Chasing the Stars:
Carmakers in Movies
The summer's hottest movies feature amazing car chases.
The Warner Bros. film, The Matrix Reloaded, sets new standards for car chase visual effects in what producer Joel Silver calls, "probably the most complicated car chase ever filmed."
Paramount Pictures' modern remake of The Italian Job—with little MINIs running amok on streets, sidewalks and stairs—refreshes memories of the 1969 classic The Italian Job, and is rekindling debate about the best car chases in movie history.
Video: MINI Stunt Driving
Universal Pictures' 2Fast 2Furious builds a new base of car chase fans among young drivers this summer, with its portrayal of cops, gangs and the "tuner" crowd in the fast lane.
With so much sudden attention on cars and car chases at the movie theater, filmgoers might be surprised to learn just how much work goes into getting vehicles for some of these fast-paced action sequences and how a car, truck or SUV becomes a movie "star" that gets beat up, crashed and shot.
Yes, even in these days of computer graphics, movie producers often use the real thing—real cars and a mix of real and stunt drivers.
Casting Call, of Sorts
Most times, Hollywood comes a callin'—to car companies, that is—as plans for a movie are confirmed. The movie folks make requests to use one or more of a carmaker's vehicles.
A cult film among young people who customize their vehicles and are in the "tuner" scene, The Fast & The Furious made a star out of actor Vin Diesel. In the sequel with Brian O'Conner sans Diesel, street racers again show off the performance and stylized bodies of their cars.
"Universal Pictures came and knocked on our door and said, 'We want you guys in our movie,'" said Greg Stahl, director of advertising at Mitsubishi Motors North America. "They were very interested in our brand because of our very young demographics and because we're very well known in the tuner crowd, and we're a multicultural brand."
Video: 2Fast 2Furious Advertisement
Mitsubishi provided 12 cars for shooting—four Eclipse Spyders, four Lancers and four Lancer Evolutions, Stahl said, adding that was the extent of Mitsubishi's costs.
Car buffs take note: The Evolutions in the film actually were pieced-together models, not true Evolution VIIIs, which only went on sale in the United States this year, according to Mitsubishi spokeswoman Janis Little.
Still, she said, stunt drivers were so impressed by the movie cars "they wanted to buy them."
Couldn't Substitute a Taurus
Sometimes, it's obvious which car should be in a movie.
Take the new MINI, starring in this year's The Italian Job.
Adapted from the 1960's film that showed police-driven Alfa Romeos struggling to catch robbers driving the original, inimitable MINIs, the new film depicts robbers trying to get their gold and escape in modern MINIs amidst the worst Los Angeles traffic jam ever.
In the movie, MINIs—the smallest car sold in America—careen down stairs, drive on sidewalks and weave through subway tunnels. Mark Wahlberg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron are among the actors.
"The car is obviously integral to the film," said Michael McHale, MINI spokesman. "They couldn't make the film with another car. It would be heresy."
Video: MINIs in The Italian Job
He said the only cost to MINI was providing more than 30 cars. Moviegoers, however, are likely to recognize only three MINIs—one red, one white and one blue.
Wachowskis Visit Detroit
The selection of Cadillacs for The Matrix Reloaded went a bit differently.
Due to a longstanding marketing agreement between Cadillac's parent company, General Motors Corp., and Warner Bros., the automaker can signal its interest in participating in an upcoming studio film, said Susan Docherty, Escalade marketing director.
"We looked at Matrix as a brand, and it was very edgy, very bold and very unexpected," she said. "It clearly had the ability to separate itself [from other films] and was able to develop a cult-like following . . . From a timing standpoint, we knew our product assault would be at its height at Cadillac and this [movie placement] gave us an opportunity to pull the whole story together."
The creators of the Matrix films, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, made the trip to Cadillac in Detroit to select the vehicles personally from among the Cadillac lineup, Silver said. "They had two [future] vehicles that the boys liked, the CTS and EXT . . . The cars had a sort of new feel to them when they saw them in 2000."
No Vehicles? No Problem
Car fans will relish the unusual effort Cadillac made to get the vehicles to the filmmakers.
Since CTS was about a year from production, the movie cars wound up being culled from the ranks of CTS prototypes. They didn't necessarily stand up to all the rough stuff in the movie, Silver said.
"One of the first shots we did, we snapped the axle on the CTS," he said. "We jumped kind of a curb, and these weren't real cars ?and they really weren't designed for that kind of thing . . . We ended up doing a lot of repair work on those cars ourselves."
The EXTs were even more difficult for Cadillac to provide, because at the time they were needed for filming, they weren't yet in prototype stage.
David Schiavone, Cadillac product manager, wound up securing only two engineering prototypes as well as pieces of EXT sister vehicles, the Escalade and Chevrolet Avalanche.
It fell to Bill Deem, a former GM dealership mechanic who now has a vehicle prep business and is a stunt driver, to do the job of removing rear-end parts of Escalades and replacing them with rear-end parts of Avalanches. All the work was done in a Detroit area warehouse, with help from suppliers who custom fabricated some sheet metal components.
By Jan. 22, 2001, Cadillac shipped 14 CTS prototypes, 14 CTS interiors, 10 EXT prototypes and two EXT interiors to California. Another 50 GM vehicles were also provided as background vehicles, and filmmakers got engineering specs, math data and dimensional information about sheet metal components.
All in all, The Matrix Reloaded showcases GM's "largest product placement effort ever," the automaker said.
Another bit of car trivia: Many of the "extra" vehicles in The Matrix Reloaded were Oldsmobiles, a brand that GM is phasing out. If you don't believe, just watch how many Oldsmobiles are on the freeway in the film's big chase scene.
Finding That Roadway
While Cadillac was planning for its vehicles' starring roles, Matrix filmmakers were struggling to find the proper venue to shoot a freeway chase scene that lasts more than 14 minutes.
Much of the movie was filmed in Australia, but no freeways there matched what the creators had in mind. The Wachowskis are from Chicago, so Wacker Drive in Chicago was set upon as a good site. Some of Silver's previous movies had used Wacker for car scenes too.
However, Chicago's mayor "decided he wanted flowers along Wacker Drive, so [the city] decided to shut the road down and build these huge flower pots," Silver said. " . . . The very thing we wanted to do, he didn't want. He didn't want his city to look like it had this kind of place that is grungy and down and dirty type thing. He didn't want us to do it."
So Matrix officials cast about and wound up visiting a freeway section in the Akron, Ohio, area.
"They were looking at how they were going to prevent the cars from coming on the freeway, blocking the freeway out for [lots of] hours a day," Silver said.
Then it became apparent that each time the filming would need to start over again, "it would take 45 minutes to bring all the cars back to the starting point," he said.
Silver recalled that after that, Owen Paterson, production designer, said, "Why don't we just build you a freeway?"
"No one had thought of that before," Silver said.
So that's what they did—at a retired naval base in Alameda, Calif. The 1.6-mile span was built like a real freeway, complete with a median and on and off ramps. The concrete "had to be really poured properly, because the cars would go 60 miles an hour and if there was a problem, it had to be on real roads," Silver said.
The result: "You are seeing, on one hand, some of the most spectacular car chase footage ever put on film because of the amount of control we were able to bring by actually building our own freeway," Silver said. "And, on top of that, you have the most spectacular visual effects sequence inside this car chase . . . it's very intense."
More trivia: The estimated cost for the roadway was $1.25 a square foot. The sound walls on the sides of the freeway were, in reality, facades that after filming were taken apart and sent to Mexico for use in low-income housing, according to Silver.
What Automakers Gain
Many in the auto industry credit BMW with showing how modern-day automakers can get maximum leverage out of a Hollywood appearance.
In the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye, actor Pierce Brosnan's car was a BMW Z3—a car that hadn't gone on sale yet as the movie debuted. BMW officials set a target of 5,000 Z3 roadster pre-orders off its Z3 publicity, which included the film and other promotions.
In the end, the company ended up with 10,000 pre-orders.
How? As part of an all-out marketing campaign, BMW tied the Z3's role as Bond's new car in the film to a special edition Z3 in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, dealer movie premiere parties, even a press event in New York's Central Park where Brosnan drove up in a Z3.
However, each automaker sets different goals for its movie placements.
Cadillac's appearance in The Matrix Reloaded, comes as the luxury brand is trying to boost its image among young car buyers. What better place to be, Cadillac officials thought back in 2001, than in one of the Matrix trilogy movies? The first one, released in 1999, was a $450 million blockbuster that attracted a hip, young audience fascinated by the detailed, high-tech visual effects that set new standards for action filmmaking.
"I believe it will be a great connection for Cadillac," Silver said. Added Grant Hill, executive producer, "This is the ultimate Cadillac commercial."
Docherty noted Cadillac is quite selective about the movies where it gives filmmakers free cars. However, "we don't want product placement for product placement sake," she said, adding the intent now is to make sure car appearances are "strategic" and fit with Cadillac goals.
< Mitsubishi's Stahl said his company also is "typically very selective." 2Fast 2Furious got the okay for free cars because the film matches well with Mitsubishi customers who are youthful and multicultural, he said. Stahl was also aware the first Fast & Furious movie was successful at the box office.
"This is really the first movie we have ever done," he said, adding that in the past Mitsubishi "walked away from" some filmmakers' requests.
He predicted: "When we look back at this in three to five years, it will be viewed as a great case study . . . We think this is a great return on investment."
Ann Job is an automotive journalist and writer for T&A Ink media group.
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