BRANDING

In Praise of Stubbornness

For years, Malcolm Bricklin has been working to bring low-cost Chinese cars to America. A new documentary -- filmed by his son -- chronicles his travails.
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Malcolm Bricklin, the automobile entrepreneur who brought Subarus, Yugos, and a muscle car named after himself to North America, is downright stubborn. He refuses to give up, even when the odds are stacked against him. It almost seems as if he's programmed to keep pressing on -- which, for any entrepreneur, can be both a valued skill and a curse.

We first wrote about Bricklin's attempts to be the first U.S. importer of Chinese cars back in July 2005. But, like many of Bricklin's previous endeavors, the partnership of his company, Visionary Vehicles, with the Chery Automobile Co., an automaker in Wuhu, China, collapsed.

Bricklin had originally proclaimed that he would be selling Chery vehicles (Lexus-caliber luxury models with discount sticker prices) sometime this year. Those cars, however, fell far short of passing the safety and quality controls mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Bricklin, in turn, was forced to revoke the partnership and take his $200 million investment elsewhere. (Chery later inked a deal with DaimlerChrysler, in late 2006.)

Rather than admit defeat, Bricklin and Visionary Vehicles have decided to play their own hand at developing low-cost, high-performance vehicles from the ground up. Only this time, they'll be using plug-in electric hybrid technology. And rather than limit themselves to working with just one manufacturer, Bricklin and his team are already working on inking partnerships with several manufacturers in China who will contribute various components to the latest version of what Bricklin calls his "destiny."

While you might mistake the highs and lows of Bricklin's career for a good piece of fiction, the truth is that it also makes for one heck of a story. Bricklin's son Jonathan, in fact, has followed his father around for the past four years, camera in tow, where he recorded some 1,200 hours of his father's life, as well as the friends, family, and business associates caught in his orbit. Jonathan recently pruned all that footage into a 90-minute documentary called The Entrepreneur, which debuted at the Vail Film Festival in April. The film, which earned an audience appreciation award, follows the elder Bricklin on his most recent quest to cement his legacy as one of history's great automobile entrepreneurs, seemingly without regard for the financial and personal costs involved. 

The Entrepreneur recently made its New York debut as well, where it was screened before some 100 friends and distributors at the ritzy Tribeca Grand Hotel in downtown Manhattan. After the film, which is a very entertaining, expletive-filled, behind-the-scenes look at Bricklin's four-year quest, Inc. caught up with Jonathan Bricklin (who had worked as a film editor before deciding to chase his dad around the world) to find out more about the inspiration behind his project:

How did you come up with the idea for the movie?

I really had no agenda or plan whatsoever. I was always fascinated with movies and cameras as a kid, and my dad was always one of my best subjects. Most people look awkward when they know they are being filmed, but not Malcolm. He just carries on with his life whether I filmed him for an hour or for days. Then, in 2003, when he was planning a trip to Poland to visit a car factory there, he suggested that I come and make a video out of it that he could later use to show his colleagues. So I went and just filmed everything using a small home-video camera. It was only after we got back that I realized that this could be more than a one-time thing. My roommate at the time was making a documentary and I knew that my dad was more interesting that anything my roommate had. I began to see the possibilities.

In the film, you mention that you and your dad struck a deal. What was it?

After we got back from Poland, I made an edited version of the trip for him to use to start his business. I had also talked to some friends about what was involved in shooting a documentary, so I pitched Malcolm on the idea of making an honest and provocative film in addition to the corporate videos. He liked the idea and said that if I stuck it out to the very end, I could film everything and own all the footage. And he stuck to the deal. I filmed him on weekends, during personal moments and even when he said something stupid. And he never interfered or asked me to delete a thing.

What was it like trying to turn four years of film into a 90-minute movie?

After shooting more than 1,200 hours, we wrapped the movie in October 2006. I started editing two years ago, but all along I was doing some work, looking for key moments that I knew would help tell the story. But it was hard to condense it without losing some of the entertainment value of Malcolm or making it seem like he yells and screams every day. I mean, when he does yell, it is very dramatic and entertaining. But he is actually a very sweet guy most of the time, and that might not come across so well in the movie.

How do you describe your relationship with your dad?

My parents divorced when I was four. I would spend holidays and weekends with Malcolm. After I got into my teens, I started to look at him more as a friend than a dad. He didn't impose fatherly conventions like setting a bedtime, brushing my teeth, or using foul language. I liked to hang out with him. He has always been comfortable with me tagging along, and I think that dynamic really makes the movie work. At first, I didn't want to do a voiceover for the film. There are a lot of movies where it is a quest to learn about a parent and I didn't want that. But, whether I wanted to admit it or not, this film was told through my eyes. In the end, people seem to like when I interject my thoughts.

Did you have to change the ending of the movie after the deal between your dad and Chery fell apart?

It was frustrating in the end. After Malcolm landed the money to seal the deal with Chery, it seemed like such a perfect ending. When things fell apart, it was confusing to sort out how we could incorporate a new ending. But with Malcolm, it is always ongoing and a whole new chapter has opened in front of him with the hybrid electric vehicles. And I think that has become the theme of the movie. The point is not to simply achieve the goal; it is to enjoy the journey. As soon as you hit one goal, you start working towards the next.

What's next for your film?

We are trying to line up a distributor. Our ideal partner would be either Mark Cuban or Harvey Weinstein, both entrepreneurs themselves. We also have been showing the movie around the university circuit and have had a great response. Malcolm is so unique, he seems to inspire people of all ages. I think there is a broad audience for this film. Entrepreneurs founded America, and I think most people identify with people that work to make their dreams come true.

Last updated: May 1, 2007

DARREN DAHL

Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.




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