Hollywood Is Making Millions Off Slot Machines

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Clint Eastwood and wife Dina with a familiar slot machine in 2004

Madonna's $10 million deal for a new casino game is the latest among the many stars and studios putting their mark on gambling to get a promotional boost in Las Vegas.

On Tuesday, the annual Global Gaming Expo (G2E) rolls into Las Vegas. With celebrity cameos, zombie cosplayers, set props from hit entertainment properties such as Game of Thrones and about 30,000 attendees, one would be forgiven for mistaking it for a fanboy convention — but this con is all about casino gaming machines. In 2016, Tim McGraw descended from the ceiling to sing about his new slot machine. This year's big draw? The unveiling of Madonna's game. Living up to her name, the Material Girl signed a licensing agreement (projected to be worth more than $10 million, according to an industry expert) with casino gaming manufacturer Aristocrat Technologies for slots inspired by her hits (although she won't be descending from any ceilings, or likely appearing at all, at G2E).

Ever since a Wheel of Fortune slot machine took the industry by storm two decades ago, manufacturers have been gravitating to licensed properties. That's meant bonus income for Hollywood studios (and the stars, who get a piece of the action if their faces are used) that can range from $1 million to $20 million, says gaming analyst Todd Eilers. In all, casino gaming manufacturers spend up to $200 million annually to land rights to popular brands like The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons because a recognizable image can make all the difference on a casino floor.

"[Gamblers] are more likely to play branded machines," says one licensing agent. "What does Wild Stallion [a line of Aristocrat machines] mean? But if you're a fan of Friends, you're likely to check that out."

Stars previously were reluctant to plaster their faces on a one-armed bandit, but today's more sophisticated machines — 4K screens, Bose speakers — make that prospect feel less shady. "Ten years ago, gambling was a more controversial category," continues the rep. "But because the games have become more interactive and entertainment-friendly, the stigma has waned."

Beyond royalty payments (even a contract that grants a few dollars per machine per day can translate to six figures annually for popular games), stars also benefit from a promotional boost. The licensing agent calls it "revenue-generating brand awareness," particularly for personalities that have a presence in Las Vegas, like Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil (who all have branded games on the Strip): "Anyone with a Vegas residency needs to get into the space because there's a natural association. How many people walk by a game and are reminded, 'Oh yeah, I do want to see a Cirque show'? It's not just free advertising — it's advertising that someone's paying you for."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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