Banks are going to new lengths to burnish their image in the public eye, with Wells Fargo & Co. now taking its very own red carpet moment.
The bank is the "official financial institution sponsor" for the new George Lucas-produced film "Red Tails." The movie chronicles the plight of the Tuskegee Airmen, who served in World War II as some of the first African-American fighter pilots in the U.S. military.
"The reason we got involved…was the Wells Fargo connection to the Tuskegee Airmen," Michelle A. Thornhill, senior vice president and African American segment manager for Wells Fargo, told American Banker in an interview Wednesday.
Two of the unit's soldiers, Col. George S. Roberts and Lt. Col. James A. Walker, worked as bankers for Wells after they left military service.
"We were approached by the George Lucas team last summer" about being one of the movie's corporate sponsors, Thornhill says.
"It's certainly not something we had done before, in terms of sponsoring a major motion picture," she says, adding that the bank has sponsored smaller films and festivals in the past. Bank officials won't say how much Wells paid to be the sponsor. Wells didn't help fund production of the movie, which was paid for by George Lucas, along with donations from Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey.
Wells sponsored six promotional screenings of "Red Tails" in cities including Atlanta, Ga., Charlotte, N.C. and Baltimore, Md., and is opening exhibits about the fighter pilots in its history museums. There are no Wells product placements in the film.
The effort jibes with the bank's overall marketing strategy.
"Wells as a bank, they have long been very good and focused at targeting specific segments," like African-Americans, says Campbell Edlund, president of EMI Strategic Marketing. "They are being imaginative about how to demonstrate their understanding of and commitment to the success of these target segments."
And Wells is not the lone example.
Edlund points to Bank of America Corp., which has sponsored several of Ken Burns' ever-popular documentaries.
"Particularly the big bank brands think about cause-related marketing as a way of doing good in a context that helps build their brand awareness and presence in markets that they have deemed important," she says.
The only problem for the bank — and the movie's cast and crew — is that the feel-good film is being panned left and right.
"My focus was more on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen than did this fit the bill of a typical Hollywood story," says Thornhill when asked about the disappointing reviews. "How do we make sure that their legacy continues?"
But just a third of the critics tracked by website Rotten Tomatoes have given it a positive review.
"'Red Tails' squanders a great subject, reducing the real-life struggles and fierce heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen to rickety cliché," says Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.
Even the flashy battle scenes aren't enough to quell naysayers.
"Assisted by a year's worth of postproduction at Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic, director Anthony Hemingway stages several pulse-boosting aerial battles. These sequences are all swoop, boom and rat-tat-tat — until some character opens his mouth to utter a line so stilted that it could have drawn giggles in 1946," says the Washington Post's Mark Jenkins.
Then again, critics' punches don't necessarily spell box office doom. (Remember the "Da Vinci Code" movie, anyone?)
The $58 million "Red Tails" came in second place its opening weekend, pulling in $19.1 million.