Sunday, July 08, 2007

GM cars play action heroes in 'Transformers'

Wednesday, June 27, 2007
GM cars play action heroes in 'Transformers'
Ann Job / Special to The Detroit News

HOLLYWOOD, Calif . -- The folks at General Motors Corp. are walking around a little starry-eyed these days, with an extra spring in their step and Hasbro toys in their hands.

In a product placement coup, four GM vehicles, including a new generation Chevrolet Camaro due out in 2009, won starring roles in the heavily hyped new action flick, "Transformers."

While automakers regularly wheel and deal to place their cars in films, GM's vehicles are cast as shape-shifting action stars in the expected summer blockbuster directed by Michael Bay.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for General Motors to get its product in front of millions of people," said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "It keeps (GM) current; it builds awareness."

While vehicles starring in a movie won't necessarily "drive people into showrooms like a rebate program will drive them into showrooms, it will reach people in a very different setting," he said.

The other GM stars in "Transformer" are the Pontiac Solstice, a Hummer H2 and GMC TopKick pickup truck.

"We're the heroes, all four of our vehicles are good guys," said Dino Bernacchi, who oversees GM's movie deals. "They all are cool cars that fit the personalities of the characters."

GM officials will be on hand for today's Hollywood premiere of the DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures production. The movie opens Tuesday.

If you're not up on Transformers lore, it was a popular toy line and TV cartoon in the 1980s and has a cult following worldwide. Good autobots battle evil Decepticon robots, with cars and trucks transforming from vehicles into giant robots.

More than meets the eye

GM officials didn't have to search out this film opportunity. Hollywood came to them, even before the automaker's executives had decided to show a Camaro concept coupe at the auto show in Detroit in 2006, and later to put the new Camaro into production.

"This is the ruby of rubies for a car company," said Michael Bay, "Transformers" director. Bay previously worked with GM on "Bad Boys II" and "Armageddon."

Still, GM wasn't a shoo-in for the prime vehicle roles. In fact, Bay initially was considering another carmaker for at least one character. The original Bumblebee autobot was a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. But the yellow Camaro concept became the inspiration for the movie Bumblebee after Bay saw a picture of the concept car and later a full-scale model.

It's a perfect fit because "it's a muscle car and still state of the art," he said. "The biggest problem was that the car wasn't being made."

This didn't stop Steve Tihanyi, who was then overseeing GM's movie deals, and the automaker's design staff from using whatever they could to create the Camaro and fiberglass shells in time for filming in 2006. Tihanyi is a Cadillac regional/divisional marketing manager.

Pontiac's Solstice won the role of Jazz, which was played by a Porsche in the cartoon. The Solstice also had to be created because GM was only selling it as a convertible as filming began. Bay wanted Jazz to be a gray, hardtop Solstice.

Search-and-rescue vehicle Ratchet is played by a Hummer H2 that's painted a fluorescent light green and modified with a winch and brush guard in front, shovels on its sides and off-road lights. And rugged off-roader Ironhide is played by a GMC TopKick pickup truck with a Duramax diesel engine.

Ford Motor Co. also has a presence in "Transformers." A Saleen Mustang police car, complete with light bar on the roof and a push bar, is a Decepticon.

Endless possibilities

The film is poised to attract a wide audience, which means the exposure for GM's vehicles, especially the Camaro, could be huge.

"The fact is, we're showcasing really exciting products, like the Hummer, like the Solstice and the Camaro, and they can be cool and hip for a new generation worldwide," Tihanyi said.

GM won't release details of its studio financial arrangement.

The film's debut is just the start of marketing opportunities. "Transformers" is expected to be out on DVD before Christmas, and Hasbro already has crafted toys of the film characters.

"You're talking about a film that should bring in $700 million to $1 billion across the globe. You don't always get these big, blockbuster opportunities," Tihanyi said.

It may be only the beginning for GM's "Transformer" stardom. The movie's ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel.

Ann Job is a freelance automotive writer and can be reached at

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