Ritchie Directs Wife Madonna in Cyber Film

In episode four of our story, the rock star takes a wild spin through Los Angeles in the back seat of a BMW. Buckle up, baby, you've entered the twilight zone between art and commerce.

Madonna appears as the haughty diva in Star, the latest installment in a series of short films bankrolled by German automaker BMW and shown exclusively on the Internet. Segments are featured in broadcast ads meant to arouse interest in the film series, which can be downloaded at bmwfilms.com.

Hitch a Ride With Madonna

Star is directed by Guy Ritchie, Madonna's husband and just one of the "rising talents" that BMW recruited to direct the cybermovie series called The Hire. Other directors in the series are Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), John Frankenheimer (Ronin), Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Mexican director of the Oscar-nominated Amores Perros.

The final film in the series, Inarritu's Powder Keg, premieres July 16 and features a war photojournalist in need of a lift out of harm's way.

Intimate Connections With Consumers

As any James Bond fan knows, BMW is no stranger to Hollywood. The luxury carmaker got plenty of mileage when its Z3 roadster debuted with Pierce Brosnan as Bond behind the wheel in the 1995 film GoldenEye. BMW vehicles also had supporting roles in the two subsequent Bond flicks.

But The Hire takes product placement to a new realm, and may present manufacturers with an attractive way around the dual problems posed by television advertising: a dwindling audience and technologies that allow couch potatoes to skip ads entirely.

Automakers have been at the cutting edge of marketing efforts that seek a more intimate connection with consumers in the interactive realm of cyberspace. Earlier this year, Jaguar distributed CD-ROM containing a Spike Lee film, and Ford sponsored a collection of shorts at AtomFilms.com, an Internet film site. Volkswagen last year featured a drive-in theater on its Web site.

Steve Golin, whose Los Angeles company, Anonymous Content, produced The Hire, said people don't mind films with a product integrated into it if it's entertaining. "I don't think they mind that BMW finances them to show off their products," Golin told The Associated Press. "The films are fun, and they're free."

Brand Building and Extension

For BMW, the cyber series is "an exercise in brand-building and extension," says Jim McDowell, BMW's vice president of marketing for North America. "We're an aspirational brand. Our customers rise fast in their careers … we want [them] to go to bed at night dreaming about a BMW."

The first of the six-minute films was launched online in late April. A new short has debuted every few weeks, each featuring British actor Clive Owen as a driver-for-hire.

Although BMW reportedly budgeted well over $1 million for each of the five films in the Internet series, McDowell says The Hire is "at least as cost-effective as a traditional ad campaign."

At some point this weekend, the Web site that hosts the film should receive its 3 millionth visitor, says McDowell. "We've already exceeded expectations for the entire series," he adds.

To compensate for the fact that the relatively small audience for high-speed Internet films, BMW will distribute The Hire on DVDs this fall that McDowell says will include footage that didn't make it into the five films. The shorts will also be screened before feature films in European cinemas and will remain on BMW's Web site for the foreseeable future.

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