Auto tie-ins hit the skids

Carmakers sidetrack pic promotions

Automakers may have revved up millions of dollars to help promote Hollywood’s major tentpoles last year, but this year tie-in deals with car companies have largely been put into park.

Hollywood’s renewed interest in fantasy, sci-fi and historic sword-and-sandals fare means fewer deals for automakers — with one exception, a high-profile deal between Fox and Audi on “I, Robot.”

And that comes at a time when Hollywood needs more ad dollars to push its pics: According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, it costs 28% more than last year to market a movie.

Films like “Troy,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Van Helsing,” “King Arthur,” “The Village,” “The Chronicles of Riddick,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Flight of the Phoenix,” “The Alamo,” “The Brothers Grimm,” “Alexander” and “The Aviator,” among others, will not feature product placement, and few, if any promo partners.

Remakes like “Starsky & Hutch,” or “The Punisher” and “Blade 3: Trinity” have made car placements difficult as the films’ heroes drive vintage vehicles.

Add to that superhero pics like this summer’s “Spider-Man,” whose title character doesn’t drive anything at all.

Compare this year with last summer’s campaigns, when “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Italian Job,” “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “X2: X-Men United,” “Bad Boys II” and “2 Fast 2 Furious” lured Cadillac, BMW’s Mini, Toyota, Mazda, Jeep, General Motors and Mitsubishi as partners.

Fewer deals can mean a loss of millions of dollars in additional marketing muscle studio marketing mavens must do without. For example, Mitsubishi spent $25 million to associate itself with “2 Fast 2 Furious,” while Jeep ponied up $10 million for “Tomb Raider,” and Mazda spent $8 million on “X2.”

Replacing product placement

Studio marketers aren’t just hard-pressed to land automotive partners these days. The proliferation of noncontemporary pics and fantasy material has left them scrambling to find clothing, food and other brand partners.

But this year won’t prove promo free when it comes to cars. And in some cases, there are even some newcomers to the pic tie-in game.

Audi chose Fox’s summer sci-fi actioner “I, Robot” as the first film it will promote through print and TV spots with its own marketing dollars. Company’s cars have previously appeared in films such as “Ronin,” “Mission: Impossible II,” “About a Boy” and “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde.”

But Audi took a different promotional approach with “I, Robot.”

For the film, Audi, which beat out several other automakers, designed and built a sleek futuristic sports car for Will Smith’s homicide detective character to drive around Chicago in 2035.

The silver concept car, dubbed the RSQ Sports Coupe, was designed and built in 10 weeks and had to include special features suggested by helmer Alex Proyas, including spheres instead of wheels, and butterfly doors.

Bumper crop

In addition to the RSQ, Audi supplied cars for the film’s various traffic scenes, and interior mock-ups used for interior car scenes.

Despite its futuristic appearance the RSQ still had to be clearly recognizable as an Audi. “The main aim was to create a car that both plausibly fitted into the futuristic scenery of the film but still represented an unmistakable, visionary statement from Audi,” said Julian Honig, responsible for the RSQ’s exterior design.

“I, Robot” isn’t the first time a carmaker has built a new make for a Hollywood production. Most recently, Lexus built a concept car for Fox’s “Minority Report” in 2002, which was driven by Tom Cruise.

But in that case, the design of the car was dictated by director Steven Spielberg and his production team. For “I, Robot,” Audi came up with the final look of the hero car.

“This is the next step in product integration,” said Jeffrey Godsick, exec veep of marketing at 20th Century Fox. “They created an incredibly cool vehicle that impacts the tone of the movie.”

Audi would not disclose how much it would spend to advertise its presence in “I, Robot,” but industryites estimate it to be worth around $10 million in marketing support that will be added to what Fox will spend to push the pic, which bows July 16. Cost to design and build the concept could have easily cost $1 million or more.

On top of media spending, Audi will also give “I, Robot” a presence at auto shows, put the film in front of the international automotive press, and help sell the film overseas, especially in Europe, where Audi’s brand presence is stronger than in the U.S.

“Audi was great to work with,” Godsick said. “We believe this is a global event movie and Audi is a global brand. That’s one reason why we chose them.”

The deal with Fox comes as Audi is in the midst of unveiling a lineup of redesigned cars and is seeking to use Hollywood and entertainment as a way to attract consumers to its vehicles.

Although it has no plans to build the car, Audi will unveil the RSQ at the New York Auto Show this week.

Behind the wheel

Audi will not be alone this summer.

Lincoln’s Navigator SUV will feature prominently in Fox Searchlight’s road trip comedy “Johnson Family Vacation.” And Ford custom-built a large pink Thunderbird to appear in Universal and Working Title’s “Thunderbirds” adaptation.

Later on in the year, Jeep will team with Paramount on the actioner “Sahara.” Duo launched a successful campaign last year around “Lara Croft Tomb Raider.” Mitsubishi and Par will also team up on “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

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