June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) passed on the first script shown to him. But the second one, about a cranky diva who gets a lesson in humility in the backseat of a BMW, gave him an idea. ”He said, ‘What if I ask the wife to do it?”’ recalls Steve Golin, president of Anonymous Content, the multimedia company that worked with David Fincher (Se7en) to produce the Hire film series — five digital short films by world-renowned directors, paid for by BMW, and shown exclusively online (bmw films.com). The fourth in the series is Star, in which Ritchie’s bride, Madonna, is humorously typecast as the biggest bitch ever to emblazon the word superstar on her leather jacket. In lieu of her usual fees, the Material Girl received a BMW M5 (starting at $70,045) — the one that her husband’s short movie artfully advertises.

Films have long featured product placements, and movie directors frequently make commercials. But the Hire is making the advertising rubber hit the cinema road in an unusual way. Each film in the series has an entirely different story line and director: John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) chases down an attempted diamond heist; Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) must safely deliver a young Buddhist lama to sanctuary; Wong Kar-wai (Happy Together) investigates whether an actor’s wife is cheating; and in Powder Keg — still shooting in Mexico — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros) sneaks an illicit photo out of a war-torn country. Every film includes the same talented driver, exquisitely played by Clive Owen (Croupier), who always maneuvers a Bimmer. Frequently it seems that the car itself is a costar.

Still, Jim McDowell, BMW’s VP of marketing, insists the Hire series is ”not a commercial.” He notes that the shorts, which he says cost about as much to produce as a typical ad campaign for a new-vehicle launch, dispense with the usual trappings of an automobile pitch, like listing the price of the vehicle. But none of the talent involved has any doubt about the project’s intentions. Owen admits he was ”wary of doing commercials,” but says he changed his mind when he learned of the filmmakers involved.

For Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, who still drives a 1995 Toyota minivan, it was mainly a risk-free way to learn how to film a car chase. ”It’s a very special skill, like martial arts,” he says. Not to mention that feature-film budgets don’t often leave room for experimentation. But after getting a pitch from Fincher, who developed the scripts and storyboards and oversaw post-production on the series, he didn’t hesitate — and the budget, around $2 million for each film, didn’t hurt either. Other than using a BMW and Owen as the driver, Lee says, he was free to show as little of the 540i sedan as his tastes dictated. The only time his benefactors stepped in was when he wanted to roll a Jeep. The scene was never shot, in part due to time, but also because BMW ”got nervous,” he says, that flipping a Jeep would open it to a lawsuit from rival automaker DaimlerChrysler.

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