ArnieIt has a classic plot line: Girl loses boy. Girl loses luggage. Girl meets Albanian taxi driver who overflows with folk wisdom. Girl nonetheless despairs and comes to realize that even supersize bathtubs, terry-cloth robes and 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets can't break her funk. Girl finds her smile again, courtesy of an over-the-top effort by a Ritz-Carlton front-desk clerk.

"Cries and Whispers" it is not, but the 10-minute Internet movie "The Delay" is interesting for several reasons, almost none of them having to do with the story line.

The film is the first in a series of three produced by Ritz-Carlton Films in association with American Express. The notion of a corporation producing original short films for Internet distribution is not new. In 2001, BMW contracted eight well-known directors to produce theme-related shorts that starred, among others, Madonna, Don Cheadle, F. Murray Abraham and Marilyn Manson. One of these fast-paced shorts even debuted at Cannes to rave reviews.

That BMW series, "The Hire," was aimed at guys like me, and I liked it.

"The Delay," whose director previously made commercials and whose cast is unfamiliar to me, is, I suspect, not aimed at guys like me, so take this two-sentence review with a grain of salt: I tired of watching a woman mope for nine-and-a-half minutes. The reward of seeing her smile in the waning seconds of the film didn't quite make up for all that slow-paced angst.

Even so, it's the first effort of its kind that I'm aware of by a company in the travel industry, and I plan to watch the next two installments when they debut in April and June.

I'm interested, in part, because there's something more going on here than a novel approach to Web marketing. "The Delay" is a direct result of a paradigm shift in the world of filmed advertising.

Four years ago, when Scott Donaton was editor of Advertising Age, he wrote a book titled "Madison & Vine: Why the Entertainment and Advertising Industries Must Converge to Survive" [McGraw-Hill, 2004]. He observed that with the advent of the digital video recorder, consumers can and do bypass commercials, but for the most part they'll still pay attention to what goes on between them. As a result, media buyers need to think of ways to embed their messages in entertainment vehicles rather than simply interrupt the flow of entertainment with commercials.

Decades ago, before the emergence of either the DVR or World Wide Web, the travel industry led the way in blending entertainment and advertising. In fact, it wouldn't be inaccurate to call "The Love Boat" a 60-minute entertainment benefiting Princess Cruises that just happened to be interrupted by 30-second commercials for other products.

Following in the wake and philosophy of "The Love Boat," Ritz-Carlton's "The Delay" does not permit the camera to dwell lovingly on a Ritz-Carlton logo at any point.

In fact, the only reference to the lux chain occurs when the desk clerk greets the star. "Good evening, welcome to the Ritz-Carlton," he says as she approaches. Moments later, rather than asking for a photo ID, he asks for the credit card with which she made the reservation; her American Express card is presented. That's it for overt brand promotion.

But, clearly, at Madison & Vine no one is making art for art's sake. When viewing the film on the Web, promotions for two "featured packages," appear below the box in which the film is shown. One focuses on Ritz-Carlton, the other on special offers connected with bookings made using an American Express card. Clicking through to Ritz's Marina del Rey property from the first promo box, I was brought to an offer that seemed thematically linked to "The Delay," with references to movies and romance.

Though "The Delay" seemed like advertising's take on the "chick flick," the next two installments hold a bit more promise for the lads. The April release, "Last Night," will detail how "a man's last night before his wedding is marked by an encounter with a beautiful, mysterious woman." In June, "Heads or Tails" will be released. The description: "Two men get wrapped up in an escalating game of wills, with an outcome neither predicted."

I'm kind of hoping that the cast for the full series is an ensemble and that the two men in "Heads or Tails" are the same actors who played the Albanian taxi driver and the cheery desk clerk, who reprise their roles but, it is revealed, also happen to be semipro arm wrestlers. The surprising outcome? Not sure, but I'll bet that in the end, they both find their smiles.

Welcome to Madison & Vine.

E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].


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