Disney puts pedal to metal for ‘Cars’

Disney (DIS) has shifted into overdrive to rev up interest in its upcoming Cars animated film by its Pixar unit.

On Friday, it will host a huge benefit premiere on Turn 2 of the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, site of Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race. More than 30,000 are expected to watch digital projection on four 115-foot-wide screens. Voices of the characters — including actors Paul Newman and Owen Wilson and NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip — will be there.

Also, a race car made to look like Cars lead character Lightning McQueen will race there this weekend.

This is just one part of Disney's master marketing plan for Cars, opening in theaters June 9.

Disney can't afford for Cars to be a lemon. It's counting on the movie — its first out of Pixar since 2004's The Incredibles— to fuel an array of businesses: to bolster slumping studio revenue, offer new theme park attractions and supercharge sales of Disney's widest array of movie-related merchandise since 1994's The Lion King.

"The movie leads the parade," says Brett Dicker, executive vice president of marketing at Disney. "That's why it's critical that the movie is a big success."

Adding to the high-octane pressure: It's the first Pixar film since Disney's $7.4 billion purchase of the computer-animation shop closed this month. Previously, they had a production and distribution deal.

With Pixar now part of Disney, investors and marketers will be watching how Cars and its cast of animated autos are promoted — and received by consumers. "This is a potential signal of what the integration will bring to the market," says branding expert Allen Adamson.

The family flick, about a hotshot racer who ends up in a dusty, desert town, is on the fast track with marketing co-promotion. More than a dozen heavyweights — including Goodyear, State Farm and McDonald's — will spend more than $50 million on Cars-related marketing. "It's the largest promotional program we've done for a Disney/Pixar film," says Dicker. That's on top of the millions Disney is spending on movie trailers, TV commercials, print and Internet ads.

Some partners, including State Farm, Hertz and AT&T, have Pixar-created ads for their brands featuring the Cars characters. For example, a State Farm ad stars Lightning McQueen and tattered tow truck Mater.

The merchandise launch includes Disney's biggest film-related deal with Wal-Mart. Shelves at Target and Toys R Us also are piled with Cars products. The primary target is 3- to 6-year-old boys, but there are goods for girls, older boys and dads, too, says Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney's consumer products division.

Licensed product sales from The Incredibles missed expectations. Disney hopes the universal appeal of vehicles will give Cars retail sales more gas. "The Incredibles was tougher to translate into a bigger opportunity relative to Cars," says Mooney.

Among Cars products is an electronics line that includes a $159.99 TV/DVD player in the image of Lightning McQueen. Goods for fans old enough to drive include windshield sunscreens and garage stools.

"Boys, even as they turn into men, never stop falling in love with cars," Mooney says.

Pixar's track record with such hits as Finding Nemo and Toy Story helped Disney secure the big-time retail cooperation, says Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter. "Pixar has almost ascended to be a brand name in itself. It's like a Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. That gives retailers more comfort."

Yet, Brochstein cautions, there could be retail potholes if Cars underperforms at the box office. "In the licensing business and entertainment business, there are no sure things."


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