AUTO EXECS SETTLE IN THE CITY OF DREAMS

SHORT COMMUTE: Car industry's movie-action craving expands colony of execs; even Nashville-bound Nissan left its placement star behind

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mgraser@crain.com

The automotive industry has long had a love-love relationship with Hollywood. But the two are getting a little closer.

That's because an increasing number of the biggest automakers are setting up shop in Los Angeles, moving an executive or two there to do lunch with studio or TV network honchos, agents, talent and others.

Just last year, Chrysler Group tapped Michael Curmi to serve in the newly created post of senior manager-entertainment marketing and rep the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. Audi of America's Stephen Berkov also made the move, becoming the company's director of brand innovation.

Despite Nissan North America moving its headquarters from Gardena, Calif., to Nashville, Clarke Osborne, product placement manager, stayed behind for Nissan to broker entertainment deals. And Ford Motor Co. is in its third year of having an entertainment office in L.A.

Not wanting to miss out on the action, General Motors Corp. and Mercedes-Benz USA are also expected to plant executives in Tinseltown soon.

No longer are the car companies solely relying on their product placement or entertainment marketing companies to choose projects for their vehicles. They're taking a more hands-on approach to put a bigger spotlight on their newest wheels.

They have no choice.

Major players in the U.S. are struggling to move their vehicles off dealers' lots and are facing increased competition from foreign rivals whose vehicles have strong reputations with consumers.

But the move to Hollywood also makes sense.

The automotive category is the biggest player in the branded-entertainment biz, spending more to integrate its cars and trucks into TV shows, movies, music videos, video games and live events, but also to create its own original content to be viewed across all platforms. Executives at a number of the companies say branded entertainment will be a major part of every new-car launch going forward.

Carmakers already were the biggest ad buyers, with the automotive category spending $21 billion in 2005, according to Advertising Age data. GM ranked behind No. 1 Procter & Gamble Co. as the second-biggest buyer of ads at $4.4 billion.

The idea is that if executives are closer to the creatives and the dealmakers in Hollywood, their products will play more prominent roles in productions. They'll be able to broker tie-ins with better projects, and help filmmakers understand and work in vehicle attributes or what the brand is trying to convey to consumers. They get to read scripts more quickly and manage the overall process more efficiently. And they don't have to set up meetings three weeks in advance.

"It does make a difference to be located with the people you want to be in business with. It's easier to communicate with them," says Myles Romero, director of Ford Global Brand Entertainment. "With a dedicated office, you're a portal to the company. When it comes to the entertainment industry, how do you do that effectively and consistently if you're sitting in Michigan?"

Being closer to Hollywood has already started to pay off with bigger deals. That's especially true when it comes to films, which require close interaction with the filmmakers behind the projects. TV is much easier to "buy your way into" if your company has a sizable media budget, executives say.

This summer, Paramount Pictures' live-action adaptation of Hasbro's popular Transformers toy line will prominently feature General Motors' Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac and Hummer as the film's star shape-shifting talking robots.

Also this year, Dodge has branded the Fantasticar, the vehicle of choice for superheroes Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Thing and the Human Torch in 20th Century Fox's "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." Ford, Volvo and Audi had also pursued that deal. Ford's Shelby Mustang, Expedition and Escape hybrid, as well as Volvos, will be front and center in Warner Bros.' "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith.

On TV, Nissan recently planted a stake on ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and used NBC's hit show "Heroes" to launch its new Versa, with high-profile shout-outs for the car in the show. Toyota has been pushing its new models on Fox's "24," "MadTV" and "Prison Break." Honda has relied on CBS' "Rock Star." And Chevy generated buzz around the Tahoe launch on NBC's "The Apprentice" and "Las Vegas."

There are benefits on the TV front, too. Being able to visit the sets and interact with producers and writers of "Heroes" helped get the Versa into more scenes and episodes than were previously agreed upon, Ms. Osborne says.

That's exactly the point. More exposure. As long as that happens, everyone's happy.

"It's challenging times for the automotive industry," Mr. Romero says. "Budgets get looked at pretty hard. We've been left alone and allowed to continue to grow three years into this. It's a testament that the company thinks this is working."
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