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Star Vehicles : The right movie role can polish an image and pump up earning power. The wrong one can backfire. Not just for actors--we're talking about cars here.

July 19, 1993|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Car makers, like film actors, may rise and falter by their choice of roles.

In 1963, Bentley Motors decided not to supply a car for a British movie. Bad move. Another vehicle was cast as Sean Connery's co-star in "Goldfinger" and Aston Martin's DB5 became a symbol of the genre alongside 007, shaken martinis and Miss Moneypenny.

Last year, Rolls-Royce said thanks, but no thanks when asked to provide a regal blacklimousine for the Buckingham Palace scene in "Patriot Games." Good call. Now an Austin Princess will be remembered as the vehicle that sprung its doors and left occupants defenseless against terrorists' bullets.

Both cases were in-house decisions by car makers.

But these days--as competition for free advertising is elevated to a human science, as directors decree a car as crucial to the character as a costume--movie appearances by automobiles are the specialist crusade of placement agencies in pursuit of The Golden Moment: exposure in blockbuster movies such as "The Firm" or "Jurassic Park" that may present a client's vehicle to millions of Americans.

"The work used to be more off-the-cuff, the result of a chat with someone who says: 'Hey, I can get you in,' " recalls Eric Dahlquist, president of Vista Group of Van Nuys, a pioneer purveyor of Mercedes, GMC trucks and several flavors of GM cars.

"Now it is controlled in a more business-like manner by a half-dozen agencies with a greater feel for the ebb and flow of Hollywood . . . with standards, insurance and maintenance requirements, and (operating) more like a car company than a movie company."

Studios, Dahlquist says, do not pay for vehicles.

Although a business of influence, he adds, bribing directors or transportation coordinators remains a rumor that rarely rises above a nasty whisper, and is firmly denied by studios and placement agencies.

Standards are strict. Cars borrowed for filming must stay within camera range and cannot not be used by directors for weekends at Ojai Ranch. They will be brought back in the same condition they went out. Or the studio pays.

Makers of up-market imports insist their loaners will not be driven by bad guys. They cannot be shown as steaming wrecks. Nor on the wrong end of police chases or involved in on-screen crimes.

"If an actor is the drug dealer, the pimp, or the hit man, he's not going to be seen driving a Rolls-Royce," says Reg Abbiss, a company spokesman. "We ask for scripts in advance and approve only if the car is going to be driven by a person we'd all like to be, in a nice setting, in its own firmament as it were. But not in some back alley with bloodletting going on."

Or in any condition in which--as Rolls-Royce is wont to say--the vehicle is unable to proceed.

If a movie shows a Mercedes leapfrogging police cruisers or used as a PLO gun platform, dollars to bratwurst the car was not obtained from Vista or Mercedes.

But sometimes you flip a coin.

The script for "The Rookie" called for Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen--or at least their stunt doubles--to drive a Mercedes 500SL through a warehouse window and onto the roof of an adjoining building. The warehouse was wired to explode behind the mid-air Mercedes.

Vista and Mercedes hesitated--then countered with two conditions.

One: The SL must land intact and shiny-side up, with no injury to occupants, and with its air bags and automatic roll bar visible deploying--and in correct sequence.

Two: On landing, Eastwood would speak a slogan.

The stunt went as choreographed. Eastwood spoke as scripted: "Engineered like no other car in the world."

Vista glowed.

*

Yet it is not always car makers who have the final say. So it was with "The Firm."

In the John Grisham bestseller, attorney Mitch McDeere is given a black BMW 318i as a perk of his employment with Bendini, Lambert & Locke.

BMW--through its placement agency, Norm Marshall & Associates of Sun Valley--received the script and pitched for the part. So did Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti and Mazda. BMW sweetened its offer with a $1-million promotion tied to a car giveaway, multimedia cross advertising and a dealer poster campaign.

Paramount went with Mercedes.

And McDeere--played by Tom Cruise--now drives a champagne 300CE Cabriolet in a movie closing fast on box-office receipts of $100 million.

"We argued the issue," explains Donna Schmidt of Marshall & Associates. "Basically it came down to the fact that (director) Sydney Pollack had the (final) say."

According to spokespersons for Mercedes and the movie, it was a creative, not a commercial decision to depart from the book.

Denise Norman of Mercedes said she visited Pollack, showed him the Cabriolet, discussed the role of the car and, "It was his feeling that the image of the BMW was not what he wanted.

"He thought the BMW was dated and a car of the '80s . . . while Mercedes-Benz was a car of the '90s."

Schmidt says the rejection was "a pretty significant" commercial loss for BMW and that 72 seconds of screen time for Mercedes was 'A' exposure.

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