Madison+Vine: Ford SUV gets starring role in film

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Cars routinely appear in movies, but few are the films in which much of the action occurs within an automobile, and where the vehicle even has a character name. Fox Searchlight's comedy "Johnson Family Vacation," released April 7, features a redesigned Lincoln Navigator from Ford Motor Co. as "Mr. Hip-Hop."

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 friend of the film's director, Christopher Erskin, producer, Paul Hall, and some of the 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 executives 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. 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."

Like every deal, the negotiations were involved. Lincoln and UniWorld executives requested some changes made to the script, according to Mr. Reynolds, that incorporated attributes of the car. 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."

In another scene, 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. "All car manufacturers would have that concern," said Kevin Arnold, director-product placement at Fox.

"Johnson Family Vacation" has pulled in about $12 million, nearly recouping a modest production budget in its first week.

contributing: jean halliday

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