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Watches in Movies: How and Why it Happens

Summer is the time for movie blockbusters, so what better time to talk about how watches end up in movies?

Watches and clocks have been used as symbols throughout the history of film. Remember Harold Lloyd hanging from the giant clock in the 1923 silent film Safety Last? In a way, every watch in every movie is a symbol – if only a symbol of what kind of character the actor is portraying.

Watch placement was started by Hamilton with a watch in the movie The Frogmen (1951), and the company has been the leading company in movie placements ever since (Blue Hawaii, Men in Black, Pearl Harbor, Interstellar, and many more).

Product Placement

In the best product placements, watches are key components to the definition of character in movies. After all, characters are defined by the choices they make: words, jobs, clothes, actions, cars and yes, watches.

Look at James Bond’s choice of watch in the 007 series – a tough and durable Omega Speedmaster.

“You can tell more about a person by his watch and his shoes,” says Kingsman: The Secret Service director Matthew Vaughn. “Kingsman is all about being a gentleman and Bremont is very much a modern-day gentleman’s watch as well as being a practical watch for a spy. Wearing the right attire helps define the character and helps the actor get into the role. The clothing is an extension of the character and it’s crucial to get it right. I wanted to work with the best British brands and I wanted to celebrate Britishness and great quality. I also loved the fact that Bremont make watches for the Special Forces; this made them a perfect fit.”

Bremont Watches Kingsman
Bremont Watches Kingsman

Product placement is good for movie producers because it helps defray expenses. “No matter what size the budget of the movie, it is hard for producers to justify spending $30,000 on a watch or even $5,000, for that matter, and we always need more than one for safety,” says Doug Harlocker, propmaster. “So, the exchange of exposure for the use of goods is a very gratifying relationship—the production value of the movie is heightened without costing an arm and a leg.”

On Ocean’s 12, Harlocker carried around at least $250,000 worth of watches with him every day to satisfy all of the actors’ characters. Brad Pitt, for instance, wore a Breitling Emergency, a Chronoswiss, a white gold Rolex, a Patek Philippe and an Hermès at different times throughout the movie. George Clooney wore a classic Hamilton in every scene. “I could not have provided those watches without the help of the manufacturers,” Harlocker admits.

Watch placement happens any number of ways. Many watch companies have representatives who work to place watches with studios and production companies. Sometimes, a production company will approach a watch brand about using its products for a particular project. At times, product placement is about historical accuracy, as with the Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch,” which played a part in the real Apollo 13 mission – the astronauts used it to time the start and stop of the engine on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, so it was the only correct choice of watch for Ron Howard’s Apollo 13.

“A big part of why we took John Wick was to create a hyper-real world, a little shinier and more interesting, and we wanted to give the character a different look and change things around,” says Chad Stahelski, co-director of John Wick with David Leitch. “That goes down to the wardrobe, the set decoration and the props. We wanted something to go with the wardrobe that looked classic, clean but had a twist, so we chose the Carl F. Bucherer watches. We wanted something different that people hadn’t seen and Keanu agreed that this was exactly the watch his character would wear.”

Keanu Reeves with CFB CEO Sascha Moeri
Keanu Reeves with CFB CEO Sascha Moeri

Actor Clive Owen always chooses the watch for each character he plays. “The propmaster will come with a tray of watches and I have to pick the ones I want to wear,” he says. “It has to be right. The choice of watch says a lot about someone. When you’re wearing a great watch, it’s like wearing a work of art on your wrist.”

Ann Roth, costume designer on Julie & Julia and many others, is obsessive about getting the watch right for each character on her projects. “I choose the watch based on the character,” she says. “For example, Ray Fiennes needed a watch for his character in The English Patient. He was Hungarian royalty in the 1920s, got involved in the geographical society, lived in London and Egypt, so the watch he wore had to be really particular, I wanted the watch that guy would wear. I found it in London, in a second-hand shop, but I needed two of them, so I had a watchmaker make me another one. I am very particular about the watches that characters wear, as they say so much about them.”

Watch Creation for Movies

Some watches, like the watch in Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are designed specifically for films. Hamilton Watch Company was commissioned to make the 2001 watch, a special multi time zone timepiece for the film that at the time was too complicated to manufacture. More recently, Hamilton created a special watch for Interstellar. Matthew McConaughey wears a Hamilton Khaki Pilot Day Date in the film, but his daughter Murph (played by Jessica Chastain), wears an exclusive watch developed by Hamilton specifically for her character.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has worn Audemars Piguet watches in movies for quite some time, including the Terminator series. For the 1999 film End of Days, Audemars Piguet created a special Royal Oak Offshore model. Schwarzenegger even worked with the company on the design of the coveted limited edition.

Benefits

In most cases, product placement is a win-win for everyone involved. The production company wins because they get a product that says something about the character wearing it, and the watch company wins because its product gets on the silver or small screen. This can help build awareness and put a brand on the map.

No one knows how well a movie or a TV show is going to be received. Watch companies have to make decisions about product placement well in advance of production and sometimes the length of time from that decision to the finished product appearing in theaters or on TV can be as long as a year or more.

To quote Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows nothing.” It’s a crapshoot and watch companies have to make informed decisions based on cast, story, the way the product will be used, and many other considerations. If a movie bombs, chances are that the watch featured in the movie will escape unscathed.

Men in Black II Hamilton Watches
Men in Black II Hamilton Watches

Watch retailers report customers coming in and asking for watches by the name of the movie or the character (like the Men in Black Hamiltons), not even knowing the brand name. The use of watches in movies is good for individual companies and good for watches in general. At a minimum, watches are a measure of personality, an indicator of taste, and they are often woven into the narrative, becoming more than just a fashion statement.

About The Author: Keith Strandberg

Keith W. Strandberg (KeithStrandberg.com) has written about timepieces in many different publications for the past 25+ years. One of the few international journalists living in Switzerland, Strandberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolution USA (Revolution.Watch). He has written for the trade extensively as well as for mainstream publications like Variety, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, United Airlines’ Hemispheres, Men’s Vogue, USA Today, Tennis and many more.

Read more from Keith Strandberg

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