"We were approached by a few comic companies,' said Bruce Bildstein, creative director at BMW's agency, Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis, one of the key architects of the online films. Dark Horse was tapped because of its cult-like following. Plus, he said, it had "a profile that was most BMW-film-like."
The marketer's celebrated 2001 online film series, still available for viewing on bmwusa.com, has become an archetype for entertainment marketing that generates buzz as well as—in this case—moves metal.
Just as BMW hired high-profile film directors for its short online films, it's letting Dark Horse line up some of the genre's leading talent for each story. Matt Wagner wrote and drew the first comic, dubbed "Scandal" in which the Driver is hired to sneak a rich man's spoiled daughter out of town.
BMW had been looking for new ways to promote and extend the online film series, which included talk of both a feature film as well as a video game.
Pat McKenna, marketing manager at BMW is optimistic about the comic-book platform. Dark Horse readers "are not as young as people think; it is elusive 18-to-34-year-old males."
None of the parties would reveal specifics about the deal. But McKenna said BMW gets royalties from each issue sold so the program "pays for itself, or a large part of it."
KEEPING IT ORGANIC
BMW has no current plans to use images from the new comics in upcoming ads. "We have never explored that. We really want to keep it organic," McKenna said. The carmaker will decide after all six issues whether to do another batch.
BMW allowed the nation's fourth-largest comic-book maker to decide on units per issue and promotion. Beyond BMW promoting the comic books on its home page, there will be no other integrated marketing efforts around the comics.
The first issue will have a run of 20,000 units, at $2.99 each. Diamond Distributors is getting the issue into comic-book shops and specialty retailers, said Lee Dawson, publicist for Dark Horse. They can also be ordered online via Dark Horse affiliate Think From Another World at tfaw.com. The bound compilation will be sold in bookstores.
"The Driver" comic books have the same main character patterned after actor Clive Owen, who starred in each of the online films as a BMW driver-for-hire. Fallon worked closely with Dark Horse on the character's personality and code of ethics, Bildstein said.
In the comics, while the BMW cars may resemble existing models like the 3 Series, they have been rendered "futuristic. None are production cars," according to a BMW spokesman.
Todd Turner, president of consultancy CarConcepts, said the comic books are a good way for BMW to keep its brand reinvigorated and build brand aspirations among younger consumers. But he wondered whether a comic-book series might have been a fit better with BMW sibling's Mini Cooper brand, aimed at younger buyers.
When asked whether BMW may be trying to juice brand interest to prepare for its upcoming 1 series small car, Turner said the German automaker hasn't decided whether that car will be sold in the U.S. Smaller than the 3 series, it goes on sale in Europe in September.
%%PULLQUOTE_RIGHT%% For those in the dark about Dark Horse, its 10-year-old "Hellboy" comics are its best-selling series. The 18-year-old company also creates comics under licensing deals with Hollywood moviemakers. The publisher developed custom, limited-run books for "Monsters Inc.," "Shrek" and "Star Wars".
It also has a deal with Walt Disney Co. and Pixar Animated Studios. In late November, it will publish a four-issue adaptation of "The Incredibles," based on the animated film of the same name arriving Nov. 5 in theaters. Said Dawson: "We are very well known for handling other people's properties, which is why we work with Disney and ['Star Wars' creator George] Lucas."
BMW and Fallon hope that Dark Horse's artist-friendly approach will spark sales. BMW of North America said total sales through July 2004 rose by 4% to 147,313 vehicles vs. a year ago. While its sport utility sales rose by 72% during that period to 35,733 units, its car sales slid by 7.7% to 115,580 units.