Hollywood and the Electric Car

Illustration: Joe Zeff

For years, money created a co-dependence between the entertainment and automotive industries that helped promote gas-guzzling. Now, filmmaker Chris Paine documents how both sides are trying to make the plug-in car as hot as they once made the Hummer.

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.


GM and Nissan released the Volt and the Leaf last January -- slowly at first, in a handful of high-density markets with limited availability. They promoted the cars to early adopters through social media. And much of their best hype came free: Motor Trend, for instance.  "A car of the future that you can drive today," it said of the Volt.  It all appears to be working, Shad Balch, a GM spokesperson on environmental and economic affairs, says: "We have sold every Volt that we built."  Initially, GM planned to make 10,000 Volts in the 2011 model year, but it recently decided to increase that by 4,000.  A quarter of those sold have gone to Southern California.

Now, as the number of available cars increase, so will their visibility.  Product placement for the Leaf will be part of the second phase of its release, when more cars are available," Sproule says. "It will include not only movies and television but also video games -- whose demographics are skewing older. The Atari generation has grown up."

And the Tesla Roadster has made many recent TV and film appearances thanks to entertainment insiders who admire it. With a price of $110,000, the Roadster is not for everybody. Its share of the total market -- with about 1,700 cars sold -- would be a "rounding error at GM," jokes Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning car columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Yet Hollywood has used the car to show that wealth and social responsibility need not be incompatible. In late 2008, when average citizens began to learn the extent of Wall Street's misdeeds, TNT launched a new television series: Leverage, about a team of latter-day Robin Hoods who exact revenge on  unprincipled fat cats. The team's leader, played by Timothy Hutton, drives a Tesla.

Dean Devlin, who created the show, owns a Tesla and is a friend of Paine. They both put down deposits on the cars after Paine finished Who Killed?  "Dean dared me to," Paine says. "He told me, 'We made the movie; let's walk the walk.' " (As with the Tesla, Paine paid full retail for his Volt, selling his non-plug-in Prius to help pay for it. He plans to trade his third car -- a 2002 Toyota Rav4 EV -- for a $32,780 Leaf.)

In director Jon Favreau's Iron Man movies, humanitarian-industrialist Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., has values similar to those of Hutton in Leverage. He also has a Tesla -- though because Audi was a sponsor of the movie, he is shown behind the wheel of an under-20 mpg Audi R8 5.2 Spyder. Unlike Devlin, Favreau is not a Tesla owner, but this hasn't stopped him from promoting the car. He invited Tesla CEO Musk to portray himself at a fancy party in Iron Man 2.

Coda Automotive, a new electric vehicle manufacturer, will open its first store this month in Century City. "We chose the location due to its proximity to Hollywood influencers -- entertainment industry execs, celebrities, writers, directors, etc. -- who have the means and interest to promote new transportation modes," says Coda spokesperson Larkin Hill.

Celebrity endorsements can, of course, boomerang. "There is a lot of pushback in the heartland against celebrities doing things to pump up electric mobility," Neil says. "These cars can be expensive and very elitist. You don't see electric pickup trucks. Many people despise the Prius as the official car of limousine liberals."

The pushback is not confined to middle America. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker lampooned the Prius in an episode in which dozens of the cars were crushed -- to ward off an epidemic of smugness. The Prius also has figured in Showtime's Weeds. The show's lead character, played by Mary-Louise Parker, consorts with drug lords, but she can still feel good about herself because she drives a Prius.


In this ongoing dance between Detroit and Hollywood, one cannot always tell who leads and who follows. Harley Earl, GM's legendary car designer who invented both the look of streamline and the idea of "dynamic obsolescence," grew up in Hollywood. But Detroit stole him away -- then shipped his creations back to be featured in movies and on television. Since the 1980s, both Japan and Detroit have maintained design studios in Southern California, recognizing the region's importance in gauging and shaping popular taste.

There's nothing new about automotive product placement, either. In 1920, producer-actress Nell Shipman pioneered the integration of a car into a movie, a silent Western with the apt title Something New. Through terrain that would challenge a modern SUV, the cowboy hero and his gal escape desperados on horseback in a Maxwell sedan. And even before cars made it into movies, automakers commissioned songs to plug their wares. "At the turn of the century, the parlor piano was the TV set," says Arthur Einstein, a marketing communications consultant and former president of Lord Einstein O'Neill. People would gather round and sing what were essentially jingles, such as Edwards and Bryan's 1905 classic "In My Merry Oldsmobile."

As television evolved, so too did product placement. From 1960 to 1964, CBS broadcast Route 66, a hit show about two men and a Corvette. By the 1970s and early '80s, the cars on some shows had become as important as the human actors. The Dukes of Hazzard was as much about the General Lee -- a 1969 Dodge Charger -- as any of its people. Likewise, the gold Pontiac Firebird Esprit that James Garner drove in The Rockford Files was more a sidekick than a car.

The new iteration of '70s show Hawaii Five-0 revives the era's clever product placement. In the old version, lead detective Steve McGarrett, played by Jack Lord, drove a variety of Mercury cop cars. In the new one, sponsored by Chevrolet, McGarrett drives a Silverado pickup. And in a recent episode, the Five-0 team caught a bad guy through the OnStar system in a Chevy Malibu. This tight integration of GM products is far from accidental. Before committing to the show, "We sat down with the writers to figure out what the characters were all about and what vehicles suited them," says Istvan Tihanyi, GM's general director of marketing alliances, services and branded entertainment. 

This kind of marketing can be tricky. "Product placement works best when it meshes with the script -- when, for example, some aspect of the car is essential to the plot," explains Jason Vines, a senior vp at PR firm Fleishman-Hillard and an auto-industry communications veteran. (The integration of the Camaro in Dark of the Moon is a perfect example of seamlessness. ) "If the product sticks out -- if people notice it for the wrong reasons -- the placement won't work." GLAAD drew national attention to the offensive line from The Dilemma, but to people with impaired vision, another aspect of the film also might be offensive. It pokes fun at a problem Nissan took seriously: the danger that silent electric cars pose to sightless pedestrians. In consultation with medical advisers and advocacy groups, Nissan created a whirring noise for its Leaf that has a movie precedent -- the drone emitted by the cars in Woody Allen's 1973 movie Sleeper. (Nissan has not acknowledged the similarity, but YouTube posters have had a field day juxtaposing clips of the vehicles.)


To make inroads in the heartland, Neil says, electric cars need an anti-celebrity pitchman: "Mike Rowe, for instance, the down-to-earth host of cable's Dirty Jobs. Rowe has been a longtime spokesman for Ford, and if he drove a Fusion Hybrid or a Hybrid Eclipse, the cars might achieve market penetration."

The best pitchmen, though, might be the carmaking subjects of Paine's movie -- they exude a selling masculinity. They are bold men who court risk -- some more theatrically than others. Musk exposes the most of himself -- opening his home to Paine and discussing his untidy recent divorce. "Musk seems more comfortable with risk than the people around him," Paine says. Ghosn, in contrast, deflects attention from himself and focuses it on Nissan. "The title isn't Revenge of Carlos Ghosn," he dryly observes.

But in GM's Lutz, Paine seems to have found his Red State alter-ego -- committed to what Paine calls the "re-sexification of the American car" and equipped with the salesmanship to achieve this. "He could charm the skin off a snake," Neil says.

Lutz has written a book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, timed to coincide with the film. In it, he explores the myth of the American car and situates the electric car within that myth -- not because the car is green but because it is patriotic. "Our energy supply is in the hands of a few unstable people who don't like us," he says. The electric car "can free us."