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Movie Casts the Electric Car as Hero, GM as Bad Guy

July 15, 2006|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

The EV1 may be dead and buried, but the electric car that once roamed California freeways is still haunting General Motors Corp.

The Detroit auto giant is the reluctant "star" of the biting documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" which chronicles one fateful slice of California's effort to force automakers to develop cleaner vehicles for the state's smog-afflicted residents.

The film, which opened in limited release last month, takes aim at several major automakers including Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. But GM receives by far the worst bashing for its decision to terminate the EV1 despite what the filmmakers contend was widespread consumer demand.

"It doesn't make me feel very good about GM," said John Horny of Altadena as he emerged from a recent showing of the film in Pasadena. "It seems they made a mistake in not going ahead in building the cars."

It's the sort of PR that experts say the automaker doesn't need as it battles for financial survival against aggressive Japanese competitors and for corporate autonomy in the face of pressure from unhappy shareholders.

"The movie just adds further burdens to the ability of GM to exist as an icon of America and as a free-standing corporation," said Peter Sealey, a Bay Area public relations consultant and former UC Berkeley marketing professor.

The film contends that electric cars marketed in California by GM and other automakers had the potential to radically change the way that Americans drive. The cars, a response to the state's 1990 mandate that 10% of vehicles offered in California be emission-free by 2003, were peppy, quiet, nonpolluting and required virtually no maintenance.

During the 1990s, GM produced about 1,000 EV1s -- which, like most electric car models, were available only by lease. California backed off its zero-emission mandate in 2003 after the auto industry, led by GM, sued. The automakers began systematically recalling their electric vehicles -- often against customers' wishes -- and, in many cases, shipping them to the car crusher. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" documents the vigil maintained last year by electric car enthusiasts at a padlocked GM lot in Burbank where the last 78 EV1s were corralled.

The industry's willingness to jettison what appeared to be successful and innovative designs was spurred, the movie says, by the threat that electric vehicles posed to profits generated by the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.

"That's why we made the documentary, because nobody had told this story in its entirety," executive producer Dean Devlin said. "Maybe we're at a moment in time where, if information can get out to enough people, change can happen."

GM contends that it ended its money-losing electric car program because of a lack of interest from consumers, who were put off by the EV1's limited range and problems with the battery packs in early models.

"There were a few people that it was perfect for, but a large company like General Motors has to make vehicles that appeal to a vast market," GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said.

GM can take solace from the movie's modest box-office take so far. Despite a respectable per-screen average of about $5,600, it had grossed only $164,000 in eight theaters through last weekend, according to attendance tracker Box Office Mojo. The film cost about $1.2 million to make.

"It's doing OK for a little documentary, but it's no 'Inconvenient Truth,' " said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo, referring to the Al Gore film about global warming that has grossed $15.4 million -- the fourth-highest take ever for a documentary.

But with gasoline prices well above $3 a gallon, one film industry observer believes that "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is poised to build an audience as it opens in more cities.

"There absolutely is going to be a buzz everywhere this picture opens," said Steve Mason, a columnist for the Box Office Prophets website. He thinks the film, a Sony Pictures Classics release, eventually could gross $3 million to $5 million and might snag an Oscar nod next year in the best documentary category.

Devlin, who has produced such big-budget films as "Independence Day" and "Godzilla," thinks those numbers are optimistic, but he's pleased by viewers' response to the film.

"I just took my mother-in-law to see it and the 35 or 40 people in the audience burst into applause at the end of the movie," he said. "That doesn't happen very often."

Buzz was clearly evident during a showing Sunday afternoon in Pasadena. The audience greeted on-screen appearances by auto and oil industry spokesmen with snorts of derisive laughter, while scenes of EV1s being trucked to the car crushers drew gasps and mutters of discontent.

"The movie made me angry," Tammy Morgan," a 24-year-old student from Upland, said afterward. "I want an electric car!"

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