Brands commissioning A-list talent to create slick content that blurs the line between ad and art isn’t a revolutionary marketing approach. Back in 1983, Apple and Ridley Scott nearly convinced the world it needed an utterly inessential $2,300 computer that didn’t interface with any existing technology solely through the strength of its now legendary “1984” spot. Directors whose names regularly grace studio one-sheets and Academy Award trophies helm half the Super Bowl ads you love (and some you hate). Just last year a company named Melco Crown Entertainment paid Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, and Martin Scorsese $70 million to create a 15-minute short film celebrating the grand opening of a Macau casino. Think about how much money casinos must bring in to justify spending more than $75,000 a second on an ad, then remember Trump casinos went bankrupt. He lost money. By owning a casino. BUSINESS GENIUS!
While branded content is now a fully established trend (even SNL got in on the act this season), no company produces commercials masquerading as art better — or more consistently — than BMW. In 2001, the German automaker recruited an elite stable of directors to create a series of short films used to promote their luxury vehicles’ performance in everyday situations such as fleeing armed helicopters or racing the devil for the rights to your soul. There were only two rules: the film had to include at least one BMW, and Clive Owen’s character had to drive it. That’s all. Everything else — story, actors, tone — was left to the filmmaker.
By the way, when I say “elite stable of directors” I don’t mean up-and-coming festival darlings whose films come with a bucket of kale and screen inside an abandoned warehouse at 4 am. These are cats who have had to slide their Best Director Oscar down the mantle to make room for a second Best Director Oscar. Previous BMW Films directors include John Woo, Tony Scott, Guy Ritchie, Wong Kar-Wai, Joe Carnahan, Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and the late John Frankenheimer. Oh, and David Fincher acted as the EP.
The Hire series — the first five films debuted on BMW’s website in 2001, with three more airing the following year — proved wildly successful, increasing BMW sales by 12 percent and capturing over 100 million views in four years. And that was it. The ads worked. No more films were ever produced.
Until Sunday, when The Escape, the first offering from BMW Films in 15 years, hit the Internet. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, the South African visionary behind the genre-revolutionizing District 9 and other memorable sci-fi actioneers like [examples needed], The Escape tasks Owen’s The Driver character with protecting a young girl (Dakota Fanning) from a group of mercenaries led by Jon Bernthal who does nasty Jon Bernthal things with glorious effect. It’s a tight, entertaining, straightforward adventure with car chases and helicopter crashes and a surprise cameo thrown in for fun. You won’t find a better way to spend 11 minutes today unless you’re having sex at work in which case, throw this in on in the background to double your pleasure.
In case you’re wondering, here are the definitive BMW Films rankings:
1. Beat the Devil
5. The Escape
6. Powder Keg
8. The Follow