Cigar-chomping Hollywood heroes: Glamour: The industry pays well-connected brokers to put their product into the hands of the hottest actors.

January 12, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

Aliens blow up the White House. The human race teeters on the brink of annihilation. What does a brash young hero need as he sets out to save the day?

"Oh damn, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait, wait, we got to find some cigars," exclaims actor Will Smith in "Independence Day."

If you were among the more than 60 million people who watched the movie - one of the most financially successful ever made - you witnessed a persuasive promotion for cigars.

Operating behind the scenes, cigar manufacturers paid Hollywood brokers to feature their product in the movie - a type of stealth marketing that Congress thought it had stamped out.

The result: The movie industry has fanned the resurgence in cigar smoking in America today. Actors lighted cigars in 51 of 133 movies with a domestic box-office draw of at least $5 million in the most recent film survey by the American Lung Association.

Disclosures in the late 1980s that tobacco companies were paying to get their products in movies prompted hearings on Capitol Hill and the threat of legislation - until the industry relented, vowing to stop the practice, an almost unregulated business known as product placement.

But those promises came from cigarette companies that made direct payments to moviemakers. Today, cigar companies are employing middlemen, product-placement firms, to do the job. The impact, critics contend, is the same nevertheless: The images on screen, they say, are swaying young - and underage - consumers to smoke.

"It's a very subliminal form of advertising, and very powerful, and it has tremendous influence on kids," said tobacco expert Stanton A. Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "It's a very pernicious form of advertising and promotion. This stuff has become so controversial and has been buried very deep. And everyone's denying it."

No coincidences

Manufacturers want the public to believe that the proliferation of cigars on the silver screen is mere happenstance. Among them is Tampa-based J.C. Newman Cigar Co., one of the nation's oldest and largest private cigar makers.

"We don't promote our products through movies," said company Chairman Stanford J. Newman.

But the company's internal documents contradict him. On June 9, 1995, his son, President Eric M. Newman, expressed interest in Hollywood in a letter to Jay May, president of Feature This!, a Los Angeles product-placement firm. "I enjoyed speaking with you today regarding the possibility of our Cuesta-Rey cigars receiving exposure in some up-coming movies," he wrote on corporate letterhead.

Almost four months later, the company, then named M&N Cigar Manufacturers Inc., took further steps. "Enclosed please find the following cigars to be used in specific movies which we discussed [yesterday]," Lynda A. Rhea, the president's administrative assistant, wrote May on Oct. 3. "Please keep us up to date on the production of these movies and any pictures of our product being shot in the film would be much appreciated."

Eric Newman was not available for comment, but when asked about the discrepancy, Stanford Newman said he did not know of his son's efforts to get the company's cigars into the movies. "First I've heard of it," he said. "I'm very much against that, and if it was from our company, it was an error. I'm against anything involved with children" as potential viewers of cigars on screen.

Two prominent movies May supplied with J.C. Newman's Cuesta-Rey cigars were "Independence Day" and another hit, "The First Wives Club."

Even though the Cuesta-Rey name was "greeked out" - industry parlance for obscuring product identity - the exposure was a boon for the industry. Cigar makers could not have come up with better promotions than the cigar-smoking Will Smith and the conversion of Jeff Goldblum, who played the part of the genius in "Independence Day."

Minutes into the film, he scolds his cigar-smoking father, saying, "Smoking is not healthy." But by the time Goldblum engineers the planet's rescue, he is savoring a cigar.

"So this is healthy?" his father asks.

Goldblum takes a victorious puff and retorts, "Oh, I could get used to it."

The moviemakers made much of their high-tech special effects, but it may have been the waft of cigar smoke that left an enduring impression. Cigars appeared in about 12 scenes, or once every 12.5 minutes, in "Independence Day," which grossed more than $1 billion internationally.

A long history together

Other consumer products made an enduring impression on moviegoers years ago. As early as the 1930s, historians say, MGM studio had its own product-placement office, and by 1942, Humphrey Bo-gart elevated smoking to artistic expression in "Casablanca." But it wasn't until the early '80s hit "E.T." that the product-placement industry came into its own.

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