A-List Celebrities Still Fetch Top Dollar for Appearances; Brands Looking for More Integration

By Alesandra Dubin June 15, 2009, 2:15 PM EDT

Us Weekly beckoned celebrities to its 40-foot red carpet for its Hot Hollywood event in April.

Photo: Line 8 Photography

Recessions affect the general public like so: The people who were already living closest to the financial edge get hit hard, while the folks with the most money to begin with are often spared indignities like pay cuts and budget restrictions. For celebrities who get paid for event appearances and tie-ins—whether or not they admit it publicly—it’s a similar story. Top-tier names still generally fetch the familiar high fees they enjoyed before the recession, but lower-level names (think reality TV stars) are being offered—and, in many cases, gladly taking—less. What’s more, marketers working to tie their brands to celebrities are moving toward deeper integration with events, beyond paying straightforward fees for simply showing up.

Economic slump or no, movie stars are commanding top dollar for their roles with corporate events. “The more buzz you bring in, the more money you can demand, but movie stars don’t really host events. I mean, when have you seen Angelina or Brad host an event?” said Ben Russo of EMC PR. For big names like those, Russo said, “If someone won’t pay because of the recession, someone else will.”

Currently, Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson are among the two hottest commodities on the market, according to people who wrangle celebrities. And, perhaps an anomaly, “Paris Hilton continues to draw six-figure appearance fees,” said Rita Tateel, president of the Celebrity Source. Stars of 90210, High School Musical, and Gossip Girl are among the others who can command big bucks.

But moving down the list, there are bargains to be had these days. If an average B-lister might have gotten $5,000 to $10,000 to show up at a party in Los Angeles last year, this year he might expect to have to do more for the same money, like act as a DJ, serve as a special correspondent with a media outlet, or give exclusive interviews. (To show up at an event in Las Vegas last year, Kevin Federline reportedly scored $10,000, but this year he’s not likely to command any fee at all, according to Russo.)

“Because of the recession, I would say fees are down approximately 50 percent,” said Lori Levine of talent booking and brokering firm Flying Television, which has offices in New York and Los Angeles. She also noted that the top stars still fetch top dollar. “Couple that with events being down 75 percent, so all in all celebrities are definitely looking twice at events this year that they would have turned down last year.”

Levine added that brands don’t necessarily want to book the low-level names just because they can be had cheaply. “In the end, quality will always win over quantity. Ten people you’ve never heard of will never equal one amazing star.”

Some disagree with that marketing philosophy. “Events are looking for first-tier, second-tier, and third-tier celebs. When they ask us to get certain celebs at an event, we move our way down [the list of importance] if and when we get no responses from the top,” said EFG PR’s Rebrandt Flores. “Clients know they still need celebs to get press, so we just have to get that press with lower names that are still able to generate the buzz for that particular brand.”

The Celebrity Source’s Tateel added, “In some cases, planners are going for lower level, more affordable stars, but on the other hand, because celebrities are hungrier in general, many are simply willing to work for less these days—basically going with what the market will bear.”

But basic appearance fees aside, the trend is toward integrating celebrities into events in ways that involve more than just showing up on the red carpet. When LG launched its new Rumor2 phone, the company looked to Heidi Klum to serve as the product's “ambassador of style,” a partnership involving an advertising campaign, online webisodes, and a consumer promotion. LG Mobile Phones vice president of product strategy and marketing Ehtisham Rabbani oversaw the Klum strategy.

One talent wrangler suggested that celebrities who could fetch between $10,000 and $50,000 for showing up at an event might expect to double that figure if they are named as a host on an invitation.

In the new era of celebrity involvement with events, the contract between a corporation and a celebrity may be inked well before the plans for a specific event get under way. Ubisoft tapped Kristen Bell for voice acting in its Assassin’s Creed video game, and naturally she later appeared at the launch event. “It gave us that celebrity tie-in that made sense,” said Ubisoft's San Francisco-based senior manager for PR, Tim Cummins, who wouldn't give financial specifics, but said, “The contract was all inclusive." The brand made a similar arrangement for Shaun White's snowboarding game in November.

The move toward broader integration may in part be a function of the downturn, but people on both sides think its part of bigger-picture strategic improvements. “Pre-recession, people didn’t really care,“ Russo said. “I used to see money being thrown around. Now people are smarter." 

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