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The theater darkens and minutes later "Furious 7" flashes on the screen with a 1970s Plymouth 'Cuda driven by Vin Diesel's character, Dominic Toretto, roaring down an open road.

The classic car is the first of dozens of vehicles featured in the newest installment of "The Fast and the Furious" movie franchise, which opened nationwide Friday.

While cars in movies are nothing new, "Furious 7" is the most recent example of how automakers are not only using movies for product placements, they're partnering with Hollywood studios for dual-branded ad campaigns that look to drive car lovers into theaters, and moviegoers into dealerships.

"The automaker and marketers in general are getting smarter at connecting people to the characters, almost making the cars human and building an emotional connection," said Lincoln Merrihew, senior vice president client services of market reaseach company Millward Brown Digital.

That sort of emotional connection is what Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV Chief Marketing Officer Olivier Francois looks for in a movie like "Furious 7," which partnered with the automaker's Dodge brand. Fiat Chrysler provided nearly 30 vehicles as part of the partnership.

Francois, who has become known for his unique partnerships, always wants his cars to organically be "part of a moment of the movie."

"It's not like having a car somewhere in the background … the car is really the hero," he said during a phone interview this week about Dodge's partnership with "Furious 7." "I'm not looking to have a car as the hero for the whole movie, just a few memorable scenes."

Francois used a pivotal, action-packed scene — with Letty Ortiz (actress Michelle Rodriguez) saving Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) from falling off a cliff in a green and black 2015 Dodge Challenger R/T — for a national ad promoting the brand, vehicle and release of the movie.

The "Flash to the Future" spot opens at a Dodge dealership with a customer getting into a new Challenger R/T. As he admires the interior and gets a feel for the car, he suddenly is launched into a high-octane fantasy of the "Furious 7" world.

The spot cuts back to the reality of the customer at the dealership and closes with a voice-over saying: "It's not 'Fast & Furious' without a Dodge. 'Furious 7,' in theaters starting April 3."

Francois took things a step further with Dodge and made a first-ever partnership with Atlantic Records to cast current and vintage vehicles in five music videos that support the movie's soundtrack.

"We need to keep learning, and maybe this video idea is going to be great for us, maybe it's not going to be so great," Francois said. "It's about capitalizing what works and adding something new."

Since 2011, when Francois became head of marketing, the automaker has partnered with nine movies for co-branded spots and multi-tier advertising campaigns — from "Godzilla" and "Unbroken" in 2014, to "Fast Five" in 2011.

"Furious 7" marks the third time Dodge and "The Fast and the Furious" franchise have officially teamed up, but vehicles from the brand, including Toretto's classic Charger, have been stars since the first movie debuted in 2001.

"Dodge and the 'Fast & Furious' franchise have been partners who share an aspirational ethos based on relationships with our cars," said David O'Connor, Universal Pictures executive vice president of global brand marketing and partnerships. "We are lucky to have had them as an integral part in the production and marketing of all seven films, and believe they feel proud to be a centerpiece in the series that has redefined vehicular spectacle."

Fiat Chrysler isn't the only automaker teaming up with Hollywood for blockbuster partnerships. One of the most notable in recent years has been between General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet brand and the "Transformers" movies.

In the first film of the series in 2007, Transformer hero Bumblebee converts from a 1977 second-generation Camaro into a fifth-generation Camaro, which wasn't coming out for two years. The Detroit-based automaker used a one-off concept car for the movie, and drew unrivaled anticipation for the upcoming Camaro.

"In all the 'Transformers' films, Chevrolet vehicles get to play the heroes," then-Global Chevrolet CMO Tim Mahoney said in a statement last year. "These movies have helped us get our vehicles in front of a younger audience around the world."

"Transformers" director Michael Bay has used numerous GM plants and properties for filming as well as featuring numerous other Chevrolet vehicles as other Transformers.

GM announced Chevrolet has teamed up with Disney for the movie "Tomorrowland," which debuts May 22. The 2016 Chevrolet Volt will be in the movie, and the first marketing efforts for the all-new plug-in hybrid will be tied to the movie.

Not to be left out, Ford Motor Co. partnered with DreamWorks Studios' "Need for Speed" in 2014. The movie starred a special fifth-generation Mustang as well as the automaker's sixth-generation pony car. It also featured a co-branded ad.

Don't expect the relationship between automakers and studios to drive into the sunset anytime soon, as movie production costs increase and automakers look for new ways to advertise.

"They're motion pictures, and nothing puts motion into pictures like a car," said John Pearley Huffman, Edmunds.com contributor and car-movie buff.

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