In turn, demand for promotional paraphernalia from such blockbusters as Disney's "101 Dalmatians" can create an influx of customers during the promotions, which typically last six to eight weeks around the movie release. The restaurants, known as quick-serve restaurants, or QSRs, see an increase in traffic as children ask parents for the latest toy or action figure associated with the movie.
"If there's a hugely popular movie that really resonates with kids, it can really drive customer traffic," Owens said.
One drawback from the exclusive nature of the Disney agreement was that it tied the McDonald's name and promotional machine to Disney's flops as well as its hits. Media analyst Dennis McAlpine noted that McDonald's was probably unlikely to see a spike in customers when promoting box-office failures like Disney's "Treasure Planet."
"McDonald's can pursue any movie they want. That's probably the silver lining in the fact that this deal was nixed," Morningstar's Owens said.
For movie studios, the deals offer a promotional vehicle that reaches a customer base known to see children's movies multiple times in theaters. It's free marketing, a fact that might outweigh any negative exposure from being linked with foods that some consider unhealthy.
"A lot of it is just exposure. You get kids going into those QSRs, and they're surrounded by Disney promotions," McAlpine said. "The key is whether Disney is saying they're just not doing promotions with McDonald's, or not doing promotions with any QSRs. If that's the case, then they could lose out on a lot of free promotion."
In recent years, McDonald's has introduced new, healthier menu items like fruit cups and salads in response to public concerns about diet. But McDonald's spokeswoman Howard said that there had never been any discussion about pegging movie promotions to the healthier foods rather than the traditional Happy Meals.