Fantasy cars are promo stars

Summer pix woo NASCAR fans

You can’t go out and buy the featured cars in “Batman Begins,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “Herbie Fully Loaded,” and there’s no big car company behind them, but they’re helping sell the movies anyway.

NASCAR is one reason why. The stock-car circuit gives movies access to the sports world’s most brand-obsessed fans, with or without an automaker on board.

“NASCAR is a four-quadrant sport now,” says Warner Bros. prexy of domestic marketing Dawn Taubin. “Their ratings continue to grow, they have huge attendance, so they’re a good fit for the right movie.”

Disney’s “Herbie Fully Loaded” puts the bug on a NASCAR track up against recognizable real-life cars and drivers, and features some of those drivers in cameos.

“NASCAR is kind of a tough nut to crash,” says Michael Fottrell, exec producer on “Herbie.” “They’re very protective of that franchise, as they should be, but they embraced this movie because it’s very family-oriented.”

Warners’ “The Dukes of Hazzard” also has tie-ins with drivers at upcoming NASCAR events.

The biggest NASCAR tie-in of the year, though, probably belongs to “Batman Begins.”

The new Batmobile, a.k.a. the Tumbler, isn’t a stock car so it couldn’t appear in a race. No problem; Warner Bros. simply sponsored a race and put the movie’s name on it.

There was plenty of interest from car companies in building a stock car Batmobile, though.

“We talked to them. We wanted to build that vehicle, believe me,” says Jeff Bell, VP of Chrysler & Jeep.

But the one-off design for the Tumbler foreclosed a chance for a promo deal with a car company.

Even so, car buffs began buzzing about “Batman Begins” from the day that publicity stills of the Tumbler hit the Internet.

It even showed up on the red carpet at the premiere.

“The Batmobile has always been an important part of the Batman franchise, whether in the movies, comics or television shows,” says Taubin.

“For the young male audience it’s something they’re used to and they’ve come to expect.”

Chrysler also talked to Warners about linking up with “The Dukes of Hazzard,” another property with big appeal to young males.

By coincidence, the carmaker is relaunching the Dodge Charger muscle car this summer, and the film puts the General Lee — a souped-up ’69 Charger — back in the public eye.

But Chrysler became concerned that the Dukes’ wild behavior and reckless driving didn’t fit the image Chrysler wanted to project, since the new Charger is a four-door and aimed at a more upscale market.

So they get the best of both worlds by letting the movie go ahead without their participation.

“We don’t have to defend it because we’re not in it,” says Bell.

So just as studios have learned how to build buzz from movie cars without an automaker deal, car companies have learned that storylines involving their cars can build brand awareness.

That’s what Ford found when its Gran Torino “Tomato” made a comeback in “Starsky & Hutch,” says the company’s global entertainment brand manager, Myles Romero.

“Did it sell another vehicle? Probably not,” he says. “But did it keep the Ford in people’s minds? It probably did.”

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