Advertainment's New Frontier

A mini film festival, featuring a stellar international roster of cinema's most acclaimed and respected directors, is now playing on a PC or Mac near. The likes of Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer, Wong Kar-Wai and actors such as Clive Owen, Madonna and Forest Whitaker are all pooling their talents to promote the exceptional drivability of The BMW.

But no one's calling the project -- a series of five arty filmlets collectively called "The Hire" -- a commercial. And it isn't product placement per se, even though the films clearly showcase various models of BMW. What it is, is what many feared would someday become the future of entertainment. Advertainment, the seamless synthesis of advertisement and entertainment, has arrived.

In each film, Clive Owen (Croupier) plays the suave, sophisticated driver, hired to safely, swiftly transport precious human cargo. Behind the wheel of a different BMW in each film, his perilous job -- predatory vehicles tend to be in hot pursuit -- is always a resounding success thanks to the dazzling performance of Germany's supreme driving machine. Owen provides the debonair mystique, the directors provide their refined artistic vision and BMW provides a hefty budget for them to play with ... provided they make the car look good.

Does this mark the beginning of the end of autonomous artistry, creativity sans strings and art for art's sake? No, insist those involved. But only because such things never really existed.

"Compare this with Hollywood or any filmmaking, this has more freedom," said Ang Lee, who, for a five minute film, was given a budget some five times the size of the budget for his first feature film, "Pushing Hands." "With film, you have more obligations. It's much more investment, you have the studio watching over you, you have an audience [to keep happy]" said Lee, whose film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" just won four Oscars. "For Chinese films you have to deal with censorship. Film has a lot of restrictions," he said, adding that this project gave him more freedom than any other film he had ever done.

The restrictions here, (dents, death and oil drips were frowned upon by BMW), were ones Lee felt he could work with. Rather than feeling his artistic integrity would somehow be compromised, he enjoyed the challenge of working within, what he calls "the gray area of high art and supply art." Since BMW didn't want the films to look like commercials, didn't want the camera to close in on their logo, Lee felt his task was to work "tracelessly, but still make people want to buy the car." 

Steve Golin, (whose multimedia development and production company, Anonymous Content, produced "The Hire") thinks audiences will respond positively to this soft, image-driven sales approach. " If the product placement is subtle and if the content is entertaining, people don't care that they're being marketed at," "If the content is not entertaining, they care. A lot of commercials irritate people because they're not entertaining." 

Won over by the subtlety of the sell, Clive Owen stresses that "the whole BMW thing isn't overplayed, they're not shooting a logo every two minutes" After the heat his art house film "Croupier" generated, Owen initially wondered whether peddling BMWs was a career move in the right direction. But after reading the "quality scripts" and learning of the other talent who had already signed on, Owen determined that "these were proper full little five-minute movies," he said from his London apartment. "It's just that the films happen to be set in very cool, sexy BMWs."

While BMW has a history of high profile product placement (the introduction of the BMW Z3 roadster in the James Bond film, Golden Eye, garnered more attention than the film itself), Owen feels that the fact that the viewer has to go to BMW's site (www.bmwfilms.com) makes the project honest and above board. "It's not like anyone is being duped," he said. "It's a bold new way of advertising really."

In fact, "brand-sponsored content" as Steve Golin likes to call this, is as old as television. Today, many gripe that the World Wide Web is nothing but a World Wide Commercial for which securing eyeballs for advertisers is the first and last concern. Lest we forgot, TV was also invented to sell to us in the comfort of our home. Content has always been an after thought. At the dawn of TV, soap operas got their name from the soap that was hawked by the show's sponsors, who exercised a good deal of control over the show's themselves, (which existed merely to fill the space between commercials.)

Today product placement is something of a dirty word. Audiences were blissfully unaware that Gordon's Gin paid to get dumped overboard by Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen." This year, the practice has become so well understood that David Mamet mocked producers suffering from slippery integrity in his Hollywood industry comedy "State and Main." In the film-within-a-film, a dot com company gets anachronistic product placement in a 19th century Western. Last month, "Cast Away" won a Stinker Award from the Hastings Bad Cinema Society in a newly created category: "Most Annoying Product Placement."

Entertaining or not, sneaky selling can annoy. But Golin, whose Anonymous Content is one of the largest commercial production companies in the world, says that for 'The Hire', he had insisted, "we weren't going to let the tail wag the dog." The tail, however, would have to be an integral element. Golin said the concept was to devise a series "where the car is kind of character in the film." And BMW, the movie's lead character, is a dashing, thrilling yet utterly reliable action hero. 

Because of the films' length, they couldn't be shown in commercial slots on TV and premiering them on The Internet seemed like an ideal way to introduce an "event quality." Another advantage to screening them online is that viewers will be just a click away from accessing dealership information. (Later on, the films will be direct mailed to BMW owners, and screened in BMW showrooms and theaters in Europe.)

Since it was unfeasible to do one long film on the internet, given today's bandwidth constraints, Executive Producer David Fincher devised the idea of producing five short films each staring a different model of BMW and each directed by a different director. For Clive Owen, working back to back with Frankenheimer, Lee, Guy Ritchie, Wong Kar-Wai and Alejandro González Iñárritu proved to be "like a mini-film school," a crash course (as it were) in auteur theory, up close and interactive. "Something I've always known about filmmaking -- but this just absolutely confirmed it -- is that there are no rules," said Owen. "Each of these guys comes with their own angle."

In Ang Lee's film, "The Chosen" Owen's driver protects a young Tibetan Buddha, a Panchen Lama of sorts, played by Lee's eight-year-old son, Mason Lee. Owen describes Lee's work as "mysterious and elegant." Departing from the bamboo forest chases and rooftop flying in "Crouching Tiger," Lee choreographed a balletic car chase that is propelled by baroque music. "This is a fine German machinery," Lee said. "The chase should be about outclassing the other -- with grace."

Owen describes John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate", "Reindeer Games") as "The King of the Car Chase." And Golin compares the speeding, sexy BMW in Frankenheimer's short film to the car in "Ronin," the director's 1998 thriller. Featuring what the critics called "breathtaking" "furious" car chases, "Ronin's" key car was likewise a character in the film. In "Ambush," Frankenheimer's BMW film, Clive Owen chauffeurs an elderly man who fears his pursuers will stop at nothing to get his diamonds. Furious car chases ensue.

But no car manufacturer paid to get their vehicle hyped in "Ronin" and Frankenheimer says he has never done product placement. "This," he says referring to Ambush " is not product placement. This is a movie sponsored by and funded by BMW to really showcase their cars."

"If this were a cigarette commercial, I wouldn't do it," added Frankenheimer. " But I happen to like BMW cars." Over the years, Frankenheimer has done many traditional commercials as well, including ones for Elizabeth Taylor brand perfume, Acura and AT & T. "Some of the most creative minds today are working in commercials. If you just look at the work. Some of it is far superior to anything you see in feature films."

Golin added that many directors like to shoot a commercial as a "warm up" before starting a new feature project. "Being a movie director is tough because you can't really practice, you make a movie every two years if you're lucky," he said. Ang Lee chose to work on the project as a creative break from all the social and publicity obligations that followed the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Frankenheimer says that a commercial or short film like this one is great practice because it really "hones your discipline. You can't waste any time. You can't waste a shot."

Ang Lee stressed that the short form also allowed him to be more impressionistic than a feature narrative would allow. "Movies have a very enclosed world. It has to have a beginning, middle, and end," he said. Here, "you just give a gust of creative energy and you get to do whatever you like. You don't have to give everything to the audience, you can allow them to guess more than a popular movie [in which] you have to deliver certain things. Here, you can plant certain seeds and ask the audience to think about it. It's more about provoking thoughts."

It is this soft sell that seems to appeal to the faces in front of the camera too. Where once actors only splayed their famous faces on billboards for big bucks in remote far away Asia, today such "serious" actors as Jeremy Irons are stylishly selling stuff. "As advertising is increasingly viewed as art, celebrities no longer think it's crass to promote products," said Richard Kirshenbaum, creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, a New York ad agency.

For "The Hire," the chance to work with desirable art house directors was the big draw for many of the actors, according to Golin. For the newlywed Madonna, who appears as a spoiled rock star who gets her comeuppance, the chance to work under her husband, Guy Ritchie ("Snatch"), was no doubt appealing. Forest Whitaker leapt at the opportunity to work with Wong Kar Wy ("In The Mood for Love") on his segment, which also features Micky Rourke. And while no names have been thus far announced, there's been "incredible reaction from big stars" to work with Mexican director Inarritu (who made 'Amorres Perros,' nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.)

Clearly, deep-pocketed advertainment has much to attract emerging and established talent. But, not surprisingly, no one on the project wants to comment about whether or not it is a good thing, culturally speaking, that the distinction between content and commercial is blurring into oblivion. Steve Golin says regardless of what you think of it, "it's a trend, it's coming and there's going to be no stopping it. People can like it or not but the brands are going to be integrated, that's just the way it is. So get ready."

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