The result: The Stratosphere becomes a character in the film, with extended screen time and brand recognition, helping to re-position the value-priced middle-America-favorite to younger hipsters.
|The Stratosphere Casino, one of Las Vegas' most spectacular structures, is destroyed in 'Domino.'
There will be an ultraviolent gunbattle, with bullets flying everywhere, dead bodies strewn about, a helicopter crashing outside and, oh, your iconic property will be blown up.
That pitch would send most executives scrambling for the exit.
Not the managers of Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower.
Looking to connect with 18- to 34-year-olds, executives were only eager to become a major set piece for Domino -- an action movie starring Keira Knightly as the former-model-turned-bounty-hunter Domino Harvey -- but under a couple conditions: script approval, maximum exposure of the brand and the chance to co-promote the movie, with appearances in the movie’s marketing materials.
The deal highlights Hollywood's quest for authenticity by filming at well-known locations and the challenges that poses. It also shows the potential upside for savvy marketers who can mold the agreement to fit their business objectives even though, on its face, the product placement would seem to cast the brand in a negative light.
It helped the filmmakers that Mike Gilmartin, the Stratosphere's gatekeeper and liaison to the entertainment industry, is a big fan of Domino director Tony Scott, who has previously helmed hits like Top Gun, Man on Fire and Crimson Tide. Mr. Scott, a former TV commercial director, is known for his often violent, quick-cut, music-driven films that rely heavily on production design and eye-popping cinematography.
The production’s timing was also fortuitous. The movie was to be filmed during December, a traditionally slow month in Vegas, and the same period when the hotel's sky-high restaurant Top of the World was to be renovated.
Talks started last summer when one of the movie's executive producers, Barry Waldman, contacted Mr. Gilmartin. The Stratosphere was written into the Domino script, and the filmmakers wanted to secure the location for some key scenes in the movie, an action adventure that was billed as "based on a true story. Sort of." Mr. Waldman has filmed at a number of iconic locations around the country, including Alcatraz for The Rock and the Library of Congress for National Treasure.
Mr. Gilmartin, who says he has turned down a number of requests to film violent scenes at the property, saw the call as an opportunity for some well-timed exposure to a client base that has eluded the Stratosphere in the past.
"A big part of our strategy right now is to reach out to the MTV generation," he said. "We want the hip crowd."
The Stratosphere was purchased in 2002 by American Casino & Entertainment Properties, one of the many companies controlled by corporate titan Carl Icahn. It's the tallest free-standing observation tower in the U.S. at 1,149 feet. The biggest entertainment event that's taken place there before Domino was a Creed concert on the observation deck several years ago.
For its appearance in Domino the first step was to vet the script, and Mr. Gilmartin had several areas of concern. He wanted to make sure the gunbattle inside Top of the World was staged when the restaurant was empty.
"Even though it's a movie, we couldn't have diners in there and all of a sudden there are AK-47s going off and everybody's getting mowed down," Mr. Gilmartin said.
The hotel owner, played in the movie by Dabney Coleman, couldn't have mob ties, as was implied in the script -- "That's a stereotype," Mr. Gilmartin said -- and an Afghani character couldn't have a bomb strapped to his chest, which he said was "way too sensitive."
The filmmakers tweaked the script accordingly, Mr. Waldman said, because the changes still worked creatively and the location was vitally important.
"There's a certain amount of life that's gone on there that you really can't replicate on a set," Mr. Waldman said. "There's an authenticity about being in the exact location."
Filmmakers shot for six days at the hotel, during which they staged the film’s epic gunfight. During the sequence, Ms. Knightly blasts away at attackers with machine guns in each hand, firing them at the same time. An Afghani character sets off a bomb, sending giant fireballs through the structure. A police helicopter circling the building crashes when its pilot gets hit by gunfire from the restaurant.
Contrary to what any brand steward might think, that scene wasn't a stumbling block for Mr. Gilmartin.
"It's a high-concept action movie," he said. "As long as the scene is so over-the-top that any reasonable person would suspend belief, then it's OK."
In return for using the location, the filmmakers agreed to include the Stratosphere in the movie's trailer and advertising. The hotel's logo is featured prominently in the movie, and Top of the World gets several mentions by name. The agreement was strictly on a barter basis, executives said, and no money changed hands.
New Line and the Stratosphere launched a couple of online sweepstakes around the movie, including the Newline.com "Party Like a Bounty Hunter" contest that gave winners a Vegas vacation and a "bounty hunter makeover." MSN.com and CarlsJr.com also featured sweepstakes around the film's release, and the Stratosphere collected demographic data on participants who offered it, which Mr. Gilmartin called invaluable.
Mr. Gilmartin’s happy to be part of an elite group of Vegas-based feature films like Ocean's Eleven and Con Air that featured major set pieces inside real casinos. And though Domino busted at the box office, earning only $9 million since Oct. 14, he's pleased with the outcome and the experience.
"We became a character in the movie," Mr. Gilmartin said, "and we were in major scenes. It was a great vehicle for us."