Car Product Placement in 'Star Wars'? Sort Of

Brands are jumping through hoops (and letting directors stomp on hoods) to link vehicles to franchises, sometimes without placement: "Telling my execs we can't put a Nissan Rogue in the Death Star was the hardest part."
Courtesy of Christina Lauren
Ben Affleck with the Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo concept car, driven by Bruce Wayne in 'Justice League.'

When Justice League opened to $94 million, it was a disappointment for Warner Bros. — and a less obvious blow to partner Mercedes-Benz, which spent $6 million to $8 million to place three cars in the film, including an E-Class Cabriolet ($66,000) driven by Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) and an AMG Vision Gran Turismo concept ride for Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne.

The current onscreen auto arms race was kicked off by Marvel in 2008 with a deal for Tony Stark to drive a new Audi R8 in Iron Man. "We were taking a real risk with a new director [Jon Favreau, helming his first superhero film], new character and a new studio in Marvel," says Audi marketing vp Loren Angelo. It paid off: The R8 has become indelibly tied to Robert Downey Jr.'s Stark over six Marvel Cinematic Universe films.

For February's Black Panther, Marvel partnered with Lexus, but when the deal was done in 2015, the carmaker's LC500 did not even exist. Director Ryan Coogler "wanted a hands-on experience," says Marvel partnerships vp Mindy Hamilton. "So Lexus brought down a prototype, worth over a million dollars. Ryan jumped up and down on the hood — like [star] Chadwick Boseman does in the movie — and there was a loud gasp from the Lexus team. Ryan said, 'Yep, this is right.' "

Aside from the tie-in ad dollars that manufacturers must commit to spend, there is the cost of customizing the cars, like enlarging Wayne's Benz 10 percent to accommodate Affleck's 6-foot-3 frame. For Black Panther, Lexus provided about $1.5 million worth of cars and created a custom iridescent blue paint color.

For an off-planet film like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, integrations get more complicated. Nissan created seven custom show cars with Lucasfilm's VFX shop, Industrial Light & Magic, and is planning a multimillion-dollar campaign, including in-dealer virtual reality, a microsite and a car giveaway. "We weren't just going slap a logo on it. Star Wars has millions of fans, and if you piss them off, you're done," says Nissan marketing vp Jeremy Tucker. When asked how a partnership makes sense without placement, Tucker says with a laugh, "Telling my own execs that we can't put a Nissan Rogue in the Death Star was the hardest part."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.