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Exclusive: Universal & L.A. Times in ‘Despicable’ Ad Clash

Did studio balk at putting the check in the mail when the paper ran a blistering review on the same day as major ad buy?

Universal Studios and the Los Angeles Times clashed last month after the newspaper published a blistering review of "Despicable Me" on the same day the studio ran an elaborate ad for the movie that took over most of the front of the "Calendar" section, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Universal essentially felt it was punk’d by the Times, having been courted to buy a costly and controversial form of ad that appeared on Friday, July 9, accounts provided by people close to both sides say. 

In fact, the dispute was so fraught that Universal initially considered stiffing the newspaper for the ad — which likely cost $100,000 or more based on the rate for at least one similar ad, one of the individuals told TheWrap.

After the paper hit the doorsteps with the "Despicable" ad and review, according to one Times insider, Universal Studios boss Ron Meyer hit the roof. A threat from the studio to withhold payment ensued, one of the individuals close to the matter told TheWrap.

The two sides apparently have resolved any financial issue.

In a tense interview with TheWrap, Eddie Egan, Universal Picture’s president of marketing, denied that the studio ever balked at paying for the ad and says it has, in fact, been satisfied. A spokesperson for The Times says the newspaper expects to be paid. “We have no reason to believe, nor has Universal indicated, that they would not pay for the opening day 'Despicable Me' ad,” a spokesperson for the Times told TheWrap. 

Apparently, the stage was set for a blow-up when the newspaper rebuffed a request by Universal that the Times' "Despicable" review — whether positive or negative — not run the day before the ad but on July 8, the day before.

Instead, the Times reviewed another Universal movie, "The Kids Are Alright," on that day. (“An exceptional drama… witty, urbane and thoroughly entertaining,” film critic Betsy Sharkey wrote.)

“Our relationship with Universal … follows the (longstanding) hard and fast rule that there is a separation between church and state,” Nancy Sullivan, Times spokesperson, emailed TheWrap. “Advertising does not dictate the timing of editorial coverage, something about which we — at times — find ourselves ‘agreeing to disagree’ about [with advertisers].”

"Innovative" advertising has started appearing more frequently in the financially struggling Times, which has caused some controversy by running ads that actually masquerade as established branded sections of the paper. The "Despicable Me" ad was a scaled down variation of the form.

It ran across the top, down the side and along the bottom of "Calendar." There also was a full-page ad for the movie inside. Times film critic Kenneth Turan's slam of the film ran on page 10.  “More exasperating than entertaining … a chore,” Turan wrote.

It was not as line-blurring, however, as other ads the paper has run recently. In April 2009 a front-page promo for the NBC series "Southland"  resembled a newspaper article. Then this March a four-page, $700,000 wrap-around promo for Disney’s "Alice and Wonderland" included a fake front page of the newspaper. 

Most recently, on July 1, a four-page ad for Universal Studio Theme Park’s King Kong Ride folded around the newspaper’s LATEEXTRA section, and came complete with fake news stories and photos of a demolished Los Angeles.

News of the imbroglio may further stoke the controversy that the Times has crossed over a line in the last year or so by energetically pushing wrap-around ads. Critics believe it potentially endangers the newspaper’s journalistic integrity.

The Times' publisher, Eddy Hartenstein, has defended the ad form, saying it adheres to the paper’s guidelines.