Advertising Vehicle

BMW's mini-movies by famed filmmakers aim to fuel sales ...

... using action and emotion instead of hard-driving sales pitches.

September 03, 2001|By Tom Siebert | Tom Siebert,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This summer's coolest action hero is tooling around with some of the best directors in Hollywood, but he can't be found at the multiplex.

Part James Bond, part Mad Max, part Man with No Name, he's a chilly lone wolf with a heart of gold. He's unflappable under pressure. He works for clients ranging from diamond smugglers to movie stars to the United Nations. He's got presence to spare and charisma to burn.

And he's selling BMWs.

Known only as The Driver, and played with compelling minimalist range by the understated British actor Clive Owen (from last summer's art-house hit Croupier and the PBS mystery series Second Sight), he's the central character in The Hire, a collection of five short films commissioned by the German automaker and directed by a quintet of A-list talent, including Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), John Frankenheimer (Ronin) and Guy Ritchie (Snatch).

They're playing around the clock on www.bmwfilms.com, with occasional forays to artsy cable outlets like the Independent Film Channel and Bravo. The first mini-movie, Ambush, made its debut in April, with BMW adding roughly one per month to the Web site until all five were available by this summer.

You can watch them in streaming mode on your computer (which really doesn't do the films justice), or download BMW's proprietary video player, which is both PC- and Mac-friendly, before downloading the films themselves in smaller (roughly 25 megabytes) or large (an elephantine 75 megabytes) files.

They're not commercials, exactly. No one ever drops the BMW brand name, and the only time the word "car" is even mentioned comes when a wounded character notes weakly that he's bleeding all over its interior. While the vehicles are ubiquitous, the focus is more on character and story than chrome and steel.

But they're not real reel movies, either. Though the cars are put through more punishment than Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the directors shoot them lovingly, the camera caressing their every curve. And BMW cannily co-stars a different model in every episode - or is it "Webisode"? - like a new Bond girl, helpfully providing links that detail each car's specifications.

"Call it `advertainment,' " says Richard Linnett, a columnist for the New York-based trade magazine Advertising Age. That's the Orwellian term "ad industry types concocted for this ... blurring [of] the line between art and commerce, where it's impossible to tell where the story ends and the selling starts," he says.

Up until now this sort of mix has mostly been a misbegotten mutt; does anybody remember Mac and Me, the McDonald's-financed flick from 1980s? Produced in the wake of E.T., it was about a space alien who loves Big Macs. Probably not, and nobody went to see it, which is precisely the point, says Jim McDowell, vice president of marketing for BMW North America.

"The key thing is, does anybody else want to see the film?" McDowell asks. "If nobody outside the company who sponsored it wants to see it, then it makes no sense."

Road-tested brand

As McDowell is quick to point out, BMW's new breed has an unquestionable pedigree.

Beyond directors and star, the films' supporting roles are filled with familiar faces, including Mickey Rourke, Forest Whitaker, Stellan Skarsgard and Madonna (Ritchie's wife). Two of the scripts were written by Andrew Kevin Walker, screenwriter of Seven and Sleepy Hollow. And then there's the cash: Though BMW's mum on numbers, Advertising Age reported the company spent at least $15 million to produce The Hire.

"I don't think we really knew what we were getting into," says Ginny Grossman, brand leader on the BMW account at Fallon, the company's Minneapolis-based advertising agency, which helped write and produce the campaign. "We figured it would be either enormously successful or it would be a pretty embarrassing flop."

It might have been a risk, but it was a calculated risk.

McDowell says BMW research discovered most of its buyers were computer-savvy and had fast and reliable access to the Web, either at home or work.

"About 85 percent of the people who purchase a BMW come to the Web to do their research," he says. "We're playing into what we know. ... We assumed a high-quality experience over six minutes seen once would make a stronger impression than [a 30-second ad] repeated many times on television."

McDowell also pointed out the "quality eyeballs" factor: Advertising on television takes the shotgun approach; on the Web, people who visit have made a conscious decision and show a predisposition to the brand (or at least well-known film directors). This allowed the company to raise the budget for production values and talent considerably.

Research, planning, strategy, execution; The Hire has the DNA of an advertising campaign. But what about as entertainment? Is it any good?

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