How Hollywood Sells the Electric Car

 

I used to be General Motors' worst enemy," boasts documentary filmmaker Chris Paine, and he has a crisis-management paper leaked from within the company to prove it. His 2006 movie posed a question: Who Killed the Electric Car? At the time, the answer was GM.

But that was five years ago and things change, especially if a cataclysmic recession comes along, altering the rules of the game and the attitudes of its players. Paine's new movie, Revenge of the Electric Car, which will have its European premiere at the Deauville American Film Festival the first week in September (and then be released theatrically in the U.S. on Oct. 21), recounts the bumpy journey of four men -- one private mechanic and three top car executives -- to bring sexy electric vehicles to market. But because the film takes place at a time of economic turmoil -- when Hollywood felt the loss of car-ad dollars and $4-plus a gallon gas prices undermined the SUV -- it also reveals a rarely discussed topic: the delicate dance between Hollywood and Detroit.

The Motor City has never just sold machines. It has sold a fantasy -- of power and glamour and personal freedom. Paine calls this "the myth of the American car." For nearly a century, Hollywood has worked with Detroit to build this myth, making stars of vehicles ranging from the Ford Mustang (Bullitt) to the Pontiac Firebird (Knight Rider). Now that American automakers have done an about-face on electric cars, with GM's Volt named Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year and the Ford Focus Electric on its way to market, Hollywood's role as a tastemaker will be in the spotlight.

Certainly, celebrities in the past have plumped for electric mobility: In 2001, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz bought the Toyota Prius, they helped kick off the hybrid boom; less successfully, Ed Begley Jr. and Danny DeVito championed the all-electric cars that were the subject of Paine's first movie. Still, the entertainment industry realizes one wrong step puts at risk the money it gets for showcasing the automotive fantasy. This summer's Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a love letter to the gas-powered car -- a yellow Camaro that doubles as the autobot Bumblebee.

Automakers typically pay for placement by committing money toward advertising. Experts say that companies spend as much as $10 million on these campaigns -- and it can be more. GM ran an ad featuring Transformers that aired during the Super Bowl -- a 30-second spot that most likely cost $3 million.

In the past decade, plug-in cars have not been portrayed in any consistent way. They have been both ridiculed (last fall, GLAAD pressed Universal to remove the sneer "Electric cars are so gay" from the trailer for Ron Howard's The Dilemma) and idealized (Iron Man's heroic Tony Stark owns a sleek battery-powered Tesla Roadster).

But the tide seems to be turning. Pixar's Cars 2, released in June, raised the subversive prospect that big oil might have conspired to discredit alternative energy sources. Also that month, Americans voted strongly for fuel economy: The gas-powered Chevrolet Cruze -- which boasts 42 highway MPG -- became the country's best-selling car, beating out such imported fuel-sippers as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. 

Paine's new movie is part of this trend. When it screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, it didn't just attract the environmentalists who loved his first film. "We saw a lot more people who just like cars," he says.

This didn't surprise him, because the change in public opinion -- and the way that change has affected Detroit and Hollywood -- is the precise subject of his movie. It's a process he has watched and shaped. Although he has friends in Hollywood -- the 50-year-old Culver City resident has worked as an assistant to writer-director Michael Tolkin on The Rapture and The Player -- he says he is not "of Hollywood." His documentaries are low-budget independent features. This makes him as much an observer of the entertainment industry as he is of the car business.

Two of the CEOs he profiles in Revenge seem obvious choices: Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Motor Co., who risked $5 billion to mass-produce the all-electric Leaf, and Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, whose high-performance Roadster proves "electric" does not mean "golf cart."

But the third choice is a shocker: Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of GM -- also known as "Mr. Horsepower" -- the archvillain of Paine's 2006 film, who habitually chews on fat cigars and calls climate change "a crock." Yet between 2008 and 2010 -- possibly in response to the "tons of hate mail" he describes receiving from viewers of Who Killed? -- Lutz spearheaded production of the Volt, a 149-horsepower, luxuriously appointed, extended-range plug-in hybrid.

Recessions make strange bedfellows. At first, Paine distrusted GM's invitation to film its development of the Volt. "I started with a strong adversarial stance, the idea that we were going behind enemy lines," he says. But in fall 2008, when the U.S. car industry foundered, Paine had to rethink his concept of the "enemy." As car-ad budgets shrank, Hollywood itself took a hit, pointing up the deep-rooted symbiosis between the entertainment industry and the auto business.

"I saw dozens of my friends lose their jobs in the industry -- writers, directors, prop masters, set designers," Paine recalls. When Detroit's Big Three went to Congress for a bailout, they argued that their demise would result in the destruction of millions of jobs. "But it wasn't just auto workers or car dealers or Pep Boys who were affected, it was us."

The pullback was measurable. Automotive News reported that in 2009, the biggest automakers in the U.S. market spent 23 percent less on measured media advertising than they had the previous year. The drop accompanied a 21 percent plummet in car sales, which reached their lowest level since 1982. "Measured media" includes print, but the largest sums have historically gone toward commercials and product placement on television shows and in movies. The numbers were big: In 2009, the nine top carmakers -- GM, Ford, Toyota, Chrysler, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Daimler -- spent $8.58 billion on all advertising, down from $11.18 billion the previous year. (2010 showed an amazing recovery, with automotive ad spending hitting $14.3 billion.)

These figures reflect national media spending, not the money individual car dealers paid to advertise in their local markets. But these dollars also dried up, especially at Chrysler and GM, which declared bankruptcy and were forced to shutter numerous dealerships as a condition of their restructuring.

"Television suffered when the automakers had to pull back because they represent a huge percentage of overall TV advertising," says David Kiley, the editor-in-chief of AOL Autos who has covered the car industry for more than 20 years. But because product placement is as much an art as a science, it's difficult to attach a number to the pain. Advertisers don't pay a fixed fee for specific ratings points. Nor are desirable demographics a mere matter of age, with twentysomethings leading the pack. "The ideal demographic for luxury brands is older, people in their 50s or beyond who have money to spend," says Simon Sproule, Nissan's corporate vp for global marketing communications. Sponsors also will pay more for what Kiley calls "quality" -- award-winning, critically acclaimed shows that attract an educated, high-income audience.

In 2005, The West Wing was such a show, and GM was a sponsor. Through his friendship with Allison Janney, a castmember, Paine got an insider's peek at what he terms the "apex of the SUV generation." After ordering Paine to "behave," Janney let him escort her to GM's annual Oscar party -- a glittering circus of Hummers, Escalades and their celebrity occupants. Agog, he stayed until 1 a.m., when he drove to Burbank for an event he had been filming earlier for Who Killed?  Outside GM's regional headquarters, protesters staged a round-the-clock vigil to prevent 78 specimens of GM's first electric car, the EV1, from being crushed. They still had hope; their efforts had not yet proved futile. "I brought them a party balloon and a leftover chocolate strawberry," Paine recalls, "and told them about the Hummer on the stage," which had then seemed invincible.

Three years later, though, the party was truly over (and the EV1 crushed). Gas prices soared. SUV sales plummeted. GM scrapped its 12 mpg Hummer brand during its bankruptcy reorganization. It canceled its Oscar bash. Suddenly, Paine and GM were on the same side -- which also happened to be the side of Nissan and Tesla.

 

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