Wide Angle: BMW Films

With the recent world premiere of The Escape – BMW Films’ much-anticipated follow-up to its acclaimed film series, The Hire – BMW Magazine looks back on what it took to reprise one of the most successful campaigns of all time. We recently sat down to discuss the films` respective genesis and ultimate development with BMW, as well as with the team that comprised the creative nucleus behind both The Hire and The Escape.

Hailed as “the first big media event of 21st-century marketing,” BMW Films’ The Hire has set all types of precedents by generating more than 100 million online views. It still is regarded as one of the most original – and most effective – uses of branded content ever attempted by an automotive company. Since its 2001 release, the series’ cultural impact has been undeniable and its innovative narrative structure often imitated, but never replicated. After 15 years, The Hire has remained the benchmark for that all-elusive holy marriage of organic product placement and megawatt creativity. Until now.

Although it’s too early to predict whether The Escape will also penetrate the zeitgeist and exert the same widespread influence as its predecessor, the buzz around the current project has already been considerable. Clive Owen again stars as the enigmatic, stoic “Driver,” and is accompanied by a cast of highly accomplished actors specifically selected for their talent and not their A-list celebrity status. The ensemble includes familiar names like Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, I Am Sam, The Runaways), Jon Bernthal (Fury, Sicario, The Wolf of Wall Street) and Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Departed, The Conjuring). Academy Award- nominated director Neill Blomkamp of District 9 and Elysium fame was chosen to helm the project, succeeding some of the film world’s brightest directorial talent like Oscar winners Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Ang Lee, Joe Carnahan, Wong Kar-wai, Guy Ritchie, John Woo as well as the late John Frankenheimer and Tony Scott. Instead of eight shorts, however, The Escape is a single, 11 minute-long piece of explosive filmmaking.

The other major differentiating factor between The Hire and The Escape is the car. Acting as support for the “Driver” in the latest film is the new BMW 5 Series. The original intent was to use the 7 Series, but a last-minute decision led to the inclusion of the 5 instead. “With the next generation of 5 Series pending, it was perfect timing,” BMW Vice President of Marketing, Trudy Hardy, recently told BMW Magazine. “The script was already written, the director was already chosen and the cast was there. And then we got down to product. The 5 Series is the workhorse of our brand. It’s the perfect balance of a business sedan and performance machine. A lot of storytelling took place in the car…so it’s the ideal vehicle. That’s secondary though — it’s all about the brand first.”

“When will we see the next BMW film? It’s the most frequently asked interview question I’ve experienced.”

Trudy Hardy, BMW Vice President of Marketing

Director Neill Blomkamp goes over a driving action sequence with Clive Owen, The Driver.

Hardy was one of the key players involved in the decision to bring BMW Films back, so we discussed the impetus behind such a momentous decision:

There’s a rumor that you mentioned BMW Films at an Ad Age conference years ago, which led to a frenzy of speculation on the web about a sequel. Can you tell us about that?

Trudy Hardy: There have been so many panels and conferences where an audience member will invariably ask: “When will we see the next BMW film?” It’s the most frequently asked interview question I’ve experienced. But, you don’t approach BMW Films lightly. It was something that was a cherished piece of our history. So it’s this little treasure we need to protect and really think about delicately in terms of whether or not to produce new films. It’s something we always think about. And I always say it’s both a blessing and a curse. Because it’s such a fabulous piece of content. It’s one of the most memorable campaigns of all time. You don’t want to screw that up, right? If you think you can do a great job and it can be held to that same standard… then great. It’s one of those things where everything has to be just right. So, about two years ago, we thought about the 15th anniversary and whether we should do some type of tribute to BMW Films. Maybe there was something we could do to bring it back to life in a unique and creative way. Overall, I really think it’s remarkable. It was 15 years ago, and it’s still talked about. It just goes to show that great content does create the type of memories people just can’t forget.

Why Neill Blomkamp specifically? Was the idea to have a sci-fi bend from the beginning? Does this say something about how BMW views itself as company with an eye to the future?

Hardy: The script was imperative. It was already very futuristic, very forward-thinking. So we needed a director who was really great at action cinematography but also had a little bit of that sci-fi in there. Which is why Neill was a perfect choice. As a secondary layer, I think it does tie in to our DNA. But first and foremost, it was finding the right director for the script. Now everything’s global. Everything spreads around the world in a matter of seconds. So we really talked about the things that needed to change from the previous films to remain relevant in 2016. We needed something fresh. Something that felt relevant for today.

Patrick McKenna helped spearhead the push behind The Hire, back in 2001, and handled the day-to-day production activities in addition to his day job as BMW National Marketing Manager. Michael Jobst was Pat’s contemporary counterpart on the most recent film, The Escape. Here are some of their impressions:

Recording film and sound at the standoff between the FBI and mercenaries from Molecular Genetics.

Filming a stunt for the final action scene in The Escape.

Filming a stunt for the final action scene in The Escape.

As individuals who were actually there, at the beginning, tell us about the roots of each project and how the process evolved.

Pat McKenna: It was definitely a top-secret project in the early days. Only a handful of people worked on it. Part of the initial direction was: “Make our palms sweat and push us out of our comfort zone.” We literally used the words: “Make it cinematic.” Strategically, we wanted to show that BMW was the ultimate driving machine, and we wanted to show the cars performing at a higher level. And we asked: “Where is the car a star?” The answer was: “In the movies.” So, along with our agency, Fallon, we started looking at clips from The French Connection, Bullitt and Ronin, the John Frankenheimer film. He actually ended up being the first director to come on board. It was risky and had the potential for tremendous success or great failure. Nothing in the middle. I had people call and literally yell at me, saying: “How dare you shoot a BMW full of holes!” It was a significant departure from how the product was positioned, back then.

Michael Jobst: We did a lot of reconnaissance work to see if revisiting the legacy series was a wise move. Patrick, you actually connected us to the original creative team — Bruce Bildsten, Brian DiLorenzo and David Carter. They flew in and we asked them if they thought it was a good idea to do this all over again. Their answer was: “Of course! You have to do this. We want to do this.” David came back with a director who passed the filter test for us – the film needed to be a new, modern version, but it had to be true to the original series. It had to be done in a very authentic way that’s true to the BMW Films franchise, not glossy or with a lot of CGI. When they presented the script for The Escape, we loved it. The members of the original creative team took leaves from their current positions and formed a micro agency—Geisel—to start production on the project. It means “hostage” in German, which was the code name that was first used for the script.

Can you address the success of The Hire and the expectations for The Escape?

McKenna: The mechanism of the short films, putting them online—where the average time spent by a typical viewer was nine minutes and eight seconds—and being able to showcase the cars in a format that looked like nothing else let us accomplish everything we set out to do. We really succeeded in breaking through the traditional media of the time. It was on the front page of the New York Times! One of the best accolades for the films is that they are actually in the Museum of Modern Art film archives, as a kind of a time capsule. There was also a Harvard Business School case study done on it. From a business standpoint, that’s a very prestigious thing. And the PR value for the eight films combined was 26 million dollars. There was even a question about The Hire in Trivial Pursuit – a true testament to the fact that it became part of pop culture.

Jobst: We tried to find ways to let the project and the writing be true to itself, as a film and not a commercial. We cleared the barriers for a great film to happen. And that’s what we have: an amazing 15th-anniversary short film. The trailers for The Escape look real exciting, but the film is even better. It’s just nonstop. There are more action scenes in this one film than in a number of the previous films combined. I’m crazy-proud of it. I got to work for the people who did the last series. And they broke all the rules back then, making it a lot easier for me now! I can’t wait to see the reaction publicly among the core enthusiasts who’ve been dying for us to revisit this series. For me personally, it’s the project of a lifetime.

To round out the picture, we’ll let the players behind the creative powerhouse that actually created The Hire and The Escape, speak for themselves. The trio includes Creative Director, Bruce Bildsten; Executive Producer, Brian DiLorenzo; and David Carter who co-wrote the film with director Neill Blomkamp.

What stands out to you about the new production as opposed to the previous one? Any overall impressions about what must’ve been two dream projects, you’d like to share?

Bruce Bildsten: Doing the original BMW Films was a really special experience for all of us. We created something that was really magical. The mandate was simply to make the car itself another actor in the film – to integrate it to the film. We ultimately showed a BMW doing what it does best, which is performing. For the new one, we went back to Steve Golin at Anonymous Content – one of the top film and TV producers in Hollywood. We got the original colorist, the original editor. Our action supervisor was Guy Norris, who just won all these Oscars for his action work on Mad Max: Fury Road. The action and the camera angles in this film are at a different level than the original films. And a lot of that has to do with technology. The cameras are so sophisticated now. We used something called suicide drones with small Canon 5Ds on them, for instance. If they crashed, it would be OK. We could literally fly them under a car. I would add that we used very few special FX. We dropped a real helicopter shell. We rolled a real 18-wheeler. We flipped a real Hummer. And the only way we were able to do the original films is that we had brave, visionary clients. They recognized that this was special. They provided the right guidance and gave us the creative freedom we needed. The DNA was already there from the previous project, and they passed it down for this one. We had great cooperation from the BMW team.

Brian DiLorenzo: It may be a cliché of sorts, but this really was like a dream come true. This is still the “Godfather” of branded entertainment, and to come back to have another crack at it 15 years later was both a daunting challenge and the biggest possible thrill ever. Knowing the formula between the brand, the car, the actor and the fact that there was a legacy involved, informed the new film. That was a challenge. To see if we could do something that would respect the canon of the original work. My first role was to determine if Clive Owen was interested and available. It was pretty gratifying to get an almost-instantaneous reply from his agent: “Of course, Clive Owen would be interested. He had such a great experience before.” That was the first email that went beyond just talking about The Escape in the theoretical sense. In the end, we have something that’s a throwback and tip of the hat to the original series, and at the same time that’s shot in a clean, classic but undeniably modern way. In a digital world, we wanted to establish a real sense of analog action. Putting cameras in real risky positions is a lot easier now, and we took advantage of that. So, we truly feel that we ended up with something that’s super authentic.

David Carter: I ended up writing a lot of the original eight scripts. And I’m a big film nerd. So it was pretty much the highlight of my career to work with all those great filmmakers and actors. Actually, it was the best film school ever. To be able to sit with those guys and watch how they work was simply amazing. But once it became a reality that there was going to be a new film, I quickly realized that we had to live up to the past eight. When I look at the new film up against the previous ones, I think it definitely stands up. It has a modern story that’s told in a very modern way. Part of the reason these films were successful 15 years ago, and part of the reason this one will also hopefully be successful, is that this is entertainment first. A lot of the branded content out there is still pitching you. Here, we also have a real cool product that allows itself to be put in the kind of entertainment format that people gravitate toward. These are action films. And we have these badass cars to play with. In a lot of ways, they made it easy. This is one of the best projects out there and I was incredibly grateful to be able to do it again.

BMW Films’ trajectory as both a cultural influencer and marketing disrupter is the result of a coordinated effort between BMW of North America and headquarters in Munich, Germany. Trudy Hardy, BMW of North America Brand Strategy and Communication Manager, Manuel Sattig, and BMW Group Marketing Director, Uwe Dreher, provide some final insights about the work:

Hardy: This needed to be a global initiative, and we had to work closely with our counterparts in Munich. We knew it was important for this partnership to start on day one. So we flew David, Bruce and Brian to Munich, had dinner with Uwe Dreher and got the buy-in, right at the team level. Then we all went through scriptwriting, the director and casting. It really was all about mutual cooperation. When it came to production, post-production and the editing process, they were with us every step of the way. Their job was also to make sure that the rest of our global markets were informed. We were taking care of US-specific initiatives while they were helping us amplify the message to the rest of our other big markets across the world.

Manuel Sattig: While making the film, we felt we were on to something really big! The decision by Woodcliff Lake and Munich to add some of the most accomplished professionals out there to the original creative team created the perfect dynamic. It turned The Escape into a true contemporary member of the series.

Uwe Dreher: The Escape is both a homage to the original films, and a concentrated effort to look ahead. Branded, entertaining content is of high interest to us and will stay relevant to BMW in the future. It sharpens BMW’s dynamic and innovative brand perception. We are always searching for marketing innovations and the entertainment industry provides a lot of opportunities for promising partnerships. BMW and action environments seem to be a natural fit, for example. The Escape again delivers unique storytelling—in this case, a piece of science fiction narrative that was ideal for us because BMW always challenges the status quo—and great acting, plus breathtaking action and driving shots. Most of the crew was involved in the first films, 15 years ago. So, everyone enjoyed revisiting the project. The atmosphere during the shoot was truly magical.

Jon Bernthal and Dakota Fanning from a scene inside Molecular Genetics, a shadowy biotech company in The Escape.