David Fincher, Tony Scott, John Woo and more: the BMW mini-cinematic universe

BMW Beat The Devil
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Under the eye initially of David Fincher, the story of BMW’s James Bond-inspired advertising campaign, The Driver.


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In 2001, BMW started a unique advertising campaign for its latest range of cars. What no one expected was a kind of cinematic universe, before the term became regularly used, involving some of the biggest Hollywood directors and acting talent. The full campaign consisted of nine short films split across three seasons. The productions ran for approximately ten minutes each with the majority released within the first two years. 

The story began when BMW asked its advertising agency, Fallon Minneapolis, to come up with something original. The usual advertising media of flashy cars speeding along mountainside roads was a little stale and BMW had seen its yearly revenue start to drop.

After some initial research, it discovered that the target audience of potential BMW customers were middle age males with an average income of $150,000. Two thirds of those were single with no children but the most important statistic was that 86% of them were using the internet to research their BMW purchases. The decision was made to go where the customers were: online. In 2001, this was not the obvious plan that is might seem now.

Fallon Minneapolis’s idea was to create a James Bond style of hero. The original plan was to create a film approximately one hour long of our hero’s adventure involving a range of BMW’s cars. This story would then be broken down into roughly ten-minute segments in order to serialise and place it online. The campaign would be known as The Hire.

Director David Fincher and his production company Anonymous Content were brought onboard to help oversee the project and direct the film. Fincher decided the campaign would work better as a series of short separate films directed by high profile directors. He suggested some big names to work both behind and in front of the camera. The one constant narrative across the films would be to have a protagonist, who is simply known asThe Driver’ (perhaps a slight nod to the Walter Hill movie of the same name), to appear in all the stories. The role would be taken by actor Clive Owen.

As you’ll see, big names joined the campaign and one of the caveats that very likely attracted them was that they were all free to film their allotted script however they saw fit. A freedom that doesn’t happen very often in Hollywood unless you’re at the top of the directing tree.

It’s estimated the cost for the first five films came in at around $15 million. The advertising budget was flipped on its head from its typical usage and the majority of the money went towards the production costs of the film rather than the media created to promote awareness of the campaign. This was considered a huge gamble which would most likely go to either extreme, failure or success with no middle ground.

The Hire would initially be released online. In developing for the small screen format, the team discovered that certain cinematography styles such as wide shots were best avoided. The smaller details would be lost on the lower resolution computer monitors of the day.

The stories

So, what did BMW get for its initial $15m outlay? Here’s brief synopsis of the first five films of The Hire and the talent involved.

The first film to be released was Ambush directed by John Frankenheimer (Ronin) in one of his last projects before his passing. The Driver has to save the life of an elderly man who is trying to courier a consignment of diamonds.

Chosen told the tale of an Asian holy child who has been brought to America by boat. The Driver has to safely deliver him to a group of Monks and avoid armed mercenaries in a film directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

The Follow has The Driver being asked to spy on a paranoid actor’s wife by his manager. Directed by Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love) and stars Forest Whitaker, Mickey Rourke, and Adriana Lima.

In The Star, The Driver is hired to take the world’s biggest pop superstar from one venue to the next. However, the star in question has no idea of the ride she is about to get. Directed by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels), who else could play the pop superstar but his then wife, Madonna.

The fifth and final film was Powder Keg directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman). The Driver has been assigned by the UN to rescue war photographer Harvey Jacobs, played by Stellan Skarsgård, and rescue him from hostile territory.

Released over a short period of time, the films were available to download from the now long defunct website BMWFilms.com starting April 2001 with Ambush.

The films were advertised in the manner of feature length Hollywood productions. Print media carried full page posters, short trailers were run on television and during the run up, the advertising team even “leaked” production details of directors and actors to Hollywood mainstream press to gain awareness.

Unexpected success

BMW never expected the initial response it got. After the first five films were made available online, they were viewed more that eleven million times. Two million users registered on the site with almost all of those people sharing the films with others, helping the advertising campaign to go viral.

These videos were not streamed in high definition either (although a fan has remastered them all on YouTube), and YouTube wouldn’t be launched for another four years. High speed internet was considered having a 56.6k dial-up modem. Compared to today’s average broadband speed that’s almost 900 times slower – it was barely possible to stream watchable video let alone anything that was in standard definition.

Instead, you would have to spend a few hours downloading a set of files from BMW which turned out to be a complete video playing package. Most of these videos also came with something you would never expect from such a polished piece of marketing material – that’s because some of the directors also provided audio commentary.

BMW decided to release The Hire as a free DVD which could be obtained by visiting certain BMW dealerships. Unsurprisingly, they were in high demand.

There was a slight hiccup, though, as this DVD included Wong Kar-wai’s The Follow which featured Forrest Whitaker – who agreed to appear in the film as long as it remained internet exclusive. Therefore, when BMW teamed up with Vanity Fair to release the DVD free on the cover of the magazine, The Follow was removed and instead the viewer was given a link on where to download the film for themselves. Despite this, the magazine was sought after by film and car enthusiasts and sold out very quickly.

BMW Films Hostage


With The Hire proving to be a big success, BMW quickly moved onto the second season. Unfortunately, David Fincher became too busy with his next film Panic Room. The baton was passed to Ridley Scott. Scott brought in another set of great talent for season two, which consisted of just three films.

In Hostage, The Driver is hired by the FBI to try and help dissolve a hostage situation. This entry was directed by John Woo (Mission: Impossible 2).

In Ticker, the title is a clue to the contents of a mysterious briefcase that someone is urgently trying to deliver. The Driver steps in to help and when the case is shot and starts leaking a mysterious grey fluid, the owner starts counting down and the race against time begins.

Ticker was written and directed by Joe Carnahan (Copshop) and starred Don Cheadle and F. Murray Abraham. To further bolster the big names, there were also cameos by Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick, Clifton Powell and Dennis Haysbert.

In the final film of season 2, The Driver is escorting James Brown as he goes to meet the Devil himself in an old Las Vegas hotel. James wants to renegotiate his contract for another 50 years of fame and fortune which will culminate in a race on the Las Vegas strip. Directed by Tony Scott, this film features James Brown, Gary Oldman and Danny Trejo with a cameo from the singer Marilyn Manson.

For the second time, the films were a huge success for BMW. By 2003, The Hire had been viewed over 45 million times and their sales for the 2001/02 period had risen by 17.2%.

BMW released a third and final DVD in 2003 which included all the films in the series and also included bonus behind the scenes material and audio commentaries.

The Hire even reached the comic world, with a six-part original story featuring The Driver being created and published by Dark Horse Comics. Sadly, it was cancelled after the release of issue four.

BMW Films The Follow

The Follow

Then in October 2005, The Hire campaign was swept away. BMW removed all the films from its website and ceased to distribute any more DVDs. It is thought that the advertising campaign was too expensive to continue with an estimated cost of $25 million for everything so far. BMW parted ways with the advertising agency Fallon Minneapolis but this wasn’t quite the end.

The Hire was resurrected in 2016 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the series. Clive Owen returned to play The Driver in a story entitled The Escape. After the disappearance of a geneticist, his work at the laboratory, involving human cloning, is exposed and the facility is raided by the FBI. The Driver is hired to transport one of those clones across the country.

The Escape was written and directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and starred Jon Bernthal, Dakota Fanning, and Vera Farmiga. It seems that BMWFilms.com was resurrected for this release and it was the only film created for this third and final season. It didn’t see a physical release either.

Blomkamp told The Hollywood Reporter, “when I was in film school, these films were really ground-breaking. They seemed like the perfect halfway point between commercials and features.

If you want to experience The Hire for yourselves, the DVD is widely available from places such as eBay but be warned, this disc was produced cheaply and is non anamorphic. This means the video hasn’t been enhanced for widescreen televisions and as such will appear to play in a box in the middle of the screen, unless you’re still rocking an old square television.

Alternatively, they’re easily accessible on YouTube….

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