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SEAMLESS - How Producers Use Brand Partnerships To Serve Their Stories

Posted By Matt R. Lohr, Thursday, October 27, 2016
Once upon a time, product placement in entertainment media was all about just pointing the lens at the label. But like every other aspect of entertainment, product placement has undergone vast changes in the last several decades, with truly collaborative relationships emerging between brands, content creators and the brand-integration companies that facilitate connections between the two.

PGA member Bill Gerber (Gran Torino, the upcoming Sean Penn-directed The Last Face) has a profound understanding of the value brand integration can bring to a film project. “When you look at the amount of ad dollars spent in the United States or even globally, compared to the amount of production dollars, it dwarfs the entertainment business,” Gerber says. “I think one has to have a global point of view about these things and see if there are opportunities to help the movie and the brand have a successful collaboration.”

Gerber worked closely with America Online executives Bob Pittman and Steve Case, and with writer/director Nora Ephron on the tie-in for Ephron’s 1998 hit romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, a classic association for both companies and the filmmaker. “They caught it at the perfect moment, right as the internet was kind of exploding. It was organic, it was creative, and it made everybody look great.” Gerber also has praise for retail giant Walmart, with whom he partnered on the 2005 feature-film version of The Dukes of Hazzard. “Walmart became a very integral partner, and they actually came and spent some time with us. We put all the executives in the General Lee and had them driving on the obstacle courses, and they ended up manufacturing toys for the movie. They did a Jessica Simpson poster that was wildly successful ... Instead of us just licensing to somebody, they were 100% all in, really gave the movie a lot of shelf space at the stores. They were just supportive on every level.”

Most recently, Gerber has collaborated with sports apparel and accessories specialists Under Armour, on both The Last Face and Ron Shelton’s forthcoming gangsters-and-golf action-comedy Villa Capri. Jeremy Brodey, Under Armour’s director of branded integration and partnerships, found in both projects a strong, innovative showcase for the brand. “At the end of the day, it’s all about a trusting relationship,” says Brodey via email. “Bill is great. He had a vision, articulated it clearly and was always open for a conversation if issues arose.” Brodey also notes how The Last Face, starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as international aid relief workers, allowed for fresh thinking in terms of Under Armour’s brand placement. “Our core competency will always be sport,” he says, “but we make amazing products that transcend the traditional sport field. Bill and his team had a certain look and feel they were going for as it pertained to Charlize’s wardrobe, and via our Studio line we were able to help them achieve their goal. Being set in Africa and its extreme conditions, UA made a lot of sense to use.”

Under Armour’s participation on The Last Face also emphasizes what Gerber calls “seamlessness in the association.” “You can’t really let the tail wag the dog as far as collaborations and product placement are concerned,” he says. “The filmmakers I work with tend to err on the side of not taking the money or taking the placement, if it starts to feel problematic.” The key, he says, is to ensure that a film or TV project’s incorporation of branded imagery does not result in a moment that “feels too much like a commercial.”

Facilitating brand/producer collaborations that fulfill the goals of both partners, without compromising the intentions or effectiveness of either, is the mission of Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), a global brand-integration concern financed and backed by the technology innovations of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In May, BEN was formally launched as a rebranding of Corbis Entertainment, known throughout the world for both its brand-integration projects and its vast archive of entertainment and news photography. But BEN traces its roots back even further, to Norm Marshall & Associates, one of the key contemporary innovators in the transition from “product placement” to fully collaborative brand integration.

Caressa Douglas, BEN’s senior vice president of branded integration and content, has been with the organization since the Norm Marshall days, and she recognizes both the industry’s sometimes checkered view of the process and the fresh opportunities its latest evolutions can offer both producers and brands. “There’s a stigma of product placement with filmmakers,” says Douglas, “So it’s important for filmmakers to know that the business of product placement has evolved. It’s much more sophisticated, it’s much more seamless, and brand partners have also learned along the way. So it really can be that official, and it can really move a story forward.”

BEN utilizes a sophisticated media-planning platform to pair brands with potentially appropriate partner projects, then tracks return on investment through interfaces with Nielsen, Cision, Shareablee, and other demographics-aggregating services—breaking down audience-segment data, internet hits and shares, and other desirable impact-measuring factors. Still, for all its numbers-crunching acumen, Douglas says that BEN’s primary focus with every project with which they partner is serving the story, and that her responsibility to both the producers and brands with which she works is essentially the same. “Our primary goal is to be listeners. It’s our job to listen to what the brand is trying to do, what those objectives are, and we need to listen to what the filmmaker is trying to do. When we do that, we can be clear about what everyone’s goals are, once everyone’s honest and listening to each other, and there’s flexibility.”

Some of BEN’s high-profile recent projects include “Fried Chicken Week,” a five-night event on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! that showcased special comedy segments created through collaboration with KFC and the Kimmel writing staff, and a prominent presence for ice cream chain Baskin-Robbins in Marvel Studios’ 2015 Ant-Man. Not only did the film include a major scene set at a Baskin-Robbins store, complete with logos and employee uniforms, but the franchise was also name-checked in dialogue (“Baskin-Robbins always finds out”) that became a popular social media hashtag and even led to fan-created merchandise. “There was another restaurant that was actually scripted in,” says Douglas, “and they did not want Marvel to use their client. We took that opportunity to change it to Baskin, and they did share in the process—gave the writers insight about Baskin, the Baskin philosophy, the Baskin flavors, so they had something they could work with for jokes ... That was just one of those lightning-in-a-bottle things. It just took off.”

BEN will collaborate with Gerber on his upcoming production of A Star is Born, the feature directorial debut of Bradley Cooper, who will also co-star alongside Lady Gaga. The film is still early in pre-production, so no brand/producer partnerships have as yet been finalized, but Gerber already has praise for the working relationship he has enjoyed with BEN. “The feedback I’ve gotten, and the kind of companies that have been brought to our attention that want to get involved have been appropriate and kind of the best of the best.” Douglas has not yet read the film’s script, but she believes the collaboration will be “a pretty easy connection. (Gerber) will have many brands clamoring, whether it’s technology or fashion, spirits ... Hopefully, he’s gonna be swatting off all the offers he’ll have come in.”

BEN’s relationship with Gerber is a natural outgrowth of its ongoing partnership with the PGA; in addition to its extensive work with and on behalf of PGA-member producers, the organization also partners with the guild on yearly conferences and semi-regular summits at which it educates producers and content creators about the ever-shifting landscape of brand integration. “I think the biggest change,” says Douglas, “is the democratization of distribution, and along with that, the viewing patterns that have changed. I read a study that kids have an eight-second filter to decide whether they’re going to engage with a piece of content. They definitely have shorter attention spans. And the millennials ahead of them, they cut all the cords, so now you just have to find them on streaming content, and I think that’s challenging for brands and producers. We value our relationship with the PGA tremendously, because we really believe that every partnership starts with the producer and story. Until we have that story, we can’t bring it to the brand.”

Fortunately, the enhanced creativity and synergistic nature of contemporary brand integration means that many brands now view their partnership with producers and content creators as more than just a means to an end. Under Armour’s Brodey reminds potential future producer/creator partners, “We are here to help, we are here to provide insight if needed, but most importantly—we’re fans. We too want to see this movie get made, we too feel a bit of ownership. We understand and embrace the relationship-building aspect and the potential to work together down the line.”

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