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That Time BMW Made a Movie (Before YouTube Existed)

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Plenty of brands have ventured into the murky waters of making “art” of varying mediums—films, books, publications, even mix-tapes.

Unfortunately, a lot of these efforts are usually kinda lame (except for this publication, which is fantastic, right?). Striking a balance between making compelling art and accomplishing a marketing goal is tough, and most of the time, brands opt for a heavy-hand on the marketing side, making the whole endeavor feel like the ham-fisted product placement of a DJ Khaled music video.

But back in 2001—before YouTube, Facebook, or even MySpace—BMW made a series of films that were actually… kind of amazing.

The Hire was a series of eight short films produced by BMW over 15 years ago, and they were remarkably successful. Far from being a glorified ad for a luxury car, The Hire was legitimately engaging work featuring high-production value, a real story, super star talent, and plenty of emotion. The credits read like a summer blockbuster: Clive Owen, Gary Oldman, Forest Whitaker, Madonna, James Brown, and Don Cheadle all took on starring roles. Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie, and John Woo directed a few episodes. Even Alejandro González Iñárritu directed one of the shorts—more than a decade before he would win back-to-back Oscars for Best Director in 2015 and 2016.

The films touch on a wide range of complex themes—love, fear, war, and death. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re action-packed, other times they’re subtle and poignant.

While most companies have to pay big money to get their content in front of an audience, BMW could hardly keep up with the demand for the movies. People were begging to watch them. One of the shorts debuted at Cannes, the series earned positive reviews in the New York Times, and DVDs distributed through local BMW dealerships were quickly snatched up. DirecTV even started broadcasting the films on a special channel.

While they stand on their own as entertaining pieces of content, the marketing effect of the series was insanely effective. BMW saw their sales numbers go up 12% in 2001 after launching the series.

One of the more interesting aspects of the series is the environment and timeframe in which they were released. These were the days before social media and easily streamable video. They had no social audience to release the films to—it relied entirely on manually driving people to a landing page through paid spots, PR, and word-of-mouth. Even when they got there, watching the movies was a bit of a task—you couldn’t just embed a YouTube player on the page and call it a day. Visitors could watch the video using QuickTime or RealVideo (whoa there, throwback) players—over what was likely a fairly slow internet connection—or (and this one is my favorite) download the “BMW Films Player,” a piece of software that “turns the computer screen into a mini-theater with ‘DVD-quality’ pictures and sound.”

Ah, we were so young and innocent.

This past October, BMW released another installment in the series in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the first film, starring Dakota Fanning and directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie).

If you’ve got some time to waste, check ‘em out below, ranked in order of my favorites. I don’t know if this will compare to the “DVD-quality” pictures and sound of the BMW Film Player, but it’s the best I can offer.

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