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BMW gives green light to Net films

The automaker raises the curtain on a Web-based film series that features marquee talent including Ang Lee and Madonna--and, not incidentally, its own cars.

    The drive-in comes to the Internet.

    Automaker BMW on Thursday raised the curtain on a Web-based film series that features the work of several marquee directors and actors, including Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer and Madonna--and, not incidentally, the cars that bear its famous blue-and-white logo.

    Online films haven't exactly gotten off to a jackrabbit start. A limited audience, and the limits of the broadband technology necessary to make for a pleasurable viewing experience, have kept the film industry's Internet efforts in check.

    BMW is betting that the series it's sponsoring will find success based on the celebrity status of its directors and actors. Dubbed "The Hire," it consists of five short films starring British actor Clive Owen as a recurring character in a host of dangerous situations. Each film also features subplots viewers can investigate to access hidden story lines, and the site presents longer films related to the series, directors' commentaries and information on the cars in the films.

    The series was produced by David Fincher, who directed "Fight Club" and "Seven." It features directors including recent Oscar winner Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), veteran John Frankenheimer ("Ronin," "Grand Prix," "The Manchurian Candidate") and newcomer Guy Ritchie ("Snatch"). The series also includes appearances by Mickey Rourke and Ritchie's wife, Madonna.

    Despite the challenges facing online filmmakers, some studios are getting themselves in position for the field to rev up. In December, Sony Pictures Entertainment said it was creating about 50 streaming-media jobs--for producers, engineers, programmers and technicians--as part of a bid to offer feature films on demand for consumers with high-speed Internet access.

    BMW isn't the first to tap the appeal of film celebrities for online media ventures. In September, online-entertainment company iCast launched a comedy program with actress Janeane Garofalo as its spokeswoman. But big names don't necessarily mean success: CMGI shut down iCast in November.

    The list of failures doesn't stop there. It also includes Time Warner's Entertaindom;, backed by Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard; the Digital Entertainment Network; Pseudo Programs; and Icebox.

    The film series is underwritten by BMW of North America and is being produced by Los Angeles-based Anonymous Content.