This story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Look to the Iron Man 3 premiere outside the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood in April. There's Robert Downey Jr. pulling up in a 2014 R8 Spyder he drove himself. Over there, it's Gwyneth Paltrow arriving in an A8L TDI clean diesel as are castmates Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce. There's Ben Kingsley pulling up in a A8L, Hayley Atwell arriving in a Q7 TDI and Chris Evans, Jon Favreau and Zachary Levi all in A8Ls. Audi had more than 40 chauffeur-driven cars on hand at the premiere, all part of its plan to take over Hollywood, or at least its driveways.
Look at the parking queue for any recent high-profile Hollywood event -- the Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar viewing party, the Women in Film pre-Emmys and Oscars receptions, the Chrysalis Butterfly Ball, an Art of Elysium Golden Globes event, the Motion Picture & TV Fund's Reel Stories, Real Lives fundraiser and the brand's own Golden Globes and Emmy preparties -- and you'll see an armada of Audi sedans and SUVs, drivers idling, waiting to whisk away Diane Keaton, Elizabeth Banks, Jessica Chastain, Michael Sheen, Joel McHale, Keira Knightley, Damian Lewis, Dustin Lance Black, Josh Lucas and Brian Grazer.
Audi has waged a full-frontal attack on the hearts, minds and wallets of Hollywood since 2006, displacing BMW and Mercedes-Benz as the Hollywood car du jour with a savvy combination of sponsorships, product placements and an expensive-to-maintain fleet of 35 VIP and 30 chauffeur-driven vehicles in Los Angeles and New York that, according to Audi, directly increase sales. "The entertainment community influences audiences around the world," says Audi of America president Scott Keogh via e-mail. "You can feel it when you speak to customers and dealers. They cite movies, TV shows and events that we have been involved with. It puts Audi in the conversation."
Audi's understated, form-follows-function designs also sync perfectly with Hollywood's post-recession aversion to unvarnished bling. "I wanted something that wasn't gaudy but comfortable and elegant," says Mauricio Umansky, CEO of high-end real estate firm The Agency. Adds Elektra Records president Jeff Castelaz, who drives an S5: "Audi has done an incredible job building rocket-fast cars that don't look ostentatious or lame. A friend who plays guitar in an arena rock band drives an A7. It looks tame, but when you get inside the car, it's like the cockpit of the space shuttle. But he can park it in Silver Lake and not look like the punch line of a joke on Entourage." Says Criminal Minds actor Shemar Moore, "When Iron Man came out and I saw the R8, I lost my mind. I said if and when CBS gives me a raise, I'm going to get one." Moore turned 40 and gave himself the car as a birthday present.
Other car companies reach out to the industry -- BMW, Ford and GM among them -- but Audi has been relentless. A beachhead was established during the 2009 awards season when Audi launched its first "influencer" program, designed to get Hollywood engaged with the brand and behind the wheel. Audi put in place an armada of 90 white Q7 TDI diesel SUVs to roam the streets of Los Angeles and New York and hosted a series of dinners and events in L.A., NYC and Aspen, where the chauffeur-driven vehicles ferried McHale, Zoe Saldana, Orlando Bloom, Lyor Cohen, Tory Burch, Diane von Furstenberg and Zac Efron.
Audi also created a loan program with the goal of reaching industry executives and celebrities. An industry source says some loans lasted a year or more. "They threw cars at pretty much anybody they deemed influential, oftentimes asking nothing explicit in return. They knew they needed to get people in their cars, people who hadn't driven an Audi. It was a really smart move. It was effective. People would walk away going, 'Oh my gosh. That is a really nice car.' "
Says Michael Patrick, Audi's manager of media and entertainment: "We look at a lot of different metrics and see a direct increase in sales from the loaner program by turning that dialogue into a test drive and that turning into a sale. It's also a great way to build word-of-mouth."
The push in Hollywood seems to be working. According to Loren Angelo, director of marketing at Audi of America, the brand went from selling 80,000 vehicles in 2008 to 139,000 last year and just completed its 28th consecutive month of sales increases. Through May, Audi sales in L.A. year-to-date stood at 5,205, up 20 percent from 2012.
Audi's Hollywood assault -- which no other automaker comes close to replicating in terms of size or commitment -- comes at a price. Audi often partly underwrites the cost of the events that showcase it cars. A leading Hollywood events planner says the pre-Golden Globes party thrown by and paid for by Audi each year at Cecconi's can cost upward of $200,000. (Audi also has sponsored events for The Hollywood Reporter.) According to the same events planner, Audi spends an estimated minimum of nearly $3 million a year on sponsorship fees: $150,000 for the AFI Film Fest, $75,000 on BAFTA tea events during Globe and Emmy weekends, $200,000 for John's Oscar party and about $25,000 for a Geffen Playhouse season sponsorship, to name a few. (Asked to comment, Patrick replied, "Audi does not disclose any financial figures for our national or regional programs.")
Audi has been just as aggressive in getting its cars into movies. Audi's placement in Iron Man 3 -- Downey's Tony Stark drives a custom Audi R8 e-tron and an A8L -- is typical. "While we didn't like seeing our cars destroyed, the last image of our car was Tony Stark getting a new car," says Arden Doss, CEO of Iconic Entertainment, which handles Audi's product placement.
The point of all of this marketing is as calculated as Iron Man's character arc: selling lots of cars. Last year, Audi announced it will spend $17 billion updating its vehicle lineup and manufacturing facilities and that it intends to become the world's leading luxury automaker by 2020. That's a lot of pipe to fill with product, and Audi will continue to look to Hollywood to help fill it.
"Look at what we did for The King's Speech," says Patrick. Audi hosted an event honoring the cast at the Chateau Marmont, sponsored the Oscar-night celebration, supported the film with a car-service program and helped to underwrite an Academy Awards campaign. "We couldn't have done that," he says, "without the trust and brand loyalty we've built in the industry."
SEDAN DU JOUR
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COUPE DE GRACE
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