How the Oscars and Hollywood Turned Their Backs on Green Cars

2012-08 STY Cars Lede Illustration H
Illustration: Peter Arkle

When a group of stars took Toyota Priuses to the Academy Awards in 2003, it made hybrids hot, but now with a scarcity of both sexy styles and industry support, carmakers are attempting to recharge interest in environmental autos.

Nearly a decade after a cavalcade of Toyota Priuses first pulled up to the red carpet, a scarcity of both sexy styles and industry support have carmakers trying to recharge interest in environmental autos.

This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you've got a ticket to the Oscars and you're a Hollywood luminary who wants to make a statement about the environment, give Dave Barthmuss at General Motors a ring.

The veteran GM communications manager says the company is counting on Hollywood to be "early adopters and make it cool to drive an electric car." So he's offering rides to the Feb. 26 awards show in Chevrolet's plug-in hybrid Volt. And with slower-than-expected sales for the Volt, Nissan Leaf and other green cars, manufacturers could use all the help from the town it can muster. "If you want to encourage people across the country to get into these things there is no better time to make a statement than now," says Barthmuss.

There is, of course, a precedent for such efforts. Nearly a decade ago, the Toyota Prius had its Hollywood coming-out party at the Academy Awards, snagging the sort of press that carmakers -- especially those releasing cutting-edge (and expensive) green vehicles -- covet.

At the 2003 show, about a half-dozen stars including Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart arrived at the Kodak Theatre in Priuses provided by Toyota Motor Corp. and a local dealership. It was the perfect photo-op: Amid a sea of hulking black Lincoln Town Cars, the compact gas-electric hybrids stood out to viewers at home and attendees walking the red carpet.

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Organized by environmental organization Global Green USA, the Prius push was a boon for Toyota, which launched the car in 2001 and now sells more than 100,000 annually. But Global Green jettisoned the program after the 2008 show, which means unless attendees drive themselves in their eco-friendly rides (Ed Begley Jr. and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have done so in their electric Toyota RAV4s) or take Barthmuss up on his offer, green cars will largely be absent from the show for the fourth year running.

Some automotive observers believe the entertainment business, which made a strong push on the issue a decade ago, could do more to champion the use of green cars -- especially at a time when there are a wealth of new options on the market. "I don't see people either in front of the screen or behind the screen embracing electric vehicles any more in 2012 than they did in 2006, and you would have thought there would have been a huge increase in the numbers of people in Hollywood embracing the technology," says Buddy Pepp, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Analysts say a slower-than-hoped-for adoption rate -- not just by the showbiz set but nationally -- can be attributed to a handful of issues: prospective buyers' discomfort with new technology and reputation-damaging recalls of cars such as the Volt and Fisker Karma; a lack of product due to supply-chain issues for the Volt and Leaf; and a dearth of affordable green rides that also are aesthetically appealing. "These vehicles are getting better. But a lot of people are going to say, 'Why would I sacrifice space? Why would I sacrifice my wallet?' " says Rebecca Lindland, an automotive consultant with IHS Global Insight.

Expensive niche products such as the Karma and the now-discontinued Tesla Roadster, with their six-digit price tags, have sales figures that are far lower than their more mainstream counterparts like the Volt (7,395 new car registrations in 2011, according to analytics firm R.L. Polk & Co.) and the Leaf (8,439); in the case of the Roadster, which counts Dustin Hoffman and Matt Damon as owners, only 2,500 were sold during the car's five-year run.

But manufacturers such as Nissan, Chevrolet and Fisker say that in high-profile instances, Hollywood has embraced their newest products. Some have found their way into films and television programs; on CBS' Two and a Half Men, for example, Ashton Kutcher's character drives a Fisker Karma. And many green cars do count celebrities as their owners. Leonardo DiCaprio, who was driven to the 2008 Oscars in a Prius provided by Global Green, owns a $102,000 plug-in hybrid Karma sports car, as do Kutcher, Al Gore, Colin Powell and John Lasseter. "Holly-wood actors probably have a small obligation to be the front-runners and take that risk, because they can afford to take that risk," says Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker. "And it's great to see that a lot of them do it."

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But not many will be doing so at the 2012 Oscars. The Hollywood Reporter contacted the representatives of 14 actors, producers and other public figures who drive everything from Fiskers to the $27,700 (after tax incentives) all-electric Leaf and asked whether each would be taking his or her green car to the Oscars. A representative for George Clooney, owner of a $109,000 Roadster electric sports car and the two-seat $108,000 electric Commuter Cars Tango, says the actor will not take either of those cars to the show. Others either didn't respond or said they weren't attending.

Matt Petersen, CEO of Global Green, says his company ended its Oscars program because it "no longer was a novelty to offer [a Prius] so we decided to put our resources in other areas. It's not a sign of failure; I think it is a sign of success."

At its peak in 2005, the program used about 30 Priuses to ferry people to the Academy Awards. "I know it really was a cultural meme and was a piece of what got people to drive hybrid cars," says Petersen. In the absence of the Prius program, Global Green has emphasized its annual pre-Oscars party, which will be held Feb. 22 at Avalon Hollywood and is sponsored by the Chevy Volt. Some attendees will be driven to the event in Volts, which start at $31,645 after tax incentives. (Volt owners include Alyssa Milano, Jay Leno and Stephen King.)

For those Oscar attendees who insist on a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car or SUV, a handful of car-service firms, such as Chatsworth-based Econation, offer hybrid or alternative fuel options. Econation will deploy its fleet of 25 cars -- including hybrid Cadillac Escalades and ethanol-powered Chevy Suburbans -- for the ceremony.

THR also reached out to several talent agencies and inquired about staffers who own electric or plug-in hybrid cars. Representatives for most said they knew of no employees who drive such vehicles. The only agent to come forward was APA's Thomas Fry, head of the Beverly Hills-based company's entertainment marketing and brand integration department. In February, he will take delivery of BMW's Active E electric coupe.

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Fry, a Bimmer aficionado who long has wanted an eco-conscious car, says niche products such as the Karma and the Roadster fit the bill in terms of looks and performance but are expensive, while the more mainstream Leaf isn't aesthetically pleasing to him. Enter the Active E, which BMW is offering as a lease-only prototype. "This is classic BMW; it has tremendous acceleration," says Fry. APA is installing a charging station in its parking garage, where he will be able to plug in the E.

Filmmaker Chris Paine, director of the documentary Revenge of the Electric Car, believes the media grew "tired of the Prius story" and in the aftermath of the car's success, consumers hungered for a more advanced product, but it took several years for automakers to deliver. Paine, who owns a Volt and a Roadster, believes sporty cars such as the Active E and Tesla's forthcoming Model S sedan will help reenergize interest in green cars. "You have to bring design back into the equation. … That will make a difference."

Of course, getting actors to take cars to the Oscars isn't the only way to promote them. Nissan, for example, has employed what it terms a Hollywood "insider" as part of the celebrity outreach program for its Leaf, which counts Ryan Reynolds, Francis Ford Coppola, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Penn Jillette as owners. Brian Maragno, Nissan's senior marketing manager in charge of the Leaf, says this person, whom he declines to name, talks up the Leaf to others in the business and offers it up for test drives. Maragno says he's pleased with Hollywood's commitment to the Leaf. "Could it be more? Absolutely. You always want more of anything."

?Begley, a longtime green car advocate who owns an electric RAV4, says electrics and plug-ins have become commonplace in his circle of friends. He says he helped Hanks and Michelle Pfeiffer when they wanted to purchase electric RAV4s of their own. Begley has been driving to the Oscars in an electric car since 1990, when he took along Annette Bening, who was nominated for her role in The Grifters, in a Bradley Automotive electric vehicle. For the past decade, he's driven the RAV4. Begley says he was emboldened by the sight of the younger generation of actors who took part in Global Green's program. And despite a recent reception from Hollywood that has seemed lukewarm, Begley remains positive.

"I know when I get there a whole bunch of people will come up to me and say, 'Ed, I came in my plug-in hybrid!' "


THE STATE OF SALES: The Southland is an important market for green car manufacturers, accounting for more than 10 percent of 2011 purchases of the major eco vehicles.

  • Chevrolet Volt: 740 in Southern California -- 10% of total U.S. sales (7,395)
  • Nissan Leaf: 1,507 in Southern California -- 18% (8,439)
  • Tesla Roadster: 37 in Southern California -- 11% (330)
  • Toyota Prius: 17,473 in Southern California -- 14% (127,945)

Note: Data is based on the number of new cars registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2011. Southern California data is for the region that includes L.A., Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Inyo and Esmeralda counties.


NEW ELECTRIC AVENUES: Several green cars have debuted in the past year or so, from the Nissan Leaf to the Fisker Karma, with options at a variety of price points. (The prices noted below are base prices, after applicable tax incentives.)

BMW Active E ($499 per month) Based on the BMW 1 Series, the two-door Active E is available only for a two-year lease. Just 700 examples of the prototype coupe, which features a 168-horsepower motor, are up for grabs stateside. The first Active Es were delivered in January.

Chevrolet Volt ($31,645) Chevy's plug-in hybrid debuted in December 2010 to great hype. The car runs for an estimated 35 miles solely on electricity before the gas engine kicks in, at which point the Volt can be driven up to an additional 375 miles. The hatchback was the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year.

Fisker Karma ($102,000) Anaheim-based Fisker began selling its Karma luxury sports sedan in July. The 403-horsepower four-door uses a plug-in hybrid system and has an all-electric range of 32 miles. The Karma has a solar glass roof and uses reclaimed wood in its interior.

Ford Focus Electric ($34,405) Deliveries of the Ford Focus Electric to fleet customers such as Google began in December; the public should be able to purchase the four-door in the spring. The all-electric hatchback has a top speed of 84 miles per hour and is propelled by a 123-horsepower motor.

Nissan Leaf ($27,700) Nissan's five-door hatchback went on sale in December 2010, just before the Volt. The all-electric Nissan Leaf has a range of roughly 100 miles and can be fully charged in about seven hours. The 110-horsepower Leaf can be purchased with an optional solar panel spoiler.

NEXT: Tesla Model S: The publicly traded carmaker behind the discontinued Tesla Roadster expects to begin selling its four-door all-electric sedan by July. The car, which will have a base price of $49,900, has three battery options -- the largest of which gives the S a range of 300 miles. The S is seen by some observers as a potential game-changer. "I think you'll see a whole new resurgence when Tesla comes online with the Model S," Paine says. "People are interested in sexy."


Twitter: @DanielNMiller