Filmmaker Chris Paine documents the entertainment and automotive industries efforts 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."...MORE