Applebee's is commercialised mostly in comedy and romance/action genres which is regarded as social movies, that you go watch with a group, because that defines the key elements of their customers.
For example in Couples Retreat you can find a discussion on going alone to Applebee´s or in commercial terms, they are trying to let you know, its not a place to go alone. It is a social place.
"You'll be sitting by yourself, eventually, at Applebee's, all alone. And who wants to go to Applebee's by themselves?"
In Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Applebee´s is described for delicious food, a great place to share weekends gathering: family or friends.
In Hall Pass you can find a line:
"Are you guys sure that Applebee’s is the best place to meet hot, horny women at?"
In Tripadvisor it is commercialised as "Great place after the movies". Also multiple sites are offering Movie tickets + Applebee's dinner bundle/gift card.
I think you know the answer and somewhat you already answered it. To conclude its simply a product placement - nothing is accidental when it comes mentioned a product. Especially when Applebee's references usually lasts quite long. Having A-list studio comedies to give it good reference is the best advertisement you can have regarding the target group they have in mind and image they want to give themselves. Insight into Applebee's new image can be found HERE. Opposed to other chains, because they are his direct competitors over target group.
Why is Applebee's in so many movies?
- Because product placement, if done right, pays off. Through movies Applebee's can design an image of themselves as social, active, upright and better than average restaurant. Although Applebee's sales have not increased compared to its competitors.
Addition to edited question: Although I feel this may be off-topic in this part of S.E.
"On the filmmakers’ side, specific brand choices for product placement
are intuitive. Production or distribution firms, directors, producers,
actors, or agents choose brands for product placement (Pulliam, 2012;
Russell & Belch, 2005). On the advertisers’ side, many advertisers do
not have clear, purposive objectives for their product placements and
do not use product placement as part of the integrated marketing plan
(Russell & Belch, 2005). Someone from the PR department, corporate
communications, the director of advertising, or a brand manager makes
product placement decisions (Russell & Belch, 2005).Given the fact
that motion picture firms increasingly use product placement to offset
production costs, it is imperative for motion picture firms to
understand what types of movies place more products because this will
allow motion picture firms to use product placement
strategically." (page. 2-3, Source 1)
"In the context of films, genres classify movies into different
categories. Genres are intrinsic cues in that they are a very
essential attribute of a movie. The genres of a film are inseparable
from the content and are among the most essential elements that
determine the identity of a film. The genres of a film are determined
before the production stage and are distinct cues that describe the
characteristics of a movie. Genre is defined as “a type of plot
according to commonalities within textual types and differences among
them” (Feuer, 1992; Stern & Russell, 2004). page." (page. 4, Source 1)
As far as I have understand and know, usually the filmmaker knows the genre he is making and has insight in what type of product(s) could fit into it and describes the average watcher. After that he contacts simultaneously (unless he has specific brand in mind for specific reasons) with potential firms and presents his view how he can promote the product. And when there is leverage of direct competing firms on play, he lists others to whom he have made the same deal, after which he chooses best contract conditions and money received. (This is the most common and simplified version how such deals are struck)
Now coming back to AB case, it may be the case where filmmakers sought it out specifically - but I did not find any particular reason why just AB restaurant would be need for any of these scenes. I think its merely the case, that AB just paid the most price or offered best conditions - for example most firms do not allow mocking or hard joking over the brand, which in case of AB we can find clearly.
From economical point of view marketing only works when it is done in large scale (unless it is niche product). Therefore it seems quite logical that AB aim should be to be pictured in as many comedy romance/action movies as possible. They have a huge share in product placement compared to other chains, because probably this is their competing strategy. Whether it is effective is a matter of questions. For example 10-year revenue comparison does not show any significant growth for them (2,3), but we can also argue, that without product placement they would perform even worse. In my view restaurant product placement is not effective, as it has little impact of consumer choice compared to other solid products. And that´s why other restaurants may not be that interested in that.
1) Jiyoung Cha (2016): Product placement in movies: perspectives from
motion picture firms, Journal of Media Business Studies, DOI: 10.1080/16522354.2016.1159802