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Cars are the stars in Hollywood action flicks

October 31, 2003|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

If the Green Hornet could drive a car, what would it be? A Mercedes-Benz? Perhaps a Ferrari? Or would the Hornet drive a green-as-a-greenback '72 AMC Hornet?

That's the $35 million question. Or exactly the amount Miramax is asking one car company - any car company - to pay to take a leading roll in the summer of 2005 when The Green Hornet hits the big screen.

Plunk down your millions and we'll make you millions by plastering your car all over the silver screen, Miramax says.

That's the business of product placement in the movie industry. That's also the business that has many cars taking a leading role in this year's cinema blockbusters.

Silver-screen superheroes are driving today's everyday wheels, helping studios defray the costs of filmmaking and helping car companies gain greater exposure.

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From Arnold Schwarzenegger saving humanity in a Toyota Tundra in Terminator 3, to Angelina Jolie driving a Jeep Rubicon in Tomb Raider, to superhero Wolverine rolling up in a Mazda RX-8 in X2, new vehicles have been a hit this past summer.

Charlize Theron was behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper in the Italian Job. Even Jim Carey burned out a few clutches and had some adventures in a Saleen S7 during the filming of Bruce Almighty.

"From what I'm told," said Steve Saleen, creator of the S7, "because of a spin (Carey) took in the Universal Studios parking lot, there's a tram ride that will never be the same."

The idea of pushing cars in theaters is hardly new. Since the first real hot-rods began rolling off assembly lines in the 1950s, new vehicles have had a prominent place in film.

In Goldfinger and Bullitt, Ford Mustangs were the first to take advantage of mass marketing to many viewers at once. It was a trend that only gained steam. For years, James Bond made Aston Martins famous. Six years ago, he put the BMW Z3 on everyone's must-sit list. And last year Bond went back to Aston - a Ford product - to drive a $360,000 ride in Die Another Day.

But this year it seems bigger than ever. An unprecedented number of films are featuring cars as stars.

So, what's behind it? And just how do all those cars wind up in the big films? The answers are always the same.

"From our standpoint, we can build our brand and enjoy the additional sales we otherwise would have not received," said Saleen, who donated the $400,000 S7 for Bruce Almighty and also had two Saleen Mustangs in the films 2 Fast 2 Furious and Hollywood Homicide.

"It's a very positive thing for us," Saleen said. "We generally see about a 10 percent increase in sales."

Getting vehicles into movies is "sexy and attractive positioning," said Don Thompson, professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto's York University, in an interview this year with the Toronto Star.

"You get to show the product in context, in the way you think it should be used. And if you show it next to Angelina Jolie, you make a certain statement about that product as well."

With so much product placement and different forms of advertising in today's marketplace, car companies look to the movie screen to gain exposure with captive audiences they know are going to see the product over and over again. In turn, film executives use the money earned from the product placement - or reap the savings of using donated, exotic cars - to pay for the cost of the film.

Both parties usually end up benefiting in the end, both on the lot and at the box office.

For Saleen, it paid off. Bruce Almighty ended up being the highest grossing comedy of all time.

"With that much exposure," Saleen said, "we picked a good one."

In the showroom, DaimlerChrysler is selling a special Tomb Raider edition of the Rubicon. In the case of Schwarzenegger's Tundra ride, Toyota saw its placement in T3 as a chance to show the audience its truck has an aggressive side. For an extra $5,000 you can even buy the "Arnold" package, a black truck complete with a special grille, 17-inch wheels and a T3 badge. Only 1,050 will be sold in North America.

But getting your car onto the screen is a competitive business. Toyota lost out on the opportunity to have its vehicles (presumably the Matrix) in The Matrix Reloaded. Instead, Cadillacs are extensively used in the sci-fi action flick.

Ford has already been approached about using its new two-seat, 500-horsepower GT set to come out next spring.

"We've had some movie studios contact us to say, 'Give us some money and we'll put your car in a movie,'" said Chris Theodore, Ford's vice president of advance product creation. "But we're hoping for a role reversal with the GT, so that they give us money, and we allow the car to be in a movie."

And as for that Hornet car? No, Miramax still hasn't found a taker.

"It has to be a cool car," Miramax's Lori Sale told Advertising Age magazine. "Minivans need not apply."

Let the bidding begin.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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