High-Flying Product Placement: 5 Questions With Marsha Levine
Posted April 19, 2016 by Abe Sauer
The Duracell battery and “Copper Top” joke in The Matrix was thanks to her. So was Peter Parker’s team-up with Dr Pepper in the original Spider-Man movie. And the reason why Wonder Woman stepped off a Turkish Airlines flight to lend Batman a hand. (It wasn’t her first tango with Ben Affleck, either, having placed product in The Sum of All Fears.) Since she founded A List Entertainment, Inc. in 1990, Marsha Levine has been behind memorable product placements that continue today.
A List Entertainment was not only the power behind Turkish Air’s ambitious 360-degree Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice campaign but it’s also landing Swiss Air a role in the upcoming Dan Brown thriller Inferno. We spoke with Levine about what makes product placement work—and not—and how it’s evolving.
brandchannel: You are credited as a pioneer not just in product placement but specifically in aviation product placement. You even put a Dassault private jet in The Jackal way back in 1997. And besides Turkish Air in Batman v Superman, you landed Swiss Airlines a role in the upcoming Inferno, the third in the Dan Brown-Tom Hanks trilogy of movies. Fair to say that airlines are something of a specialty for A List?
Levine (right):It was great to work with Swiss Airlines, the production and Sony. The airline is so elegant, upscale and honorable. The studio and A List go back a long time, too, from the 1990’s with our work on the Spiderman films with some of the same people there today. We put that agreement together in a couple of weeks from execution and shoot, it was smooth, lovely. We also have a long standing relationship with WB going back to The Matrix with Duracell, The Client and The Pelican Brief with Dassault Falcon Jet etc,
My start in product placement was a bit of a fluke. It started with my arrival here in LA from London, originating from New York. I lived in London and produced many music videos and hour specials on bands and artists like 10 CC, Queen, Elvis Costello and Stevie Wonder.
I thought I’d go into production here in LA and it turned out to Product Placement. It was fun, working on films for the big screen like Arachnophobia from Spielberg. I brokered a great deal with Fetzer wines; their Belle Harbor wines were seen all throughout the scene in the basement with Jeff Daniels and those huge spider insects. At that time I also placed Beechcraft for The Bodyguard. But I was used to having my own companies Rockflicks and Freerange Recording Studios in London. I contacted Dassault Falcon Jet as they were stunning planes and more elegant than Gulfstream. I met with the head of marketing at a Santa Monica airport restaurant and over lunch asked Gene Rainville if he wanted to work with me as I was starting my own company.
The rest is history. I represented them for over 10 years, with our first film being Look Who’s Talking Now. It was great fit. I negotiated two verbal mentions that worked beautifully in the story line. I don’t consider myself an artist, but the art of curating a brand and a work of art in the filmic sense, I feel takes a depth of understanding and the feeling of the emotion that the writer and director are creating. This is where all components of the film’s execution take place, from set decoration, props, costumes and transportation.
The craftsmanship from Dassault is truly beautiful. I can honestly say that one of the most magnificent moments in my life was when I was in the picture jet with the Clay Lacy crew when they were filming the air to air footage of The Jackal. I was shooting stills from the window. At one moment we were so close, I felt that I could touch the plane. You can see the shot where Falcon is in the air close up with the FBI logo. The planes were flying as if they were in formation. The pilot let me lean on his shoulder to take a photo, it was breathtaking as we zoomed thorough the sky.
bc: Everyone who saw Batman v Superman certainly couldn’t miss Turkish Airlines. In fact, the brand’s presence was one of the only details many fans knew before seeing the movie, and it was fully integrated into the story and off-screen with the planes’ dual livery and promotion. Was it a success from the airline’s perspective—and can we expect to see it in the Wonder Woman movie?
Levine: The airline was excited to be in their first Hollywood studio feature film and they were spotted while filming some scenes, so the buzz was fun to see. I cannot speak about certain aspects due to non-disclosure (agreements), but WB have announced their slate of DC films and traditionally an airline and Hollywood make great partners. The partnership positioning for timing was crucial to Batman v Superman and it is great to see how my initial vision has come to fruition.
bc: In our tracking we’ve seen an increasing number of Chinese and other Asian brands pop up in big movies even though the products are barely available in the west. How important is China becoming for product placement?
Levine: As China and Asia are large markets for US-produced films, those brands benefit from the exposure in their home territories. And it creates a buzz around the brand in the US too which is always good PR. The world is ours, as humanity, all here breathing, living, dining, traveling. Brands are part of our world, natural from whichever country they originate.
bc: The product placement business has certainly evolved a tremendous deal since you started in 1990. What has been your favorite development—and how has the art and science of product placement become more rigorous?
Levine: It makes me chuckle to think we sat around the table at one of product placement board meetings in the early 1990’s discussing Ralph Nader’s issues with us as an industry. He was trying to have legislation (enacted) to limit placement by announcing pre-rolls or end rolls with all the brands. I think he even cited A List with our work with Dr Pepper/7UP. We represented them for over 12 years. Listing all the brands in a convenience store or a supermarket would have been impractical at the time as we did not have written guidelines.
We established standards and practices for the industry. I was on the ethics committee of our association we founded for product placement in 1991 for a number of terms as well as on the board. When we began, it was like the wild west, no infrastructure. The studios would make a deal for a scene with let’s say a Unilever, they would go on the set and a competing brand was on the set. We established with the studios and placement agents protocols that ensure to this day that clear communication, brand clearance of copyright and trademark and usage flows from deal to shoot to post-production mostly. I say ‘post’ mostly, as the creative process is the basis of all the brand partnerships and it must be the director’s final decision if a scene makes it to the final cut. I love to see how we as an industry all work together now.
bc: And what are the most common mistakes you still see that make you cringe?
Levine: When there is a brand that does not fit a story line or character, it looks and is out of place. This is shoddy curation. Its like when you feel something is wrong with a film; you sense it but can’t tell what it is. Usually it’s the sound or the editing or poor direction but these are subtle. With an out of place brand it is jarring and easily noticeable. There is an art to curating a product placement, it takes impeccable timing, ability to execute and foremost the seamless fit between brand and creative.
Check out more on the Batman v Superman and Turkish Airlines partnership below: