Car Dogs’ have their day on screen

on Apr30

Joshua Vannatta felt he knew what to expect when he sat down to watch a new feature film about a day in the life of a car dealership.

The Internet sales manager at Earnhardt Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram in Gilbert, Ariz., “puckered up” and awaited the sleazy salesman trope he’d seen before.

Imagine Danny DeVito in Matilda supergluing bumpers back onto cars and using a “two-directional drill” to lower the odometer reading, or Robin Williams in Cadillac Man attempting to sell a car to an elderly widow at her husband’s funeral.

Vannatta: Sees his former managers in the movie

“We haven’t been portrayed as anything but slimeballs on the big screen,” said Vannatta, 39, who’s been in the car business for 19 years. 

Vannatta was one of about 40 Phoenix-area dealership employees who last month attended a screening of Car Dogs, a comedy-dramafilmed in the area. It will be available exclusively through DirecTV and Dish Network starting on Tuesday, May 2.

The movie is about a manipulative, cutthroat car dealer (played by Chris Mulkey) who offers his son, the general sales manager (Patrick J. Adams), a stake in a new store — if the sales team can move 35 cars by 5 p.m. that day. 

That’s the plot, but what truly resonated with dealership professionals who watched Car Dogs were the long hours and hypercompetitive atmosphere among stressed-out salespeople — tempered by a sweet sense of comradeship that screenwriter Mark King calls “the brotherhood.”

Indeed, the film lands on some critical issues facing dealers as they strive to create stable, productive work forces. 

King, 44, spent more than 20 years working in dealerships, starting at age 11 picking up cigarette butts off the lot, cleaning toilets and washing cars at his stepfather’s dealership group, Culiver Team, which no longer exists, in Phoenix. He wrote the script as part of a class in Los Angeles taught by Adam Collis, who directed the movie. 

King says Car Dogs’ almost Shakespearean struggle between the father and his ambitious but compassionate son is not based on his relationship with his stepfather. But he says such generational clashes inside dealerships are not uncommon.

Screenwriter Mark King spent more than 20 years working in dealerships. Photo credit: Patrick J. Adams

“As young men, we tend to build our fathers up and place them on this pedestal,” King said. “But what happens when you do that, and your father doesn’t turn out to be the man that you want? That’s where the initial content started.” 

Car Dogs, which had a one-week exclusive theatrical screening in Phoenix, doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspects of car retailing. 

Besides the greedy dealer, there is an unethical sales manager and employees who play cruel tricks on customers, such as convincing a couple to climb inside a car trunk and then closing the lid. 

But the film also depicts dealership employees talking about living paycheck to paycheck and working 17-hour days in a desperate effort to hit sales targets and keep their families afloat. And there is the vicious competitiveness amid the camaraderie. 

A charismatic and conniving salesman played by George Lopez lets a rookie salesman in on his moves but shuts him down when he encroaches on Lopez’s sale. A charming and crafty saleswoman played by Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame pulls Adams’ character aside to tell him to wise up and treat his wife better — while pouncing on customers meant for the next salesperson in line.

Familial bonds

Still, Vannatta says a brotherhood exists.

“I’ve worked at dealerships where my favorite part is the family dynamic because the fact is you’re with these people more than your own family,” he said.

The attachments are strong. Vannatta points out that every night, his general sales manager says the same thing before leaving the store: “Goodbye family away from my family.”

King says he tried to convey that in his screenplay,

“I wanted to show the familial bond these guys have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the actual family members of dealership employees can suffer.

“I can’t tell you how many guys I know that lost relationships because of the hours you work,” King said. “It’s something I was conscious about in writing the script.”

Jay Carley, 53, general manager at Larry H. Miller Toyota Peoria in Arizona, also attended the screening and found parallels with his own life.

“You come to work at 6 a.m. and you don’t leave until 8 or 9 p.m., and that’s life in retail, he said. “Some people that are successful, they just work too much and don’t have time for a family. I got divorced from my first wife because of that.”

A key part of the story is the strained relations between Adams’ general sales manager character and his wife. As the manager puts in extra hours at the dealership to prove his worth to his father, his wife asks him to choose between her and the store.

Vannatta remembers once being in a similar situation.

“I needed to take a break and see what color my house is during the daylight and see my kids,” he said. “I can’t count how many people have been through a divorce because of this business, including me. It’s one of those things that consumes you, and the stress doesn’t leave, and it is what it is. That’s why you have such a big turnover ratio.”

Ted Kraybill, CEO of ESI Trends in Largo, Fla., which conducts the National Automobile Dealers Association’s annual Dealership Workforce Study and a dealership employee opinion survey, says work-life balance has been a major issue throughout the 20 years he has been doing the survey.

“We’ve kind of watched it cycle as the generations have changed, and it’s become more of a talking point and an issue,” Kraybill said.

He said the level of negative responses on work-life balance has steadily increased over the last 15 years, both in the sales and service departments.

“I know all the characters; I know the guys and what it’s like to come in every morning and be on a 100 percent commission pay scale.” Mark King, Car Dogs screenwriter Photo credit: Stefanie Epstein

Character types

Any dealership involves an ensemble of character types — like in the movie. Vannatta said he’s had managers similar to Adams’ character who want to take care of their employees. He’s also had managers not unlike the scummy brown-noser sales manager portrayed by Josh Hopkins.

“There’s a manager who kisses the dad’s butt the whole time,” Vannatta said of Hopkins’ character. “We’ve all had managers who have a head that can’t fit through the door. But it’s just a dynamic — there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.”

Eric Lard, 41, the F&I manager at Rodeo Ford in Goodyear, Ariz., who also was at the movie screening, feels some of the relationships in the movie were overdramatized. But he added: “It’s pretty parallel to some of my experiences in the past 15 years [such as] being overworked and underappreciated, having things promised to you that you don’t receive. There are certain owners or GMs that really only care about themselves.”

Said King: “I know all the characters; I know the guys and what it’s like to come in every morning and be on a 100 percent commission pay scale.”

At the screening, Vannatta said he laughed along with other dealership employees at certain jokes and situations portrayed in the movie. For example, the customer who tries to “unwind” from a contract for a vehicle his wife didn’t give him permission to buy, raging, “I know my rights.”

Lard said he and others got a good laugh from lines like: “This guy couldn’t buy love from his mother” when the sales manager goes over a customer’s financial info.

Carley said the movie reminded him of dealership operations before the Internet. Today, stores tend to have more daily transactions with online shoppers. Also, he said, “There’s a bit too much cussing in it because I don’t allow my guys to cuss.”

King says a dealership can be a raucous place but also a great setting for a story about human relations.

“There’s so much tension,” King said, “and it’s such an interesting world, the car business.”

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