How American Airlines Got a Free Ride in 'Up in the Air'

Airline, Hilton Hotels Trade Production Savings for Product Integrations in George Clooney's Latest Movie

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George Clooney stars in 'Up in the Air' but American Airlines and Hilton Hotels have prominent roles too.
George Clooney stars in 'Up in the Air' but American Airlines and Hilton Hotels have prominent roles too.
LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" prominently features the film's star, George Clooney, in its marketing materials, while Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick have been getting a lot of awards buzz for their roles in the new Paramount drama. But two other unique co-stars are getting just as much screen time and attention.

American Airlines and Hilton Hotels are prominently featured throughout the film -- Mr. Clooney flashes his character's American Airlines Concierge Key while characters stay at actual Hilton hotels in St. Louis and Miami -- as integrated-marketing partners. There's even a long-running plotline about Mr. Clooney's character's lifelong goal of logging 10 million American miles so he can earn the (fictional) honor of having his name emblazoned on a plane and a ride alongside American's chief pilot (played by Sam Elliott).

While there are more than enough unique branding moments for each sponsor to make their participation worth millions in media dollars, not a penny was exchanged to secure either placement. Instead, American and Hilton provided locations and branding that ultimately helped defray what would have otherwise been incrementally massive production costs for Paramount and Mr. Reitman, the director, to shoot the film's many scenes in airports and hotels.

"If we were to go and rent an airplane for a movie, it would be very expensive. But if you can get somebody to loan you one as opposed to the production having to buy or rent it out of their pocket because they'd like their product seen in the film, it's a fair trade for that exposure," said LeeAnne Stables, Paramount's exec VP-worldwide marketing partnerships.

And as media fragmentation forces marketers to rely less and less on traditional channels such as 30-second spots that can easily be zapped or skipped using DVRs, brands such as American and Hilton are turning to entertainment properties to reach consumers who might not otherwise get the message.

"Up in the Air" represents the biggest branded integration yet for American Airlines, which has a rich history in film that dates back to "Three Guys Named Mike," in which Jane Wyman plays an American Airlines stewardess who falls for three men named Mike, one of whom happens to be an American pilot. More recent notable integrations include "Home Alone" and the "Sex and the City" movie.

Credibility
Although American and its many member benefits are featured heavily throughout the film, Billy Fanez, the airline's director of advertising and promotions, went to great lengths to ensure both the brand and the film's creative credibility remained intact.

"There's gotta be that balance so that you don't over-commercialize the opportunity to be associated with a film, because it's a piece of art," he said. "We want to promote it naturally with the products and not force it, because the audience is too smart not to notice."

"I think depicting fake brands would take people more out of the movie," Ms. Stables said. "This is a movie depicting the lives of real people, who are involved with brands every day of their life. And since it's all about [George Clooney]'s obsession with that lifestyle, the specifics are part of the story."

For American, that also meant idealizing some aspects of the plot, such as the reward benefit for flying 10 million miles, which Mr. Fanez said in real life varies on a case-by-case basis. But that dream-fulfillment aspect of Mr. Clooney's journey in the film was echoed in promotions and an accompanying sweepstakes for the film, with prizes including first-class flights to Napa Valley and an Admirals Club 50th anniversary promotion that flew a customer to the film's premiere in Hollywood.

Hilton took a similarly organic approach to its participation in the film, which came about as a direct result of its ongoing relationship with Paramount on other marketing programs, most recently for this year's "Hotel for Dogs." Andrew Flack, the hotel chain's VP-global brand marketing, said Mr. Reitman, the movie's director, happens to be a member of the Hilton Honors loyalty program (there's an almost jokingly branded scene in which Mr. Clooney says to a fellow hotel customer, "Have you tried their membership benefits program? It's great!").

"Hilton is in more countries than any other hotel brand, and movies are one of the few partnership opportunities that truly go global, so we were really keen to get behind it," Mr. Flack said. "First quarter is also a peak travel-booking time for us, so to be up front-and-center just around the holidays and coming into January was really nice timing."

"Up in the Air" also happens to be short-listed as a lock for many categories in the 2010 Academy Awards, particularly the 10-slot best picture category. That represents a unique opportunity for brands to be closely associated with a film that has a considerable amount of awards acclaim behind it, as opposed to branded blockbusters such as "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" (also Paramount releases) that tend to be critical punching bags.

Mr. Fanez said the film's positive critical reception has had a halo effect on the early buzz American Airlines has been measuring on its role in "Up in the Air" through monitoring social media. "The positive buzz compared to neutral buzz has been amazing, and the negative buzz has been extremely small," he said. "The performance from the actors and the script itself created something that fans really love, so we know that will leave a lasting impression on our audience."

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