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Easy riding onto big screen

Sales are down this year, but motorcycle makers have no trouble

June 08, 2009|Susan Carpenter

The summer movie season is here, in all its action-packed and, increasingly, motorcycle-enhanced glory. In just the last month, a pack of Ducati Hypermotards has streamed down the legs of a giant robot in "Terminator Salvation," a young Capt. Kirk has wheeled up to the Starship Enterprise on a highly modified Buell in the new "Star Trek" and a fleet of Vespas has whizzed around Rome in "Angels & Demons."

But that's not all. A buffed and clawed Wolverine has menaced his enemies on a Harley-Davidson Panhead in "X-Men Origins," and Sam Witwicky has, once again, defied the evil Decepticon with the help of an MV Agusta in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

2009 isn't looking so hot for new motorcycle sales, but it sure is blazing for bikes on the big screen. With motorcycle sales down 30% this year alongside the economy and U.S. consumers indulging their desires for escapism with trips to the movies, manufacturers are looking to expand their buyership with fleeting appearances in mainstream movies that highlight their products' appeal.

"A motorcycle is just a great character presentation, far more than a car even," said Dino Bernacchi, the former manager of branding and entertainment for General Motors who, in April, joined Harley-Davidson to lead its efforts in advertising, promotions and entertainment.

"There's millions of people that have the idea of motorcycling but haven't activated that passion yet. It's been proven time and time again, whether it's 'Easy Rider' or 'Smoky and the Bandit.' A cool product in a cool property can really get you thinking about taking that next step, and that's what we want to do: Put Harley-Davidson at the forefront of people's minds and do it with cool, expressive content that makes them want to act on that desire," said Bernacchi, who was in L.A. last month to meet with filmmakers and producers "to canvass the area for great creative ideas that really are on code with our brand."

Speaking already like a veteran Hollywood publicist, Bernacchi describes the 30-plus models in Harley-Davidson's lineup as "cool, sleek, sexy and powerful." That's a description that could be applied to many of the motorcycles that are selected for blockbuster screen time. For the most part, they are cult brands with loyal followings -- if small marketing budgets.

"For Ducati, being in movies gives us a little more exposure to people that we generally don't advertise to," said Jim Viola, the marketing director for Ducati North America. Most of the Italian manufacturer's advertising is through traditional outlets, such as motorcycle magazines and websites, as well as at racing events, he said.

Having a Ducati in a box-office franchise such as "The Matrix," which had Carrie-Anne Moss' Trinity evading secret agents on a 996, or "Terminator Salvation," which shows a bunch of speeding "moto-terminators" leaving major rubber on the road, "ties our brand to some of the other bigger brands in movies" -- brands that share the same mission of adrenalizing audiences and showcasing the latest tech.

A Ducati Hypermotard is not capable of flying 50 feet in the air, as it appears in "Terminator Salvation," which used extensive computer graphics to enhance the bike's already impressive stock capabilities. It does, however, showcase Ducati's performance orientation.

But whether the free publicity leads to motorcycle sales is an open question. Rick Nelson, a salesman at the Ducati dealership Pro Italia in Glendale, says it's not clear from the movie that the stylized Hypermotards in "Terminator Salvation" are motorcycles. "It's kind of interesting, but I don't know about it directly translating into sales. It does if [the movie] is a little more in depth. If it's just somebody riding it, maybe not so much."

Like many of the companies whose products are featured in films, Ducati does not pay studios to place its products on screen. It provides the bikes without charge. In the case of "Terminator Salvation," Viola says the company was approached by the film's director, McG, who owns a Ducati Monster. For the upcoming thriller "The Expendables," during which Jason Statham speeds through New Orleans on Ducati's top-of-the-line $72,500 Desmocedici, it was public relations agency Rogers & Cowan that sealed the deal.

Ducati, Harley-Davidson and Vespa manufacturer Piaggio Group all work with outside agencies to place their products in film. Still, motorcycle placements are often initiated by the studios, not the manufacturers. With "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Terminator Salvation," "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," and "Angels & Demons" this season, all of the bikes were requested by the studios, according to representatives for the manufacturers. Using them, the manufacturers say, is a sort of shorthand to convey a sense of character, action or place.

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