If you’d told Volkswagen six months ago that Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to make a Hollywood movie about the firm and its environmental credentials, the reaction would have been champagne (or Sekt) all round. Everyone loved the Love Bug, right?
Sadly for VW, the film that noted environmentalist DiCaprio actually wants to make is unlikely to have script space for lovable 60s driverless car Herbie. The actor’s production company Appian Way recently joined forces with Paramount to buy the rights for a movie about something VW no doubt wishes would just quietly go away: the emissions scandal.
The film will be based on New York Times reporter Jack Ewing’s unpublished tell-all book on the emissions scandal, which wiped a third off VW’s list price in the space of a few days last month. A drop in market cap and a few rolling heads at the top of the business will be just the beginning, of course, as numerous investigations, law suits, expensive product recalls and eye-watering fines loom - potentially up to $18bn (£11.8bn) in the US alone.
For VW, getting the big picture treatment from the Wolf of Wall Street himself is the equivalent of being locked in the stocks and pelted with rotten cabbage while it’s waiting for its turn on the rack - not exactly what it needs right now.
The firm is busy trying to present itself as both penitent and part of the solution, keeping quiet details of who exactly did or knew what as much as possible until its own investigation is complete. This movie won’t be built on the ‘official’ version VW will eventually offer regulators. It will necessarily dramatise events to sell tickets, and it’s hard to see how that won’t reflect badly on the German company.
Volkswagen’s only consolation is that its own scandal isn’t anything like as salacious (and therefore marketable) as those that have befallen the financial sector. A high-stakes thriller about a culture of overachievement gradually undermining the integrity of Germany’s largest automobile manufacturer doesn’t sound like it’s going to smash box office records any time soon.
Unless artistic license somehow transforms the orderly meetings of VW’s supervisory board into drug-fuelled sex parties, or DiCaprio puts in a star turn as fallen chief executive Martin Winterkorn (the actor’s exact, personal involvement hasn’t been announced, but one can hope), the movie probably won’t tarnish the firm’s reputation any more than the established facts already have.
Besides, these scandals have much longer half-lives than most Hollywood films. It took five years for authorities to draw a line under BP’s Deepwater spill and ten years for the banks to (almost) see the back of the PPI mis-selling scandal. By the time all’s said and done, the movie of the scandal will be probably forgotten. Sadly for VW, the scandal itself will no doubt take a lot longer to fade into oblivion.