphony Digital was able to obtain licensing to include it in the game was huge. And a huge opportunity for Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IZOD Indycar Series. Players would be able to race their favorite cars on the hallowed grounds. But for whatever reason – and I haven’t seen any reasoning published – you can race across the famous brickyard in almost anything… But an Indy car. A huge opportunity missed. Let’s take a look at just how huge:

Gran Turismo - Sales

Let’s say Indycar averages 500,000 viewers on an NBC Sports Network telecast, for 10 races. And let’s say Indycar gets 1,000,000 for ABC, for four races, and 4,000,000 for the 500. That’s 5.5m over one year, just with telecasts. 9.1 million units sold worldwide, over the span of 2~3 years, of Gran Turismo 5 with IMS has a big acquisition for the series. It’s assumed Sony/Polyphony Digital paid for the license to use Indianapolis Motor Speedway (and not for the use of Indy cars), but has IMS/Indycar utilized that tie-up for any substantial gain? As a die-hard fan, I’ve seen very little return. No mention on television, on the Youtube channel, or in the print media – no activation. Zero. Indycar and its management had an opportunity to place itself in the living rooms of 9 million consumers. And in my estimation, the ball was utterly and completely dropped.

I mention that to make the point that I’m a little skeptical of Indycar/IMS and their ability to exploit an opportunity, without the Santa Monica office. Yes, Turbo has the 500 as a setting, but it’s about a snail and his story, and he’s going to be the star. And there aren’t ANY cameos of former winners or current drivers (as far as we know). There hasn’t been much mention of past champions or Indycar, as a whole. I’m just a little skeptical in the ability of the folks in Indycar, back in Indianapolis, to pull these types of things through, exploiting every potential avenue to grow the exposure of the Indy 500, the Indycar series, and its number of charismatic and talented stars. And I think a fully developed and embraced division dedicated to nurturing these sorts of deals to the fullest would’ve been beneficial.



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