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Cars 2: Int’l deals on wheels

Disney/Pixar pic makes pit stops in Tokyo, Paris, more

When John Lasseter proposed an international spy caper for “Cars 2,” it opened up a world of B.O. and merchandising possibilities for the highly anticipated animated sequel.

While the 2006 original was a loving tribute to American car culture, the follow-up makes pit stops in Tokyo, Paris, the Italian Riviera and London. That not only enables the studio to market “Cars 2” to a broader international audience, boosting the overseas box office potential, it also sets up bigger toy sales in those territories, especially those featured in the film.

Particularly when it comes to promoting the pic’s spy element to young boys.

Lasseter, a car buff who also serves as the Mouse House’s chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, was looking for a way to put one of the film’s central vehicles, the tow truck Mater, into humorous fish-out-of-water scenarios. While on the world press tour for the first pic, Lasseter came up with a spy story that would send Mater on a global adventure that would also involve Lightning McQueen and friends as they race in the World Grand Prix. The spy character Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was seen in a drive-in movie scene in the original pic.

“John kept laughing to himself about seeing Mater in Paris or Tokyo and what he would do in those cities,” said “Cars 2” producer Denise Ream. “That’s where the kernel of the idea came from.”

Disney wants that idea to turn into a big one.

The first “Cars” earned just 47% of its $462 million worldwide B.O. haul from international markets, falling short of how Hollywood blockbusters typically perform overseas.

“Cars” fared best in the U.K., France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Australia, so it’s no wonder most of those countries appear so prominently in “Cars 2.” (It also did well in Germany, but a sequence set in the country was cut due to length.)

Ream said the countries — and showing off the beloved cars and brands driven there, including Audi, Aston Martin, Citroen, Ferrari, Fiat, Ford, Honda and Peugeot — will enable moviegoers to claim ownership of the films in the regions. (Very few brands were featured in the first film, and only in passing references.)

But what guaranteed a greenlight for the sequel was the amount of merchandise the film has moved since 2006: a whopping $10 billion, or around $2 billion a year. Last year alone, the film revved up $2.4 billion in retail sales, making it one of the few film properties to sell more toys each year after the first film’s debut. That’s impressive for a film that wasn’t based on an existing property.

Disney is hoping its merchandise machine speeds away with even more coin this year through the brokering of more deals with licensees, who are taking advantage of the appeal of Mater and his friends, but also the introduction of new vehicles in “Cars 2,” like two gun-toting, missile-firing spy car characters and the villain’s stealth boats, as well as planes and trains.

The goal is to beat the $2.8 billion that “Toy Story 3” earned last year, according to Andy Mooney, Disney’s consumer products chief, who is offering “Cars 2” merchandise “in every conceivable category that will enable it to be the largest licensee program in history.”

Merchandise, including 150 different die-cast cars and other playsets from Mattel (company’s designed 600 die-cast “Cars” since 2006), the first Legos for the film, car-shaped chicken nuggets from Perdue, even aprons and baking tins at Williams-Sonoma, started hitting store shelves in May. Target is the primary retail partner, although products also prominently appear in Walmart and Toys R Us stores.

Promotional partners include State Farm insurance, whose jingle is sung by Mater in the film, along with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is using Mater as a way to educate about the dangers of distracted driving and texting behind the wheel. State Farm and another partner, Juicy Juice, are embracing the spy element with an “Agents on a Mission” and “Spy School” online game.

Disney hopes the flurry surrounding “Cars 2” will pave the way for the franchise to continue on for the rest of the company in different forms.

Besides its own DVD release, “Cars 2” will also set up a direct-to-DVD spinoff, “Planes,” which bows in 2013, and provides a lucrative promotional vehicle to ramp up interest in “Cars Land,” the 12-acre theme park Disney is building inside California Adventure that opens next summer. The series of “Cars Toons” shorts will also continue (they air 15 times a week on Disney Channel).

But first, Disney has to make its money back on “Cars 2.”

Studio spent $200 million to make the movie, which doesn’t break new technological ground, but serves a Pixar’s biggest production to date, according to Ream. Pixar tripled in size to handle the water and crowd effects, lighting on the cars and other technical details, including building designs.

“It was important to us that when were in London that people felt like they were in London,” Ream said. “This is Pixar’s biggest film in scope. There are more sets, more locations, more crowd shots and animation f/x shots. Everything was bigger by a lot.”

Company also hosted its largest premiere to date at the El Capitan Theater, turning Hollywood Boulevard and the open space behind the venue into a World Grand Prix, sponsored by Kodak. The 25,000 square-foot outdoor attraction, that includes games and activities, will stay in place for ticket buyers at the theater there to enjoy through Aug. 28.

Of course, the attraction also includes a store that sells “Cars 2” merchandise.

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