With the sports and entertainment industries increasingly in convergence, it was bound to happen, and the skull-and-cutlass logos on one of the 70-foot sloops in the marina here are high-flying proof that the era of cross-promotion has arrived at a new, not necessarily safer, place.
Sports have spawned scores of Hollywood films, from the sublime (“Raging Bull” with Robert DeNiro) to the ridiculous (“The Fan” with Robert DeNiro). Now, in a novel case of life imitating art before the art is ready for release, it’s a film’s turn to spawn something sporting.
If the sequel to “Pirates of the Caribbean” were not opening worldwide next July, there would be no U.S.-led entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, which begins in earnest Saturday when the seven boats sail out of the Galician port of Vigo on the first of nine legs.
Without the sequel, Paul Cayard would still be in San Francisco, helping his two teenage children through the vagaries of high school, instead of preparing to lead another cosmopolitan crew on a controlled panic of a circumnavigation past icebergs, whales and the very occasional albatross.
But Johnny Depp is on location in the Caribbean reprising his role as the offbeat captain of the Black Pearl, and the more clean-cut Captain Cayard is giving journalists tours of the other Black Pearl as crew members hustle around the new yacht in an attempt to make up for lost months and maintenance.
“It’s good to be a pirate,” Cayard said, not for the first time and certainly not for the last time.
This race stretches on for nearly eight months and includes stops on five continents for retooling and for meeting and greeting, which was all part of the appeal to Disney when it agreed that the Volvo was the right vehicle for its film.
The company has already done something vaguely similar: naming its National Hockey League franchise the Mighty Ducks after the team in its misfit-teens-make-good hockey movie. But that came long after the film’s release.
“This is unlike anything that’s been done before,” said Donald Evans, a vice president at Buena Vista International, Disney’s worldwide marketing and distribution division. “A lot of studios put up a logo, as they do with Nascar, but it’s nothing as organic as this.”
“Movies are not a tangible experience,” Evans said. “You go to a theater and watch a movie. It plays to you. This was an opportunity to bring a piece of Hollywood and piece of the movie literally around the globe.”
The organizers of this quadrennial round-the-world race, formerly known
‘We didn’t want to have cannons coming out of the side of the boat and teak decks.’
as the Whitbread, brought the idea of sponsoring a boat to Disney in the fall of 2004. After plenty of market research and internal discussion, Disney came on board in March, by which time some of the other Volvo entrants, including Spain’s Movistar, were testing their boats and sails on the water. Cayard, the 46-year-old America’s Cup veteran who won this race in 1998, was not announced as skipper until early August, although he still managed to put together a talent-rich sailing team.
At the capitalistic core, there is no difference between a mobile phone company or a software company using a sailing race to raise awareness of its brands and a film studio using a race to promote its products. But it certainly seems different. Software, despite ever more nautical uses, is not inherently about star power and adventure on the high seas.
Although “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which hit the theaters in 2003, would have clearly been a better cinematic fit for this far-flung sea-sprayed race, the pirate theme works for Cayard. After years of chasing sponsorship money, he has to give only orders and interviews.
“The downside was we were late; the upside was we had all the money,” he said. “I’m not badmouthing typical commercial sponsorships, because we’ve all raced with those for years and they’re great. But this thing with the Pirates, it’s more of a vision or dream, so that was very intriguing to me, and at the end of the day, that was what put me over the edge and despite being extremely late and despite being way under the gun, I was ready to jump in.”
Well aware that the vision thing ran the risk of veering into undignified territory, Cayard and his sailing team worked with Disney to keep the linkage between the pirate ship and the high-tech sloop as subtle as possible.
“We didn’t want to have cannons coming out of the side of the boat and teak decks,” said the Pirates’ general manager, Kimo Worthington.
The boat’s number is USA 7706, after the film’s scheduled release date of July 7, 2006. What look like wavy racing stripes on the side of the boat are actually a hint of a creature to be introduced in the Pirates sequel. More film references could be introduced later in the race.
Disney wanted black sails, but that was vetoed for technical reasons. “The heat would have delaminated the sails,” Worthington said. “We do have a big pirate on the sail, but it’s been nice working with Disney. They don’t want it to be too ridiculous. They don’t want us dressed in pirate clothes or anything like that.”
Any snickering in the rest of the pirate-free fleet is not being done in public.
“It might be all Disney and cute, but they didn’t forget to hire the big talent with the sharp teeth like Cayard,” said Sébastien Josse, the French skipper of Dutch team ABN AMRO’s second boat.
Neal McDonald, the British skipper of Ericsson Racing Team, which won the short opening in-port race in Sanxenxo on Saturday, also has no misgivings. “I’ve seen quite a lot of interest in their boat, which might not have been there otherwise unless there was an angle to it, and I think that’s good for the sport,” he said. “I think the pirates link is attractive to kids, and getting young people involved in sailing is always a bit of a challenge.”
It has been a less-than-triumphant phase in Cayard’s career. Larry Ellison bought up many of Cayard’s America’s Cup assets after the 2000 event in Auckland, New Zealand, and then pushed him out of his Oracle team in large part, Cayard says, because Ellison wanted Oracle to be his show. After whipping his middle-aged bid into superb shape for last year’s Olympic Games, Cayard had to settle for fifth place in the Star Class.
Now, with the village for the 2007 America’s Cup being prepared in Valencia, Cayard is in a different, less bustling part of Spain. “This race gave me more on a personal level than any other sailing competition I’ve been in, including the Olympics,” he said.
Without ideal preparation, he knows that his boat and crew can’t be at their best until the second half of the race, but whatever the final standings, he could still look like a winner.
“Clearly, there are two races here,” McDonald said. “There’s the sailing race, and the PR race.”
For now, the skull and crossed cutlasses hold a big lead in the latter, and if the bottom line looks good at the finish line, there may be more cases of life imitating unfinished art. Hollywood, after all, likes nothing better than a sequel.