What's the most well-executed automotive ad campaign you can think of? DDB's quirky Volkswagen ads from the 1960s? The clever Honda commercials from the 80s and 90s? The awe-inspiring "Imported from Detroit"? Those are phenomenal. But I would argue no one has ever matched the BMW Films from the early 2000s.
Twelve years after they hit the web, the short film serials called The Hire have no rival. Other companies have tried to copy what they did, but no one has come even close to succeeding.
Not only are the movies still great to watch, in hindsight we realize just how ahead of the game they were in terms of online advertising. The Hire is the kind of campaign car companies would kill for in 2013; in 2001, it was practically unheard of.
The backstory behind the campaign goes something like this, according to ad blog This Is Not Advertising: in the late 1990s BMW noticed their profits were sliding a bit and decided to start targeting internet-savvy customers, a very forward-thinking move at the time. They asked their longtime parter Fallon Worldwide to come up with a campaign that was more than just pretty BMWs sweeping through the countryside like in the magazine and TV ads, something with a James Bond-esque hero who uses BMWs in a variety of different situations.
But what made the BMW Films so brilliant was their execution, and most importantly, the people involved. Fallon enlisted Fight Club director David Fincher and his production company to oversee the project, and Fincher roped in some of the most gifted directors and actors in Hollywood to join in. Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, John Woo, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie, Don Cheadle, James Brown and Gary Oldman were just a few of the brilliant people who took part in the project.
The premise they came up with was simple enough: English actor Clive Owen plays the Driver, an anonymous but highly-skilled professional wheelman whose work is profiled in a series of eight unconnected vignettes over two seasons.
In each film, he is hired to do a different job, but his ride of choice is always a BMW of some sort. Each one is only six or seven minutes long. The tone and story in each depends on who directed it; some are dark and disturbing, and some are downright hilarious. and others are heartbreaking.
BMW put up the money to do it right as well. As the ad blog notes, the seven films cost a combined total of $25 million to produce. The acting, directing, camera work, special effects and stunt driving are all first rate.
Anonymous Content chairman Steve Golin told Shoot, ‘‘The good news is that these weren’t commercials. We had very few restrictions. The budgets were equivalent to [those of] high-end commercials.’’
Much of the credit should also go to Owen, who nailed his role perfectly. His Driver is a classic cipher in that Clint Eastwood western flick/masterless samurai mold. Though he stars in each of the films, we never even learn his name. He's quiet and keeps to himself, and even though his job forces him to deal with some extremely shady people, he adheres closely to his own code of ethics.
At one point he alludes to being divorced or a widower, but that's about all we ever glean about his personal life. All we know is that he's cool, he's resourceful, he's got a sardonic wit, he seems to enjoy his job, he's extremely gifted behind the wheel, and he has a preference for BMWs.
The first film debuted on the sadly now-defunct BMW Films website in April 2001. They advertised the site in movie trailers and on TV, and it was an instant hit right away. New films were released every few weeks to overwhelming web traffic, and after some 11 million views in 2001 alone, a second season was authorized for 2002. These three films were produced by the Scott brothers and starred the then-new (and radically styled) BMW Z4 roadster.
All of the films are great, but a few really stand out in my mind.
If you're going to discuss The Hire, you have to start with "Ambush." The Driver gets hired to transport an elderly gentleman, but their ride gets hijacked by machine gun-wielding thugs in a van who demand the $2 million in stolen diamonds that the man claims to have swallowed. Initially reluctant to get shot over his client's treasure, the Driver realizes the man will be killed if he surrenders, so he hits the gas on his 740i and it's go time.
This one features a superb and desperate car chase — as well it should, since it was directed by John Frankenheimer of Grand Prix and Ronin fame — and it does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the series.
Another one that I really like is "The Follow." Here, the Driver gets hired by the manager (Forest Whitaker) of a jealous actor (Mickey Rourke) to tail the actor's wife.
Though she briefly proves to be nearly as good at evading in her Z3 as the Driver is at following in his 330i coupe, there's not too much in the way of vehicular antics in this tale directed by Wong Kar-wai. But when the Driver realizes that the woman is trying to escape her abusive husband, he gives the money back, calls off the job and tells the manager never to contact him again. He may be a hired gun, but he's not without honor.
What makes this one so great is how well it stands on its own as a short film. It doesn't need a bevy of action scenes to tell a satisfying story. It keeps the narrative minimal, and it succeeds wonderfully.
The next one is my personal favorite, and arguably the one that's the most well remembered today — "Star." The Driver gets roped into taking a shrill, spoiled singer played by Madonna (who, let's face it, is probably playing herself) to a concert venue.
But what she doesn't know is that her long-suffering manager has decided to teach her some humility, and has decided that the Driver and his E39 M5 are the ones to do it. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Directed by British gangster film king Guy Ritchie, who at the time was Madonna's husband, "Star" features phenomenal stunt driving that has to be seen to be believed. It's also probably the best use of Blur's "Song 2" ever committed to film. I must have watched this hundreds of times when it came out. It's the funniest of the BMW films, and the one that could get anyone hooked on them.
The other biggest standout to me is, sadly, the final BMW film, "Beat the Devil." It's got the most ludicrous premise of all — the late great James Brown reveals that decades ago, he made a deal with the devil to gain the talents that made him the Godfather of Soul.
But now that he's getting older and his physical abilities are fading, he feels like the deal is no longer valid, so he pitches a wager with the devil: a drag race on the Las Vegas Strip, the Driver's Z4 against the devil's souped-up Trans-Am.
(Now, if I had to drag race the devil, I gotta say the Z4 wouldn't be my go-to. I think an M-Anything would be a safer bet for that. Just sayin'.)
This one has everything. Gary Oldman chews the scenery as the Prince of Darkness, James Brown is his amazing self, and Marilyn Manson makes a cameo at the end. It's also directed by the dearly-departed Tony Scott, whose brilliance can never be duplicated. It's absurdly over the top, and it leaves you with a smile as big as the Driver's when he pulls away wondering what the hell he's just seen.
Needless to say, The Hire campaign was a smash success for BMW. The DVDs were, and still are, highly sought after by fans. They continue to proliferate on YouTube and other streaming sites, introducing a new generation of viewers to the Driver's sliding M5 antics. The films also helped turn Clive Owen into an international star; when he started, he was mostly known only by British audiences, but now he's always on the short list of actors who should be the next James Bond.
The campaign may have been expensive for BMW, but it paid off in huge ways. This Is Not Advertising says that The Hire won a slew of awards in both the advertising and film festival worlds.
They are credited with aiding a boom in BMW sales, which jumped 12.5 percent from 2000 to 2001 and then 17.2 percent from 2001 to 2002. They originally wanted 2 million viewers, but to date, it's estimated that more than 100 million people have seen them.
What made these so successful? Because they were good movies first and commercials second, that's why. The BMW Films were a hit not because of the cars, but because the people involved produced them as great, high-quality short films that just happened to have cars in them. They don't really feel like BMW ads all that much. There's no cheesy voiceover talking about the specs on the Z4 or what have you.
But the cars, and their impressive performance, are still central to the action. The Driver can't just roll in anything — he needs a particular kind of car, something that can handle what he does for a living. They films are very satisfying, but if you're in the market for a luxury vehicle, they also pique your curiosity about what BMW has to offer. Can anyone watch "Star" and not want an E39 M5? As the website Reel SEO notes, ads can be great on their own but not effective at selling products; everyone loves VW's Darth Vader ad, but it didn't do much for Passat sales.
The Hire spawned a slew of imitators, including Nissan's The Run short starring the 350Z and Audi's online miniseries starring Justin Timberlake and the A1. Needless to say, none were as good. The films also pioneered how car companies reach out to buyers online.
Sadly, BMW pulled The Hire off their website in 2005, and the BMWFilms.com domain is no longer around. The videos continue to survive online and the DVDs are still out there as well.
Is it wrong to hope that they'll bring The Hire back someday, perhaps with an updated group of actors and directors? Maybe even a new Driver, perhaps, although I think Owen's character would have been able to do some real damage in an E92 M3. I would love to see them bring the concept back, just as long as it is as strongly-executed as it was a dozen years ago.
If you make ads this good, people won't want to skip through them.