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Chrysler Hosts Film Contest
In Hopes of Driving Up Sales

By SHOLNN FREEMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

These days, when Chrysler says, "Roll 'em," it's not talking about tires.

In a move to boost sales and generate some desperately needed buzz, the auto maker is bankrolling an independent filmmaking contest. Ten directors have shot competing short films that star two slick new Chryslers -- the Crossfire, the company's first sports car, and the Pacifica, a pricey crossover sport-utility vehicle.

Chrysler, which is owned by DaimlerChrysler, is offering $1 million to finance a 90-minute feature-length movie by the winner. The contest follows in the footsteps of a highly publicized marketing move by Bayerische Motoren Werke in 2001 that tapped well-known directors to make BMW-branded online shorts. The campaign was a huge success, and other car makers already have followed BMW's lead. Nissan Motor, for example, now has a minimovie in theaters that features its 350Z sports car racing through the streets of Prague.

Chrysler executives say the short films from the contest will play in 16 theaters nationwide ahead of Universal's new Jim Carrey flick "Bruce Almighty," which makes its debut Friday, as well as on AOL Time Warner's Cinemax pay-television channel. The German-U.S. auto maker is spending an estimated $5 million on the project. "We're balancing the filmmaking of Hollywood and the commerce of Madison Avenue," says Doug Scott, vice president of marketing at Hypnotic, an entertainment concern that is helping Chrysler with the contest.


Chrysler's Pacifica crossover sport-utility vehicle sits outside the Chrysler Lounge, the company's rented party headquarters during the Sundance Film Festival, in January.

Right now, the brand needs all the help it can get. Chrysler has revamped completely its TV commercials and paid singer Celine Dion a range of $10 million to $20 million to pitch the products. Ultimately, the company's Mercedes-trained executives believe all this will help convince savvy American car shoppers that the Pacifica SUV deserves a $35,000 price tag. So far consumers aren't biting. Some dealers already are pricing the Pacifica $1,000 to $1,500 below Chrysler's suggested sticker price. The Crossfire sports car is being launched this summer.

John Lister, chairman of Lister Butler, a New York-based brand-consulting firm, also has doubts. "Mercedes has long been good at upscale positioning," he says. "I don't think Chrysler has that kind of flexibility. In its actual price range, it has tremendous competition."

Chrysler kicked off the film contest at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in January. To win over the crowd, Chrysler set up chic headquarters with parties every night and free access to a bar, lounge and screening room for its directors. "They were having some of the biggest parties in Sundance, with lines going around the block," says Jim Stedman, a director from Austin, Texas.

So far Chrysler has narrowed its competition to five directors after the 10 finalists completed the "extreme filmmaking" phase of the contest -- 10 days to cast, shoot, edit and screen their work.

The scripts featured many love stories that click with Chrysler's "Drive & Love" marketing line. In the Chrysler minimovies, there was no stunt driving, because Chrysler doesn't want to show its cars being damaged. The director list includes a couple of up-and-comers who have been paying their bills for years shooting commercials.

Chrysler also tapped some arty directors who might be tested by the process. For example, Victor Buhler, a recent film-school graduate, has directed a drama series for the British Broadcasting Corp. and a short film, "Chaperone," that played in 11 countries. Mr. Buhler's Chrysler story involves a rich businessman who lives in his Chrysler Pacifica on the streets of Manhattan.

After studying his script, Mr. Buhler said Chrysler suggested that he let the camera linger over the front grille and to be sure to include a shot of the Pacifica's behind-the-wheel navigation screen. "The car has to function in the story," he says. What worries him, Mr. Buhler adds, is the possibility that a gratuitous shot of the grille will bore viewers to distraction. Still, he said he intended to find a way to accommodate the car maker.

Write to Sholnn Freeman at sholnn.freeman@wsj.com

Updated May 19, 2003 9:05 p.m.

 

  
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