Ford Plays the Bad Guy in 'Flash of Genius'

Deceased Inventor Haunts Automaker in New Film

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DETROIT ( -- As if troubled Ford Motor Co. needed another problem, this week Universal Studios releases "Flash of Genius," a film that paints the company as a corporate ogre.
'Flash of Genius'
'Flash of Genius' Credit: Universal

The film, opening Oct. 3, is based on the true story of Detroit engineering professor Robert Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear), who invented the intermittent windshield wiper in the late 1960s and shopped it around to carmakers. The TV trailer for the flick focuses on Mr. Kearns going after Ford for stealing his idea. In the trailer on the film's website, Ford is mentioned no fewer than six times, including a scene in which actor Alan Alda says, "Ford doesn't know the meaning of money."

The tagline for "Flash of Genius," displayed on the movie's poster, is "Corporations have time, money and power on their side. All Bob Kearns had was the truth."

Avoiding a battle
Ford, however, doesn't plan any action to defend its image in this matter, a spokeswoman said. "While there are inaccuracies in the film, which is obviously a product of the entertainment industry, Ford sees no value in rehashing the history of a case that has already been resolved in a court of law almost 20 years ago," the company said. "Our reputation is, and should be, based on a 100-year legacy of providing transportation to the world and a current transformation focused on providing quality products that provide the fuel efficiency, safety, quality and smart technology our customers desire."

Even so, Peter DeLorenzo, founder of the auto blog, predicted there will be an initial flare-up of negativity publicity for Ford. He noted that "the people who are predisposed to disliking anything to do with Detroit will pile on." But it will be short-lived: He doesn't expect it to have much staying power or negative impact on Ford.

Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, does not believe a response from Ford is necessary. "The best way for Ford to react is with humor," he said, as well as point out that the movie is designed to entertain and that the case was resolved legally.

Michael Fineman, president of Fineman Public Relations, who praised Ford's handling of the Firestone tire debacle early this decade, advised that the automaker add an information page about the case on its website explaining what happened then, whether any new policies have been added as a result of the case and a look at recent or upcoming technologies. "This is another chink in their armor," he said of the movie. "There's no reason for Ford to duck and cover."

Legal ordeal
Mr. Kearns got a series of patents for his wiper design in 1967. He shopped it around to various automakers, but never reached any deals. Ford debuted intermittent wipers in 1969; other car companies eventually followed. In the 1970s, Mr. Kearns sued two dozen automakers for patent infringement. He reached a $10 million settlement with Ford and won a $20 million judgment against Chrysler Corp., which Chrysler was unable to overturn at the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-1990s.

But the legal battles left Mr. Kearns in debt, and his dedication to his cause -- getting credit for the invention -- cost him his marriage and he had a nervous breakdown. He died in 2005 at the age of 77.

Ford, which posted a pre-tax operating loss in North America of $1.3 billion in the second quarter, is in the process of reducing 4,000 hourly positions and 15% of its salaried work force. The company held a 9.2% U.S. retail market share in the second quarter of this year, down from 9.8% in the first quarter.
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