Madison + Vine: Chrysler seeks influence with young filmmakers

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[Park City, Utah] In this hip mountain ski town, mostly known this time of year for the Sundance Film Festival, DaimlerChrysler took center stage with young filmmakers as its supporting cast.

On a sunny and crisp morning during the film festival here, a converted art gallery buzzed with filmmakers on Main Street. Parked on the street was the new 2004 Chrysler Pacifica; inside, the sporty 2004 Chrysler Crossfire adorned the storefront window. The gallery, complete with a small-town swinging sign, was rechristened the "Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival."

ground zero

Inside, 25 young, hungry and anxious independent filmmakers heard marching orders on of how to carefully weave specific images, feelings and emotions embodying Chrysler cars into their five-minute films, which will compete for the chance to produce a million-dollar feature film.

Creative people are typically the ones holding the cards, but now it's the major consumer-product companies in charge. It's ground zero for what product-integration deals between marketers and entertainment could look like in the future.

"It's an odd marriage," said David Rosenthal, a Los Angeles filmmaker finalist, at an event the night before the workshop. "Filmmakers do what they want, and then are told to take their sensibilities and push them in a commercial way. We don't know what we are getting in for."

To some critics, pushing branded entertainment to young creative minds equates to "drinking the Kool-Aid"; subverting the creative process for commercial needs. To others it's just the natural state of a tough economic environment where films are tougher to get made.

seeing celine

The first morning panel features Bonita Coleman Stewart, director-Chrysler marketing communications, who said the focus shouldn't be on traditional product placement, "but to do it in a creative way." She said the idea is to take "the brand to a more premium level."

Arty TV spots featuring Celine Dion are screened. The entire storefront gallery is adorned with sleek-looking black and white photography of Chrysler cars with the tagline "Drive & Love."

This is the second year of "The Chrysler Million Dollar Film Festival," which is produced by Hypnotic, a TV, film and commercial production company, Vivendi Universal Entertainment's Universal Pictures and DaimlerChrysler. Universal owns 40% stake in Hypnotic.

"Originally, it was just supposed to be a way to discover new talent-we weren't focused on selling sponsorships," said Dave Bartis, CEO of Hypnotic. But then the company believed with a partner, it could raise the quality of the contest and provide a cool entertainment-marketing package. "We were pitching the program to automotive, telecom, beverage companies, and some big apparel companies, like Nike."

win a tivo

Like many other marketers' attempts to do product-integration deals, Chrysler's goal is to connect with hard-to-find consumers. Traditional marketing tools aren't as valuable as they once were: Broadcast ratings, for example, have eroded steadily over the last two decades and new technology, specifically personal video recorders, such as TiVo, have shown that 70% of people use it to skip commercials. Hence the ironic twist: Chrysler is giving the 25 filmmakers who made the cut from 650 a TiVo unit and a lifetime subscription to the TiVo service.

Mr. Bartis told the filmmakers that dealing with consumer-products companies is something they will have to get used to. "It's something that you are going to struggle with your entire career," he said. "You are going to be faced with this balance."

Chrysler executives discussed each of their new cars in easily digestible terms. The racy Crossfire is "Route 66 meets the autobahn." The new SUV/station wagon Pacifica is "the love of modern living."

How does one place the car in the movie? Again and again the same word comes up: organic.

"We are looking for your voice," said Ms. Stewart.

What should filmmakers not do?

"I don't think you would shoot a scene with someone doing heroin in a Chrysler," said Mr. Bartis.

Doug Liman, chairman of Hypnotic, and director of movies such as "The Bourne Identity" and "Swingers," said, "Branded entertainment is getting the message across - it's not just seeing the car."

`not commercials'

J.T. Walker, a Chrysler film contestant who grew up in Texas and now lives in New York City, later noted: "They made really clear they weren't making commercials. When I first started, I was concerned [about writing] for a specified demand. But they gave us total freedom, as long as the car appears, and is reflected in a oblique positive way."

The afternoon session's focused on last year's winner, Jeff Wadlow, and his movie "Manual Labor." It's about a husband struggling to find his car after his pregnant wife goes into labor. He winds up stealing a Chrysler Crossfire to take her to the hospital, but then brings the car back.

Chrysler witnessed a wide range of treatment in these films. In one film from last year, a car hits a pedestrian. Another film depicts a couple having sex in a car-and their kids catch them.

Most of the filmmakers were, naturally, happy to be finalists, happy to be in the seminar, and had no misconceptions of working with Chrysler and their products.

"We are at the bottom of this journey and any opportunity is a good opportunity," said Kevin Burke, another Los Angeles filmmaker finalist. "There is a balance between product placement and the art itself. I don't think they are totally incompatible."

But he should be aware that the festival may yet take on a different tone. "I know what the balance should be now," said Mr. Bartis. "Last year was more art and less commercial. This year we are going to shift it to the commercial direction, to be blunt."

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