In the latest Mission: Impossible film, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, wows his team of special agents with a display of all the tech-laden new gear they’ll have for their next assignment, including a levitation suit. But he saves the best for last. “Wait until you see the car,” a smiling Cruise says. The reference is to the i8 concept, a next-generation supercar from BMW (BMWA:GR), which helps Cruise and co-star Paula Patton race through Mumbai traffic. The car’s appearance highlights the brand’s return to Hollywood after a hiatus of more than a decade.
The sponsorship of Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol, opening in U.S. IMAX (IMAX) theaters on Dec. 16 and nationwide on Dec. 21, comes at the expense of Volkswagen’s (VLKAF) Audi brand, which aims to topple BMW as the luxury car leader by 2015. Propaganda GEM, the Hollywood product placement agency that helped Audi boost its image with high-profile car appearances in such films as I, Robot and Transporter 2 and 3, set up the deal for BMW shortly after ending a 15-year relationship advising Audi.
BMW is betting its participation in the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, which has averaged 1.1 billion viewers per film, could help widen its lead over Audi. Forecaster IHS Automotive (IHS) predicts BMW sales will climb 39 percent by 2015, to 1.86 million vehicles, 170,000 more than Audi. “Such blockbuster placements are scarce, and BMW is as integrated into the movie as Tom Cruise,” says Jean-Marc Lehu, author of the book Branded Entertainment and director of communication at Paris’s Panthéon—Sorbonne University. “It’s a win for the brand.”
BMW’s role, its first in a big-budget film since a Z8 roadster was cut to pieces in the 1999 James Bond feature The World Is Not Enough, is a reminder that Hollywood is now a mandatory destination for marketers. With DVRs and on-demand programs allowing consumers to skip television ads, becoming part of the content is key for brands to get noticed. “The consumer today is in charge of where and how they consume content,” says Ruben Igielko-Herrlich, founding partner of Propaganda GEM. “Companies are realizing the value of being where their customers are.”
In addition to featuring the upcoming i8, BMW uses the film to promote its current X3 SUV, 6-Series convertible, and 1-Series compact. In lieu of an upfront payment, the company promised to promote the film in its print and television ads, says Uwe Ellinghaus, head of brand management at BMW. A person familiar with such sponsorships who was not authorized to speak on the record values the deal at more than $10 million. “Mission: Impossible is a whole new dimension for BMW,” says Ellinghaus. “It’s what James Bond used to be.”
The winged-door i8, a plug-in hybrid that accelerates to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour in 4.6 seconds and can get 78 miles per gallon, will be introduced in 2014—but gets center-stage placement in the film. At the movie’s European premiere at the BMW Welt product showcase in Munich on Dec. 9, the i8 was prominently displayed at the end of the red carpet. Cruise spent more than 90 minutes signing autographs and schmoozing with fans. The film also has scenes that showcase BMW’s in-car communications technology and safety features, such as pedestrian avoidance. “We want to get out of this rat race of who has the fastest cars,” says Ellinghaus. “We want to show that we have the smartest cars.”