To Get Their Cars In Films, Automakers Turn To A Movie Motor Wrangler

Transformers Age of Extinction offers a big screen sample of how automakers aggressively market their cars to movie studios. Once, in an earlier age when Mustang convertibles ruled the road, they didn't have to.

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It's summer car buying season and movie blockbuster season. And here's where these two things merge. "Transformers Age Of Extinction" premieres this week. It's an example of how automakers use movies to market cars. Once upon a time, say, when Mustang convertibles ruled the road, car companies didn't have to do that. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: For this story, we're going to meet Randy Peters. I want to give you an idea of what this dude is like. He's a black belt, a stunt man. He flies planes and helicopters. Steve McQueen got him in the movie business. He has had almost every job you dreamed of when you were nine-years-old. And his latest job...

RANDY PETERS: I'm the transportation coordinator. I work for Paramount. I do Transformers and some other Michael Bay movies. Basically, the transportation man - anything with wheels, we do.

GLINTON: If it's moving through movies, he's responsible. And I asked him what was the scariest thing he did for the picture business.

PETERS: Driving a truck is pretty dangerous when you're working for Michael Bay. When you're driving a semi-truck, and you're blind. And you can't see - so, you know, going through explosions and having camera's right next to you.

GLINTON: Dangerous, right? Well, before I knew it, Peters had me in the cab of Galvetron, the bad truck in the new "Transformers" film.

PETERS: So this is just like driving anything else except for it's about 25,000 pounds, and it's 13.6 feet tall.

GLINTON: And how many hundreds of thousands of dollars?

PETERS: This thing is probably a million.

GLINTON: I am not scared at all.

PETERS: All right, first of all, pull that little strap up there.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN HONK)

PETERS: Not a very good air horn, is it? It's not the most manliest air horn I've ever heard.

GLINTON: Any air horn is manly for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR HORN HONK)

GLINTON: So Peters let me drive his giant Australian freightliner truck on the streets of LA. I went from 40-years-old to 10 in about three seconds.

PETERS: Now you're getting the feel of it. Oh, yeah.

GLINTON: In the shop, after our drive, Peters was a little wistful about movies back in the day. Eighteen years ago, when Peters was working on the movie "Twister," he just went to Chrysler and talked to a guy.

PETERS: Then I'd say, hey, I want to get this pickup truck, the Dodge Ram. And it was just, like, him and I talking about it. And I'd show him the script, and they'd go, yeah, we want to be part of this movie. In the old days, it was just - the studio was happy to get a free truck.

GLINTON: That is so not the case today. The contracts are so long, and there is so much money changing hands. Peters points to two cars across the garage.

PETERS: The rally fighters - those two you saw over there - supposedly if there's five seconds worth of screen time, they've got to pay $150,000 to the studio.

JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN: It's no longer you give away a car, it's now, you know, you give away a bunch of cars. And you give away a bunch of money.

GLINTON: John Pearley Huffman covers cars in movies for edmunds.com.

HUFFMAN: Well, remember, they're motion pictures. And the easiest way to put motion into a picture is to have a car drive through it. This has been the movie business for 120 years, and the car business for 120 years.

GLINTON: Huffman says, in recent years, the car business has come to need movies more and vice versa. Movie product placements have gotten more valuable as movie budgets have gotten more expensive.

HUFFMAN: So they have to pay for that budget somehow, and product placement dollars become more valuable that way. Also if you're a product company like, say, BMW, it means you sell every place in the world. You don't just sell in the United States. You sell in China and Germany and Europe and Africa. And one of the products that's going to get you noticed - and product placements that's going to get you noticed -is a major motion picture.

GLINTON: And think about it, print ads are less valuable. TV is more fragmented. The Super Bowl is big, but it's only one night. Huffman says, but a movie...

HUFFMAN: That movie has gone from the movie theaters to home video to online to constant playing on television. And it's played every place on the planet, and it's going to be there for years.

GLINTON: You can expect even more blockbusters brought to you by Toyota, BMW, Ford and maybe even Subaru. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City.

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