BMW to Bring Back BMW Films

But Marketer and Agency Are Mum on Details

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Clive Owen was the star in the original campaign
Clive Owen was the star in the original campaign

BMW of North America is planning to bring back BMW Films, the pioneering online movie series produced by A-List Hollywood directors/actors that popularized branded content on Madison Avenue more than a decade ago

The first iteration of BMW Films was "The Hire:" a series of eight online films starring Clive Owen as a mysterious-driver-for-hire that were produced for the Internet from 2001-2002.

Running 8-10 minutes apiece, the mini-movies featured Mr. Owen driving BMW models such as the Z4 roadster. The flicks were directed by some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Ang Lee, John Woo, Guy Ritchie and the late John Frankenheimer.

Mr. Owen's performance helped turn him into an international movie star. Besides the BMW cars, Mr. Owen's co-stars included Gary Oldman, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke and Madonna (who was directed by her former husband, Mr. Ritchie).

A team led by David Lubars and Bruce Bildsten at BMW's former agency, Fallon, Minneapolis, created the idea for "The Hire" and wrote the scripts with input from directors such as Mr. Ritchie. Anonymous Content produced the films. David Fincher executive-produced.

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Trudy Hardy, BMW's new VP of marketing, said at the 2014 Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, the luxury automaker was planning to bring back BMW Films. But Ms. Hardy and BMW have declined to comment further.

BMW's current ad agency, KBS+, declined to comment on the plan. Steve Golin, who was heavily involved in the first project at Anonymous Content, could not be reached for comment. Ditto for Mr. Owens' agent at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles.

Ahead of its time
At a time when marketers and ad agencies were still trying to figure out how to use the Internet and broadband was not in wide use, BMW Films was ahead of its time, spawning sequels on Madison Avenue and even in Hollywood ("The Transporter" franchise of action flicks starring Jason Statham was inspired by "The Hire"). But BMW eventually abandoned the expensive series.

Jim McDowell, the charismatic marketer who championed the films at BMW, went on to serve as VP and Chief Motorer at MINI USA. Mr. McDowell retired in December. Mr. Lubars has since moved on to BBDO. Mr. Bildsten left Fallon to form his own shop, then later returned.

A project like BMW Films flips the normal ad budget on its head, with most of the money going into production rather than paid media.

But BMW is launching a new "i" sub-brand of plug-in hybrid vehicles around the world. A BMW Film encore could be a nice tool to demonstrate that its i-cars have all the performance expected from the Ultimate Driving Machine. KBS+'s first TV spots for the i-cars that broke recently on NBC's coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics took a cinematic approach.

Good idea?
"Resurrecting BMW Films is a great idea. If I was the CMO of BMW, that's what I would be doing," said David Kiley, author of "Driven: Inside BMW, the Most Admired Car Company in the World," and editor-in-chief of New Roads Media. "It's really difficult to stand out and separate yourself producing TV commercials any more. It's really hard to tell an engaging story in 30-second spots."

But marketing consultant-turned Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lupinacci sees potential pitfalls in a BMW Films sequel. First, the luxury car-maker will have to compete against itself. Despite all the hoopla, the films basically boiled down to A-List directors accepting big bucks from BMW for little more than beefed up car commercials, said Mr. Lupinacci.

"In the spirit of being a cynical son-of-a-bitch, they got A-List directors and paid them A-List dollars to direct C-Level concepts. These things were better-than-average commercials -- sort of. But if you go back and watch them you go, 'What's happening here?' It's just running footage."

After overtaking longtime leader Lexus to lead the U.S. car market in luxury sales in 2011-2012, BMW lost its luxury sales crown to rival Mercedes-Benz in 2013, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Mercedes sold 312,528 vehicles last year vs. 309,280 for BMW. Mercedes also lead all luxury car-makers in January sales with 22,604 compared to 18,253 for BMW, 17,637 for Lexus and 11,386 for General Motors' Cadillac.

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