April 6, 2017
SXSW 2017

Is Branded Content Over—Or Has it Just Begun?

Here's how you can jump ahead of the curve when partnering with a brand on your project. 

It's the best time ever to be a filmmaker. This is true for many reasons, and while the ability to have a brand come on to your production may not seem like one of the most liberating reasons, it can sure as hell help you put together a project. 

Why? Brands can barely get eyeballs on TV ads. And you can't fool anyone with an ad disguised as an online video anymore. To combat this, companies are now giving filmmakers creative control over projects they have commissioned. If a company has a core idea for something they want to advertise, they oftentimes give the director license to explore options as to how to execute.

"You've got integrate the brands so they're actually part of the movie."

As Rupert Maconick explained in a panel at SXSW 2017 called The New Hollywood: Branding a Funded Film, "Netflix came along, and no one's watching the ads. So what are brands going to do? They create lots of opportunities. It's those roughly 600 million dollars spent monthly around the world, just [funneled] into more entertaining stuff."

The panel also featured Jody Raida, Director of Branded Entertainment at McGarryBowen, Martin Campbell, director of Casino Royale, and Tom Garzili of Brand USA. Below, we answer some key questions as to how the partnership between brand and filmmaker goes down.

"The Lego Movie" Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

Ask yourself the right questions

There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you engage in business with a brand. "When you're working with a brand, you actually have to figure out what you're trying to sell," Maconick said. "How is this relevant to a brand? How's it relevant to the people that they're then trying to sell to? How are we going to put it on and distribute it?" 

Brands can pitch you...

Are you supposed to be pitching ideas to brands, or will they come to you? "It's kind of a mix," Maconick said. "We work with a wide range of brands, so often we'll get approached through an agency, a PR company, a media company, or a brand directly. And then we'll assemble a team and we'll come up with a creative approach that solves their problem that's also entertaining to watch."

...or you can pitch to brands

If you're too eager to wait for a company or agency to approach you, you can always try your luck yourself. There is one important thing to keep in mind, however.

"We've reached a point where maybe an ad is not the most effective way of reaching people."

"I think the most important thing is to ask the brand what they need to do [before you pitch]," said Maconick, "because often people will make assumptions. They'll say, 'Hey, a brand needs to do that.' So they tell that brand what it needs to do, and, generally, brands know what they need to do. They're just not always clear about how they're going to execute it. It's the execution that actually makes people want to watch it."

"Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World" Credit: Magnolia Pictures

An ad can turn into a legitimate movie

Rupert Maconick has worked on quite a few of Werner Herzog's movies, and while it seems as if Herzog would be opposed to brand placement in his personal documentaries, Lo and Behold actually had its origins in an ad pitch. 

"We were approached by an ad agency called Pereira & O'Dell and the branding went with NetScout and they wanted us to do a series of commercials around the internet," Maconick remembers. "I got Werner on the phone, we rang them back, and we said, 'We'd rather drive a taxi than direct a TV commercial, so we're not going to do that.' However, he did have an interest in a making a documentary about the internet, because he doesn't know anything about it. He doesn't even have a cell phone."

Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold actually had its origins in an ad pitch. 

"So that's basically what we did," Maconick continued. "It's a genuine Werner Herzog documentary and he has final cut. He was in complete control of the filmmaker process. "

In the end, this did an enormous amount of good for NetScout. "From a brand's perspective, they originally were going to make an ad, make a couple million bucks, and then they were going to spend 20 million dollars on media. So that would have been 22 million bucks. Instead, they made a movie for a couple million bucks, there's no media, we sold it, and ended up actually making some money," Maconick said.

It also increased NetScout's exposure. "The year before, they had 2 and a half billion impressions a year, and the year [Lo and Behold] was released, they got 30 billion impressions," said Maconick. "So it went up by 10-fold. And these are real impressions. They're not media-bought impressions, which is what everyone in the media does."

"Casino Royale" Credit: MGM Pictures

How do you keep your artistic integrity?

"First of all, you say no," joked Martin Campbell, whose work on the James Bond franchise proves there’s a tasteful way to do product placement. "Aston Martin, for example, that’s been going since the first film. On Casino Royale, they gave us six Aston Martins to play with. Admittedly, we had to wreck a couple of them. In the scene between Daniel Craig and Eva Green on the train where she says, 'What's that watch?' And he says, 'An Omega.' And she says, 'Beautiful watch....' It does get pushed a little bit sometimes."

"These deals are made prior to the film's start," he continued. "You've got integrate the brands so they're actually part of the movie and it doesn't obviously stand out. In the second Bond, we got 50 million dollars worth of advertising, so it’s very beneficial."

"A lot of brands are going to start funding more entertainment as opposed to branded content."

If you want to be authentic, go with a doc

As proven by Lo and Behold, perhaps the most successful sponsored endeavors are documentaries. "The key with any doc is that it documents something real, so it has to be authentic," Maconick insisted. "So whenever you're trying to do these things, you've got to give the director the creative control on some level. I think as long as the doc is made as an authentic documentary, and it's not just propaganda, then it will work well."

If it feels like an ad, the project won’t get distribution. If it plays like a good movie, it will. As Maconick explained, "I think the key with all these things is, if something's good, you're going to get great distribution, but if it's not very good, you're probably not. If it's built like an ad, you probably won't get distribution. If it's a proper entertainment or a doc, you will. Because people will pay to watch it. It's really that simple. I think you will always get distribution if something is entertaining and well made and people want to watch it."

Intel and Dell's 'What Lives Inside' campaignCredit: Intel and Dell

Focus on generating an audience, not money

When pitching branded content, show how you will get your project seen by a lot of people rather than provide figures on how much money the company will make.

"Making a profit on it would be great, but for us, this is a marketing campaign," Tom Garzili admitted. "The film is really like advertising for us, just subtler and non-commercial. If we can have 30-40 million people see the film globally and ultimately have no cost or little cost to us—that is enough. If we can make some money, great."

Branded content is dying. Or is it?

If branded content is dying, it's because any four-year-old could point out an ad on their parents' iPad. Branded entertainment, however, is a whole new ballgame.

Of course, the idea of merchandising for major films has been around for a while, but the way it's being incorporated these days is getting increasingly more clever. "I think a lot of brands are going to start funding more entertainment as opposed to branded content," said Maconick. "Branded content isn't gone for good, but you fake the number of people watching it by buying likes."

"Let's take the GI Joe movie as an example," Maconick continued. "It wasn't made because it's a great concept. It was made to sell a GI Joe. Lego, too. The Lego Movie is a huge success. Disney bought Star Wars so they could sell a lot of toys. So, I think there are a number of brands that are going to get more and more into this kind of space, particularly now that people aren't watching ads. We can all skip stuff on the internet. We've reached a point where maybe an ad is not the most effective way of reaching people."

Always' 'Like a Girl' campaignCredit: Always

Be prepared to work fast and communicate

If you really want to take advantage of this new landscape, you need to show that you can get the job done quickly and effectively.

"The problem that I've had, on the brand and marketing side, is that the timeline is actually too long and entertainment can actually be quite fast, so I do often find the disconnect in the timing," Jody Raida admitted. "The key to a lot of this is for the different sides of the process to be all working together early on in the development. I think this process can break down when a brand comes to a film that's already in the can and they're supposed to finding some way to integrate it with it. The best projects, in my experience, have been when the creative side, as well as the brand, are all in the room from the very beginning of the process."


For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.

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Your Comment

4 Comments

Nice read!
Tomorrow I'll be hearing from a company we approached for a branded content deal. But because we can't turn are short into an ad, we asked what else we can do for them video wise.
It indeed really matters that you can make a connection between your story and the brand. It helps you 'sell' the proposal to the brand, while it also adds to the story content wise.
Just don't go 'Truman show'. :-p

April 6, 2017 at 5:54PM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8811

I guess it also comes down to finding the right brand. I've come across a number that are incredibly hesitant to be open and allow creativity to flourish, rather dictating exactly what and when it's said.

Definitely an interesting read, hop to get there someday.

April 7, 2017 at 5:20AM

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Ash Tailor
Videographer
86

For the past year and a half I worked as a Director/DP as BuzzFeed's Branded department. I shot everything from Puppyhood to Dear Kitten. You wanna know something funny? We had a meeting every month talking about why some of our ads being horribly torn apart in comments and others were being treated like the emotional short films they were. Everyone seemed confused. I shot over a 100 branded ads for BuzzFeed and 70 something normal non-branded BuzzFeed docs. There's a simple difference with the audience these days. Our audience is primarily 14 year old girls. They know if an actor is a bad actor or they feel forced. You need to make sure your story comes across as genuine. You could smack the audience with a shot of someone drinking a coke but the audience is caught up in something else (Watch Jaws closely next time). Try having an actor improv the scene, maybe don't put a damn spotlight on the product. Show it in it's natural environment. Pete Riski knows this, that's why Extra Gum ads are always on point. Watch Puppyhood. You'll forget it's an ad. https://youtu.be/L3MtFGWRXAA

April 7, 2017 at 2:03PM

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Julian
Director
303

After recently transitioning from a production company to a digital creative agency, I couldn't agree more with this. We've been doing this for over 2 years and it shows a huge difference in actual impressions and views which ultimately, over time, equate to sales. But the goal is to tell an entertaining story and get people to watch and know that brand so the next time they have to make a decision, they go with that brand over another. Branded entertainment is here and Burberry's short film was an awesome, perfect example of proper execution.

April 7, 2017 at 5:36PM

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Brad Watts
Filmmaker/Creative Director - Redd Pen Media
298