SBJ/June 18 - 24, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Summer hit: BMW's action 'movie' is creating a trailer full of buzz

BMW                    
BMW Films
Behind the Advertising: BMW North America, LLC
President: Tom Purves
VP, marketing: Jim McDowell
Production: Anonymous Content
Chairman: Steve Golin
Executive producer: David Fincher
Directors: John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Guy Ritchie, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu

Every now and then, you catch a glimpse of the future. And if you've been watching the NBA playoffs, perhaps you've seen it. It's television advertising from BMW USA, but it's much more than meets the eye.

The TV commercials appear to be, at first glance, movie trailers for the kind of popcorn movies Hollywood has made into its standard summer fare. But it turns out the trailers are teasers. They are not trying to draw us to a theater box office. They are designed to drive us two places: first, to a Web site (bmwfilms.com) where full versions of six- and seven-minute films BMW has produced are available to download; and second (and with far more subtlety), to BMW dealers.

What BMW has done is create a mini-festival of digital movies in a series called The Hire, which have been crafted by some of the world's best-known directors. Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate") and Guy Ritchie ("Snatch") are among the A-list directors hired for BMW USA by Anonymous Content, the series' production company run by Steve Golin and executive producer David Fincher.

Fincher, one of many top commercial directors who has made the jump into feature films ("Seven"), has now signaled a third phase of evolution: from small screen to big screen to PC monitor. Fincher supervised the scripting and storyboarding but ceded the directing duties to Anonymous Content's all-star team.

The stories are glued together only by the presence of British actor Clive Owen, who plays a driver-for-hire who simply does what the situation requires in every case. In Frankenheimer's "Ambush," Owen's job is to get a mysterious diamond courier past an attempted hijacking. In Ritchie's "Star," it is to get an arrogant rock goddess to the venue. In every case, he does, in death-defying, pedal-to-the-metal stunt driving.

The movies work because each is engaging as a stand-alone piece. They also work because, despite the big-name directors, the real star is the car. Each movie uses, and occasionally nearly destroys, a different BMW model. While the plot of the stories is not always gripping, one cannot help but think that if BMW paid to have episodes run in theaters before certain features, some episodes would be far more enjoyable than the movies patrons were paying to see (attention "Battlefield Earth" customers).

The approach works as a total concept for a lot of reasons, but one above all: Despite the high cost of each episode (more than $2 million) and the costs of streaming video over the Web and airing clips as television commercials (which more than double the production budget), the groundbreaking approach has created an event-type buzz, which BMW has manufactured and ridden for all it's worth. The PR value alone will probably end up exceeding the program's budget by a factor of at least five.

In a densely cluttered advertising environment and in a category where most auto advertising looks desperately alike, BMW stands apart and, as a leader should, looks good doing it.

If the idea falters anywhere, it is primarily due to the inherent limitations of experiencing Internet-based video content. The movie files are huge Quicktime-format downloads, about 80 MB each. So even with a fast, broadband connection to the Internet, to view the movies on a screen that is generally about one-sixth the size of a full computer monitor, one must endure a download wait that is much longer than the duration of the movie itself.

BMW USA's bold move into integrated TV/online event advertising is a tactic that other advertisers will certainly copy. How long will it be before we see an online comedy series from a beer company, a long-form music special from a soft drink or a sports special from a shoe company?

Start your stopwatches.

James H. Harris (jim@thoughtstep.com) is CEO of the Chicago-based strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.

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