Unusual Deal Keeps Volkswagen Aligned With Indie Films

Pact With Small Movie Distributor Requires Little Marketing Muscle

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LOS ANGELES -- Volkswagen may be a big-time Hollywood player thanks to a pricey promotional partnership with NBC Universal, but the German automaker is also going more indie, planning to help market a slate of low-budget and foreign films that will be distributed in the U.S. beginning in March.

VW's limited involvement with D Street's German comedy 'Summer in Berlin' includes sponsoring a screening in New York. But the deal could grow over time.

The company has inked what it calls a co-branding deal with D Street Media Group, a Berlin-based film distributor and production entity.

Quirky German comedy

The deal with the company's D Street Releasing subsidiary kicks off in March with the quirky German comedy "Summer in Berlin," directed by Andreas Dresen. The film made the festival circuit and was screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005.

The upcoming slate of films also includes Spanish thriller "El Habitante Incierto" ("The Uninvited Guest"), which premiered at the Philadelphia Film Festival in 2006.

The deal, handled by Volkswagen AG, is an unusual one for the automaker -- make that any marketer.

For one, VW is choosing to back films that have little buzz behind them, films most audiences have never heard of -- and never will, unless heavy promotion is put behind them.

VW isn't producing or funding the films. It also doesn't have a say in which properties D Street picks up and hopes to get into theaters.

D Street is also a relative newcomer as a film distributor and doesn't have the clout of, say, a Miramax Films, Weinstein Co. or Lionsgate Entertainment. It also doesn't have the reach that an independent division at a major studio might have.

Small risk for automaker

Either way, the risk would be a small one for VW. It's not expected to shell out too much coin to promote D Street's films. And it's not committed to support each film on D Street's slate.

Early promotional and marketing plans call for VW to merely sponsor a screening for "Summer in Berlin" in Manhattan in March before the film opens there and in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But VW's involvement could expand over time. And that's just what D Street might be hoping for. It will need all the marketing muscle it can muster to make its films click with audiences in the highly competitive independent- and foreign-film market.

"Our mandate is to spotlight films that embrace diverse cultures, attitudes and ideas from around the world, and by aligning our films with the VW brand, we will be able to bring larger attention to the global nature of cinema today," said Dexter Davis, CEO of D Street Media Group.

It remains to be seen whether VW will also help finance the films D Street produces. D Street Pictures' first feature, "The Reception," premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005.

Either way, Dirk Grosse-Leege, head of corporate communications at Volkswagen AG, considers D Street a "perfect fit" for VW.

"D Street Media Group is a young and aggressive player that is emerging as a force in the global independent-film business," he said. "This partnership will allow us to reach the same sophisticated, upscale, urban consumers that enjoy smart, thoughtful and provocative international films. We look forward to a very dynamic and productive relationship."

No stranger to the indie-film scene

VW is no stranger to the independent-film scene. In fact, it's embraced that world of counterculture, hoping to create an identity as a company that strays away from the mainstream in order to reach out to 20- and 30-somethings.

For several years, the company has sponsored events and lounges at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and served as the event's official car partner.

The automaker has also produced its own independent films in the past, such as "The Check Up," which screened at Sundance in 2005 and starred Joe Pantoliano and Kevin Connolly.

But it's VW's partnership with NBC Universal and its mainstream properties that may be more well-known. It has certainly generated bigger headlines. VW inked the $200 million product-placement and promotions deal with NBC Universal in 2005; it encompasses the studio's films, DVDs and theme parks over three to five years.
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