NEW YORK -- "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" opened nationwide this weekend. But they might as well call it "Scarlett Johansson Drives a Corvette Stingray" because movie-goers will witness a flood of product placements from General Motors.
Chevrolet cut a deal with Disney's Marvel Studios to give its Corvette, Tahoe, Silverado and Impala models virtual co-starring roles in the new film. The movie's directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, even directed a new commercial for the Chevy Traverse that shows kids reenacting parts of the trailer.
It's one of the biggest product-placement deals for GM since its pre-bailout 2007 tie-in with the first installment of the "Transformers" franchise. Though only a few of the GM models featured in the first "Transformers" were available for purchase at dealers -- the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Solstice weren't on sale at the time -- the carmaker benefited from its heavy exposure in the Michael Bay flick.
In that movie, the cars were literally the stars, giant robots that saved the planet. The Camaro played Bumblebee; the Solstice played Jazz; a Hummer H2 played Ratchet; a GMC Topkick truck played Ironhide. Cadillac Escalades and other GM vehicles also appeared in the film. Though GM later had to be bailed out by the government and backed away from its involvement with co-marketing subsequent films, some of its vehicles remained in the franchise.
Not so subtle
By comparison, the product placement in "Captain America" may seem subdued, but it's not exactly subtle when the Black Widow (Johansson) picks up Steve Rogers (aka Captain America, played by Chris Evans) in an all-black Stingray near the U.S. Capitol.
Steve Tihanyi, GM's general director of branded entertainment, personally suggested that Esquire's two-time Sexiest Woman Alive drive the seventh-generation Corvette. When the film-makers agreed, the partnership between Marvel and GM (which was not involved in 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" or 2012's "The Avengers") was off and running.
GM was seeking a "creative, elegant and natural way" to place its sleek, two-seater in the film. Rather than Evans' character, Tihanyi wanted to create a marriage in viewer's minds between the Corvette and Johansson's sexy secret agent. "That was the key for me," he said.
Johansson's Black Widow is "technologically very savvy -- and a beautiful-looking character," said Mr. Tihanyi. "That all exemplifies what a Corvette is about. High-tech. Innovative. And performance-driven in a beautiful package."
But Corvette is not the only Chevy model movie-goers will see on the big screen.
In one scene, Captain America and Black Widow pull up to an abandoned military base in a Chevrolet Silverado. In another, Anthony Mackie's character, Sam Wilson (aka the Falcon), is furiously pursued by the film's villain while riding in a new Impala sedan.
In the movie's best chase sequence, Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury drives a practically indestructible, armored Chevrolet Tahoe through enemy bullets, explosions and car crashes. In a nice cinematic touch, Jackson's Tahoe plows over a pickup from rival Dodge like it's a kid's Tonka toy. The filmmakers suggested using Chevy's big SUV brand in the scene. GM didn't object.
The general rule on Madison Avenue: You don't want your product placements to be so blatant that it turns off movie-goers. Given Chevy vehicles are almost everywhere in the film, does Mr. Tihanyi worry Chevy went overboard? No, he said, as long as the vehicles are "relevant" to the storytelling.
"When you see the scene with Nick Fury and the Tahoe, essentially the Tahoe saves his life. It performs in this unbelievably heroic manner," he said. "The vehicle is in there for an extended scene and you obviously see the branding. But in that particular sequence, it's very true and relevant to the story-telling. So that's really what I look for, more than anything else."
Not all the vehicles escape unscathed. Sebastian Stan's villainous Winter Soldier uses his steel arm to rip through the roof of the Impala to attack Mackie's Falcon and other characters. But GM wanted to link Mackie's African-American hero with the Impala to reach a more diverse audience. So it was worth the tradeoff.
"The way I look at is the car takes a beating -- but the car essentially protects them and keeps them safe. And they escape," said Tihanyi, who manages GM relationships with Disney and CAA.
The company declined to discuss financial arrangements of the GM-Marvel deal. But GM agreed to promote the film, while providing up to 60 vehicles for production purposes, Tihanyi said.
Chevy's Bowtie logo gets the most product placement. But there are plenty of other brands easily spotted in the new movie, though its unclear if they paid for placement.
Early on, Captain America wears Under Armour while the Falcon wears Nike. There's another scene where a long-haired, nerdtastic Apple employee helps out Captain America and the Black Widow. And there's a loving shout-out to late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs: Captain America jots down Jobs' name in a personal notebook as one of the most significant cultural figures of the last 50 years.
With TV audiences fragmenting, more marketers are using product placement to reach captive movie-goers, said executives from Screenvision at their upfront presentation in New York on Wednesday.
The trend is especially true in the auto business, where rebounding car/truck sales are enabling car brands to flash their cash around Hollywood like the old days.
The Ford Mustang, for example, has a co-starring role with Aaron Paul in the new racing flick, "Need for Speed."
Chrysler earned kudos for casting comedian Will Ferrell as his Ron Burgundy character from "Anchorman" in commercials for the Dodge Durango.
Chevy will again have extensive product placement in "Transformers: Age of Extinction" opening June 27.