July 6th, 2007

GM Hopes Movie Roles Transform Cars Into Sellable Stars

By Julie Hinds
Detroit Free Press

As this week’s opening of the Transformers movie approaches, loyal fans are ready.

Brian Kelly, 35, owner of Detroit Comics in Ferndale, grew up watching the cartoons and collecting the toys.

It was definitely the coolest thing out there,” he remembers.

Theus Weathers, 7, of Detroit is growing up with Transformers. Why does he like them? “They’re robots,” he says with a happy shout.

There you have it. The retro-cool cartoon, toy and comic book franchise from the 1980s has a fan base that spans generations. But, like the Transformers slogan says, there’s “more than meets the eye.”

The Transformers movie will give four General Motors vehicles one of the biggest product-placement opportunities ever for an automotive company.

If the flick is as huge as some people are predicting, it could help transform perceptions of GM in ways that may play out for years to come.

What makes the Transformers partnership important? For one thing, the movie has all the trappings of a blockbuster — toy and video game tie-ins, and more. For another, the cars get as much screen time as many of the flesh-and-blood actors, with a particularly juicy part reserved for the new Chevrolet Camaro that’s coming out in 2009.

But more than that, GM has teamed up with a franchise that evokes fond memories and resonates emotionally with men in their late 20s to mid-30s, and is also popular with kids.

You know all that talk about struggling American auto companies needing to improve their image and reach out to the youth market? Transformers speaks to the 35-and-under crowd.

The timing for GM couldn’t be better, as the automaker has fought off plenty of bad news in recent years. No talk of buyouts or billions in health care liabilities here. It’s all about the shape-shifting bots.

“Everybody I hear from is totally geeked for the movie,” says Kelly, who’s downloaded trailers from the Web and also was part of the local crew that worked on a Transformers shoot at the Michigan Central Depot in Detroit last year.

Although fans of cartoons and comic books can be touchy about changes to the source material, Kelly hasn’t sensed much controversy about GM’s involvement in the movie, which required some tweaks to Transformers lore.

For instance, the Bumblebee robot, originally a Volkswagen Beetle, becomes a Camaro in this version.

“As long as you’ve got cars transforming into robots, I don’t think anyone really cares,” says Kelly. “Dude, it’s cars that turn into robots on film!”

The Transformers arrived on the pop-culture scene more than two decades ago and — like Star Wars and Spider-Man— their story centers on the battle of good guys and bad guys, specifically two robot factions from the planet Cybertron who wind up on Earth. The Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, are the heroes, while the Decepticons, led by Megatron, are the warring villains.

The robots can turn themselves instantly into cars, trucks, planes and other objects, a twist that appealed to young boys because it combined the fun of action figures with mind-bending mechanical possibilities.

Grownup fans like Ray Wert say the lure of Transformers goes deeper than that. For the latch-key kids of the ‘80s, Transformers provided after-school lessons in good and evil and a father figure in Optimus Prime.

“For us, the mythos behind it is extraordinarily important,” says Wert, 28, the metro-Detroit based senior editor of Jalopnik.com, a website that keeps a cheeky eye on the cult of cars.

That mythos continues to be a big draw. This past weekend, fans congregated at Botcon in Providence, an annual convention for Transformers fans.

Brian Savage, who helped organize the convention and heads the Transformers Collectors Club, says between 3,000 and 5,000 people were expected to attend.

How did GM tap into such a rich pop-culture vein of product placement possibilities? The process started in late 2005 and resulted from the company’s long relationship with Transformers director Michael Bay, the man behind action extravaganzas Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.

In preparation for the film, Bay, who has relied on GM cars in several of his films and also has directed ads for the company, visited GM’s design center in Los Angeles and had a look at the company’s products.

He took a strong liking to the Camaro concept car, which wound up grabbing the crucial role of Bumblebee.

“He knew who he wanted, character-wise, to be his hero,” says Dino Bernacchi, associate director of branded entertainment for GM.

GM vehicles won three other roles: the Pontiac Solstice as Jazz, the Hummer H2 as Ratchet and the GMC TopKick truck as Ironhide.

GM supplied 65 cars to the movie. It’s running ads that tout the film and promote a new sales incentive program, the Transform Your Ride sale.

GM also has a site, Chevyautobot.com, where visitors can transform the Chevy lineup into Autobots.

Two Camaros had to be built for the filming, since the vehicle was a concept when Bay discovered it. The props were constructed before GM officially announced it was planning to produce the car.

Other vehicles have roles in the movie, including a Saleen Ford Mustang police car that plays a Decepticon.

Bumblebee, who gets major screen time, starts out as a beat-up ‘70s-era Camaro that Shia LaBeouf’s character buys from a used-car lot and changes magically midway through into the shiny new model.

According to Bernacchi, the moment of the switch from old to new Camaro has been drawing applause at test screenings.

It’s hard to put a dollar value on the payoff the automaker could get from the worldwide audience that will see the GM cars as stars, not to mention the added exposure from video game and toy tie-ins, and the eventual DVD release.

“This is like, once in a lifetime for an automotive manufacturer. Being a car guy that loves entertainment, this is it,” says Bernacchi, pausing playfully. “Of course, until there’s the sequel.”

Product placement has become more crucial than ever as an advertising strategy, because consumers are using Tivo and other methods to tune out commercials.

If you can weave your product into a story, you can make it practically unavoidable, or so the logic goes.

And if you’re an auto company connected to a splashy sci-fi movie, you can send the message that you’re making the car of the future.

While product placement makes economic sense for businesses, some cultural observers, like Matt Soar, an assistant professor of communication studies at Montreal’s Concordia University, are worried about the implications for storytelling in general.

Soar, who runs BrandHype.org, which examines the role of product placement and tracks products in movies, is also concerned about kids growing up in a world where products are slipped into all forms of entertainment.

“I think it’s important to have a conversation with kids, so they can see it and spot it and understand it, rather than grow up assuming that movies have always been saturated with product placement,” he says.

For older fans, early indications are the makers of the Transformers film have tried to do right by them and slip in references to the original source material.

For instance, Optimus Prime (who was killed off in the 1986 Transformers animated film), is voiced by Peter Cullen, who did the voice for the original cartoon.

Says Savage, whose Transformers Collectors Club has about 2,000 members across the globe, “In so much we’ve seen and heard about, there’s so much wink-wink, nudge-nudge, that fans haven’t been left out of the film.”

At the River Days event in downtown Detroit last week, 7-year-old Theus stared with interest at a Hummer H2 in GM’s Transformers display.

His mother, Colette Weathers, 45, understood his fascination. Her oldest son, who’s 28, also was into Transformers at that age.

“It came on at 4 o’clock every day,” she recalled of the cartoon.

Weathers, who drives a Pontiac Montana, says she’s hip to the motive of product placement: “It helps them sell better.”

And that’s the transformation American automakers are betting on.

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