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‘Speed Racer’ aims for multiple tie-ins

Joel Silver film getting brand name bump

Joel Silver has always wanted one of his movies plastered on the front of a cereal box.

But making films like “Die Hard,” “Predator,” “Lethal Weapon” or even “The Matrix” trilogy doesn’t land the brands.

“I’ve lived my life as an R-rated man,” Silver says.

Not any more.

“Speed Racer,” the actioner throttling into theaters May 9, is targeting a PG rating. What’s more, Silver not only gets his cover of Cheerios — he gets a McDonald’s Happy Meal, Hot Wheels cars and Lego playsets.

Warner Bros. will need all the help it can get.

In a year when the studio is launching the next installments of the “Batman” and “Harry Potter” franchises, it’s hoping that the lesser-known “Speed Racer” can blast through the checkered flag at the box office and become worthy of sequels as well.

But the family-friendly entry, based on the Japanese anime series of the 1960s, and helmed by the Wachowskis (who worked with Silver on “The Matrix” trilogy) faces a fiercely competitive summer session, bowing just a week after another franchise-hopeful, “Iron Man.”

So the studio has enlisted a lengthy lineup of promotional partners that will pony up at least $80 million in additional marketing support around the film.

That kind of backing from brands like General Mills, McDonald’s, Target, Mattel, Lego, Topps and Esurance, among others, will create the “noise” needed to gets auds interested in the pic, Silver says.

“You have to open big,” he says. “You have to let them know you’re out there. The only way to make a lot of noise is to have people shout from the rooftops. (‘Speed Racer’) was an opportunity to do something we’ve never done before.”

What that includes are:

n General Mills stamping “Speed Racer” imagery on packaging of its cereals and other brands like Betty Crocker cookie mixes, Old El Paso Mexican foods and Fruit Gushers;

n Lego creating four playsets based around the pic;

n Target, which rarely does film promotions, coming aboard as the pic’s official retail partner and, in addition to in-store ads and circulars, offering a gift card that enables consumers to access exclusive footage from the film;

n Puma designing “Speed Racer”-themed shoes;

n McDonald’s offering separate Happy Meals for boys and girls.

Overseas, Japanese tiremaker Yokohama Rubber Co. and auto parts retailer Autobacs, as well as Brazilian oil company Petrobras and Mexican snack-food maker Bimbo, among others, will also push the pic through ads and other tie-ins.

The overseas factor was key for Silver and the Wachowskis to have the film resonate with international auds.

“The boys (as Silver refers to the Wachowskis) wanted it to have a global feel,” he says, because “Speed Racer” is known worldwide. To do so, they integrated logos and signage of brands from all over the world, not just products seen in the U.S. Autobacs, Topps and Cheerios have branded race cars in the film, for example.

What helped attract the brands wasn’t just the pic’s family appeal. It was also the fact that they could have unusually early access to studio materials to put on packaging, in print ads, on retail displays and in TV spots.

In this case, much of that imagery revolves around the Mach 5, the white, futuristic race car driven by Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch).

“The car was a big factor for us,” says Jill Wilfert, VP of licensing and entertainment for Lego. “In the past, we’d been more involved with properties that had been very well established, but we fell in love with the story and the way the Wachoswskis are treating the movie.”

Basing everything around the car, of course, negates the need to get talent to agree to push certain products or work with their schedules.

It also enables the studio to control just how the resulting campaigns from partners would look.

The aim was “to create promotions that had the same look and feel of the movie,” Silver says.

Because the vehicles in the movie are mostly computer-generated, the digital codes for the race cars were given to partners even before filming began, enabling them to produce merchandise that accurately reflects how it would look in the film. Mattel, for example, which is also creating toys for “The Dark Knight” and DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda,” was given “Speed Racer” assets six months before filming began so it could produce product.

“Our close-working relationship with the filmmakers and Warner Bros. allowed us to be an active participant throughout the entire process,” says Doug Wadleigh, VP of action play marketing for Mattel. “This helped foster the development of an incredible toy line, as well as presented a unique branding opportunity for Hot Wheels by infusing elements of our die-cast property into the film and on the film product packaging.” 

“A lot of films don’t give that kind of accessibility,” Silver says. “They’re closed off and don’t want to give anything away. We had something that was tangible. Once we digitized it, we could get it to everybody. Everybody could have access to the same images. Everybody was sharing.”

The process enabled the partners to produce the toys in time for next week’s Toy Fair in Hong Kong and next month’s confab in New York City.

“We have finished product, but we have no movie,” Silver says.

The across-the-board look of the campaign brings to mind the type of effort few, other than George Lucas, have been able to pull off. For the “Star Wars” films, for example, Lucas made sure each partner utilized the same visual elements for any tie-ins to the pics.

“Everybody always tries to do this, and make a movie where everything works together on every level” Silver says. “It was new to all of us, but we did it.”

Now the question is, will it pay off at the B.O.?

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