How a Lincoln Navigator wound up starring, along with Cedric the Entertainer and Vanessa Williams, in a feature film is both simple and somewhat complex. "This is all about relationships," said Walter Reynolds, director-strategic marketing at UniWorld Group, Lincoln Mercury's African-American agency of record. He is a good friend of the film's director, Christopher Erskin, the producer, Paul Hall, and some of the movie's writers, connections that helped UniWorld get wind of the project last spring.
Several months later, Lincoln Navigator parent Ford inked its deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures to feature the vehicle in "Johnson Family Vacation". Competing luxury SUVs were also considered, according to execs close to the situation.
Ford has worked with News Corp's film divisions in the past—Twentieth Century Fox studio recently partnered with Mazda on its "X-Men 2"— but "Johnson Family Vacation" is one of the more elaborate collaborations between the studio and the carmaker. The marketer's goal is to showcase the redesigned SUV and highlight its duality as a family vehicle that also appeals to a younger crowd.
"The movie has a huge crossover appeal," said Miles Romero, brand entertainment manager at Ford. "We sell the Navigator to a range of people, a lot of rap stars and celebrities, as well as yuppies and families."
Mr. Hip Hop was "tricked out" by West Los Angeles car customizer 310 Motoring, whose Web site lists as clients Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige and various NBA stars.
Like every deal, the negotiations were involved. Lincoln and Uniworld executives were able to have limited changes made to the script according to Reynolds that incorporated certain attributes about the car including roominess. At one point, for instance, Cedric's character, Nate Johnson, says, "I know the Lincoln can hold seven people comfortably, but not in the front seat."
%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% In another scene, in which a load of cement is dumped onto the Lincoln Navigator's front end, making it undriveable, Lincoln executives sought to ensure the car was portrayed as durable and to communicate that the mishap wasn't caused by a mechanical malfunction. "All car manufacturers would have that concern," said Kevin Arnold, director of product placement at Fox.
"Johnson Family Vacation," which has thus far pulled in about $12 million at the box office, tying with Disney's much-hyped disappointment "The Alamo," nearly recouped a modest production budget in its first week. —Contributing: Jean Halliday