Tired of Giveaways, GM Snares Starring Role in 'Transformers'

Automaker Is Serious About Branded Entertainment Following 'Survivor' Pullout

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LOS ANGELES -- When General Motors Corp. pulled out as a sponsor of CBS's reality show "Survivor," the automaker said it wanted to play a bigger role in the entertainment projects it appears in. It no longer wants to simply give away its cars and trucks. It wants the vehicles to be central to the plot or serve as characters.
Chevy's next-generation Camaro stars as Bumblebee in next summer's big-budget 'Transformers' movie.

You'll only have to watch a couple minutes of next summer's "Transformers" to see what that means.

Two-legged, gun-toting talking robots

In the movie, a big-budget co-production between Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures, GM's Chevrolet, Pontiac, Hummer and GMC brands are prominently featured as the film's lead characters, who transform from vehicles into giant two-legged, gun-toting talking robots.

Michael Bay is directing the $100 million-plus live-action adaptation of the Hasbro-owned property, which began in the 1980s as a first-of-its-kind toy that could morph into different objects. It pits two warring factions of alien robots -- the Autobots and Decepticons -- against each other.

Hasbro brought the Transformers line, originally from Japanese toy company Takara, to the U.S. and turned the property into a $3 billion franchise that's spawned nine different animated TV shows and a feature-length animated movie.

The "Transformers" franchise over the years has been no stranger to product placement, whether it was official or not. The character Bumblebee was portrayed by a Volkswagen Beetle; Jazz was a Porsche 935 Turbo.

However, in Mr. Bay's film, GM's cars and trucks will be the stars of the show.

A star turn for the new Camaro

Bumblebee will be represented by Chevy's next-generation Camaro, set to hit dealerships in early 2009. In the film, the character starts out as a 1969 Camaro and later morphs into the newer model. Jazz will be a Pontiac Solstice, Ratchet will be a Hummer H2 and Ironhide will be a GMC Topkick truck. Cadillac Escalades and other GM vehicles also will be in the film.

Producers of the film said the creative challenge was to come up with a human story to compete with the giant robots.

"It's about a boy, a girl and their car," producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura said at today's Madison & Vine East conference in New York.

GM isn't complaining.

It's no coincidence that GM will appear in Mr. Bay's film. The automaker has had a long relationship with the filmmaker over the years. In addition to directing major studio productions "Armageddon," "Bad Boys" and "Pearl Harbor," Mr. Bay is also known for helming high-profile commercials, including those for GM. He began his career directing spots.

In addition to his ad work for GM, Mr. Bay has also prominently integrated the company's cars and trucks in key scenes of his films. More recently, a futuristic concept car from Cadillac was featured in DreamWorks' "The Island." A Hummer H2 was the star of a major action sequence in Columbia Pictures' "Bad Boys II."

Mutual representation in Hollywood

Hollywood's William Morris Agency, which reps both Mr. Bay and GM, brokered the deal for the automaker to appear in those films, as well as "Transformers." GM's product-placement agency, Norm Marshall and Associates, Los Angeles, also played a key role. Creative Artists Agency reps Hasbro. GM is not funding any of the film's production as part of its deal. Neither is Hasbro.

It wasn't only GM's relationship with Mr. Bay that helped the automaker land a major presence in "Transformers." It was the company's ability to provide a wide array of different makes and models.

"What he liked about the [GM] portfolio is that we had such a wide array of distinctive cars to choose from," said Bob Kraut, director, GM brand marketing and advertising. "There are very few manufactures that can fulfill the role that GM can fulfill. Each of our divisions has very distinctive products."

"On a movie like this, it would have been really hard to manage multiple entities," Mr. Di Bonaventura said. "To go to multiple carmakers would have been too difficult. We also needed a car company with a breadth of products that would be cool enough or tough enough [to portray the characters]."

GM was only happy to hand over its vehicles to the production.

"The 'Transformers' franchise has a huge following," Mr. Kraut said. "It will be one of the major films next year. [Its] demographics match up well with some of the demographics that we want to attract."

Namely young males. Hasbro also hopes to appeal to that demo later this year when it re-releases the animated "Transformers" film on DVD in November as part of the franchise's 20th anniversary. The toymaker will re-seed the market with Transformers toys and other products as part of the effort.

Mr. Bay's film will also feature an Apple iPod and an Xbox 360, because in the past "you would only see robots running around as vehicles," Brian Goldner, chief operating officer for Hasbro, said at M&V East. "But now, we're now focused on the 'more than meets the eye' element" -- a reference to the animated series' theme line -- as the filmmakers expand the number of products that transform on screen. Yahoo is also integrated in the movie.

Trying to regain its financial footing

And the timing of the film's release -- currently scheduled for July 4 -- couldn't come at a better time for GM. The world's largest automaker has been forced to try to regain its financial footing, build more appealing vehicles and compete with fast-growing foreign rivals such as Toyota.

Details of GM's marketing plans around "Transformers" aren't yet finalized, but executives said they plan to use the film's title as a way to promote GM's lineup of vehicles and boost its image among consumers.

"We were at the right place at the right time," Mr. Kraut said. "The movie title itself is a very strong communication device for the transformation of our company for delivering outstanding products in the marketplace," Mr. Kraut said. "It really represents the product renaissance. Transformation is great to live under if you want to communicate that. Thank God that there's a movie called 'Transformers' that we can play in."

GM's current ad campaign, titled "Elevate," is linked to another transformation (print and TV ads show cars literally elevating above gridlock traffic). The automaker is offering a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, similar to the one offered by Hyundai Motor Corp. that helped turn around the South Korean automaker's fortunes in the U.S. GM has known for years that prospective car buyers are unsure about the quality of its cars and trucks, and the warranty deal is meant to change that perception.

Just how much of GM's marketing budget will be spent around the film also is yet to be determined. Negotiations with Paramount and DreamWorks are still under way.

Making the product integral to the plot

Either way, "it's cool deal," Mr. Kraut said. "What you want to do with branded entertainment is make your product integral to the plotline of the content that consumers are consuming. The content [in 'Transformers'] is very good. The cars are integral to the story. They generate attention. It's a story of good versus evil. Our cars are the good guys."

In addition to "Transformers," GM's vehicles are also integrated into TV shows such as CBS's "CSI" and Bravo's "Queer Eye." It's looking for more opportunities like "Transformers" but knows they are rare.

"The planets all aligned for us on this one," Mr. Kraut said. "We're obviously going to do more in the area of branded entertainment. As people are using other forms of media, this is a way to get our message across."
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