When I saw The Ghost Writer last week, I noticed that nearly all the cars in the film were BMWs that looked like they had just left the car dealership – not a speck of dust on their shiny paint jobs. I could practically smell the “new car” smell during scenes in their leathery interiors.
In one scene, Ewan McGregor’s character hijacks someone’s BMW and turns on its navigation system, which announces itself, in a futuristic female voice, as “BMW ConnectedDrive.” The voice gives McGregor directions to the last place the car’s owner, a former British Prime Minister, had driven to.
I don’t doubt that a disgraced Prime Minister and his cronies might drive BMWs, but something tells me that the filmmakers weren’t going for realism in placing the cars so prominently. They probably received a thick wad of cash to scatter sleek new BMW models all over the screen and even make the use of one of their features into a major plot point.
It was probably a sound investment for BMW. An artsy, political movie like The Ghost Writer is likely to attract an audience that would find BMWs appealing (and affordable). The people in the theater when I saw it seemed like the type that would appreciate a top-notch navigation system.
I question, however, whether it was a good investment on the part of the filmmakers. I liked The Ghost Writer a lot, but the handful of scenes where product placement was obvious distracted from the plot of the movie. The scene where Ewan McGregor used the navigation system to uncover a secret from the Prime Minister’s past should have created a lot of tension and anticipation in me, but instead I was thinking about how much money BMW must have shelled out to get that smooth female voice in there.
What if BMW, as a condition for the product placement deal, had demanded that The Ghost Writer’s political message be toned down, a few swear words removed, or a sex scene cut? I trust that Polanski wouldn’t agree to such a thing, but most of today’s Hollywood doesn’t share his artistic scruples. We’ve already seen corporate sponsorship affect what can be shown on TV. When Ellen Degeneres came out on her TV show in the nineties, several sponsors withdrew their support, and her show was promptly cancelled.
I don’t know anything about The Ghost Writer’s development process. Maybe the movie couldn’t have been financed without BMW’s help, in which case the product placement was certainly justified. But I doubt that was the case. I’m disappointed that a legendary director like Roman Polanski would stoop so low (not that I had a high opinion of his character before). In a film industry where every other movie is a remake or sequel made for the sole purpose of raking in cash, the last thing we need is a bunch of corporate logos littering the screen.