As improbable as it sounds, there’s an important moment in the ’98 thriller U.S. Marshals. In the middle of their introduction, Tommy Lee Jones throws Robert Downey Jr. a withering stare and snarls: ”Get yourself a Glock. Lose that nickel-plated sissy pistol.”
It’s a throwaway line in a subpar movie, but it serves as a reminder of one of Hollywood’s dirtiest little secrets — that, just like chips or beer, guns get product placement. In fact, for years now, the adversarial gun and film industries have indirectly been in business together, using each other to sell their products even as they cudgel one another on the op-ed pages.
It shouldn’t be surprising. By common estimate, approximately 60 percent of Hollywood films feature at least one firearm, and they’re almost always recognizable brands. And while it’s no secret that movies have long used guns to sell tickets, few know that the placement of guns in films can have a direct effect on firearm sales.
”The .44 Magnum Model 29 is the classic example,” explains Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers. ”It was a slow-selling, overly powerful handgun, then Dirty Harry happened [in 1971] and sales exploded. It just goes to show how powerful this kind of advertising can be.”
Guns find their way into films via large prop houses that stockpile arsenals of firearms and modify them to shoot only blanks. When a film needs weapons, the prop house not only offers selection and consulting, but in some cases, assistance with directing gunplay and firearm scenes. As a result, they can occasionally control how a weapon appears in films — a power coveted by gun manufacturers.
”Lots of ‘film-friendly’ companies hand out product at low or no cost to get into movies — and it works,” says Rick Washburn of Weapons Specialists Ltd., which supplied Godzilla and Ransom. ”Glock is one, Smith & Wesson and Magnum Research are others. Ruger used to; SIG and Beretta never have.”
”I’ve had companies that have given me guns with conditions — like it only goes on good guys,” adds Mike Gibbons of Gibbons Ltd. Entertainment Armory. ”But really they just want placement. Six months later, when I haven’t been able to place it that way, I hear, ‘Okay, just don’t put it on really bad guys.’ ”
Not everyone, however, chooses to accept free product. ”There’s a muddy side to this business that we try and stay away from,” says Roland Bleitz of Independent Studio Services. ”We buy all our weapons. It’s easier than accepting something free, because you don’t worry about promised representation.”
Most of the allegedly ”movie-friendly” gun manufacturers declined to comment for this story or didn’t return calls, but Stephen Sanetti, vice president of Sturm, Ruger & Company, explains why they don’t sell guns to prop houses: ”Hollywood never shows the 99 percent of typical firearm use: People using them responsibly, nobody being hurt, families shooting together. We watch these violent movies and think we’d have to be crazy to want to be a part of that.”
But even if gun manufacturers believe violent films damage corporate image and sales, they can’t stop prop houses from purchasing their weapons and providing them to filmmakers.
“Like any product, you can’t control its representation in film,” says Laura Burgess, spokesperson for SIG Arms Inc. “I could be selling ketchup — and believe me, you can do pretty obscene things with ketchup.”