Film is the form for effective brand storytelling

By Steve Barrett

From blockbuster action movies featuring famous Hollywood actors to moody thrillers directed by high-profile names such as Werner Herzog and Armando Bo, cinematic storytelling on behalf of brands has hit the big time.

Last night’s second gala screening of PRWeek and Campaign’s annual Brand Film Festival in New York City provided a fascinating insight into where the communications industry is heading.

Just as with handling crises on social media, there’s no established playbook for brand films yet, but you can definitely see a massive progression in just 12 months when you look at the work honored this year.

There were fewer executions where you could say “well, that’s just an ad,” although that is still a trap into which some brands continue to fall. There is also clearly still tension around how much you shoehorn the brand into the film versus having no mention of it at all. Some proclaimed the latter as a badge of honor; others couldn’t resist the gratuitous – and totally unnecessary – clip of the CEO in the middle of the film.

We also made sure, in conjunction with our excellent panel of jurors, to eliminate those films that were nothing more than “lazy ads” that would have benefited from being forced to comply with the 30-second spot ad discipline.

It said a lot that the festival was able to attract a guest of the caliber of Academy Award-winning Birdman screenwriter Armando Bo to the show. Bo directed one of the Best of the Best films honored last night, a 30-minute thriller called Lifeline set in Shanghai produced on behalf of a relatively unfashionable brand – Qualcomm.

Bo was interviewed on stage by our excellent chair of jury Judy John, chief creative officer for North America at Publicis creative shop Leo Burnett and the brains behind Procter & Gamble’s iconic Always #LikeAGirl campaign.

Other famous directors engaging in brand filmmaking whose work was honored included Werner Herzog, for his Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World film for another relatively unfashionable client, NetScout, in partnership with Pereira & O’Dell New York, Saville Productions, and Magnolia Pictures.

It was great to hear from the high-powered team behind The Escape, an action movie by a somewhat sexier brand, BMW, which was a sequel to a ground-breaking series of eight executions 15 years ago under the same branding featuring Clive Owen as The Driver.

As Trudy Johnson from BMW pointed out at our Branded Storytelling workshop that preceded the festival gala screening, there was no social media back then and very little broadband. You had to wait for a film to download for hours on your landline connection to view video in those days – yet the films still garnered 100 million views.

I also had to smile when Armando Bo stated that they had put Lifeline together in “just four and a half months.” Clearly in terms of Hollywood and the production of 30-second ad spots that might not be a significant amount of time, but I wonder how luxurious most PR firms would feel having that long to create a typical communications activation.

It’s all a case of context, experience, and culture. And I believe the nimbleness and quick thinking of PR pros can add a lot to the mix when it comes to effective brand film creation and execution.

But the fact is filmmaking at this level requires new skills, new networks, new relationships, and a new way of thinking.

BMW reunited the exact same team from 15 years ago when it decided to do a sequel to do The Escape – actor Clive Owen, a relative unknown back then but now an established star; creative director Bruce Bildsten; and Eric Stern, MD and partner at production company Anonymous Content. Getting the old team back together was that important to the credibility and authenticity of the film.

Those players, many of whom used to work at established ad agencies such as Fallon and BBH, have now migrated and evolved and exist in a fragmented world of freelance production, specialist hot shops, and post-creative agencies such as Ming Utility and Entertainment Group – a “strategic and action-based creative company focused on design, technology and entertainment.”

For their part, PR firms can build this capability through acquisition – which Edelman did when it bought into a joint venture with Jarrod Moses to create United Entertainment Group – grow it organically, such as Weber Shandwick’s establishment of its Mediaco content operation, or tap into their holding company network siblings.

And PRWeek’s Agency Business Report 2017, released on Monday, shows that small to medium-sized firms are all also building capabilities in this area, and we will summarize what they are doing in this area next week.

One of the film creators I spoke to last night explained that rather than working to the old formula of attaching 15% of the budget to production and 85% to media buying to place the ad/film, the situation has now been reversed, so 85% of money goes into production, 15% to media buying, much of it in the digital or social spheres.

That’s bad news for media owners, especially broadcasters, but good news for creatives and content producers. And, in response, broadcasters are getting in on the act to snag their share of this disappearing media spend cash. They’re setting up production arms such as the CNN-owned Great Big Story, a global media company dedicated to cinematic storytelling whose director of content and development Matthew Drake was interviewed on stage last night by Weber Shandwick’s editor-in-chief Vivian Schiller.

Schiller herself is a former president and CEO of NPR now plying her trade in the PR world, so it just goes to show how everything is converging around these broadcast, film, and production capabilities when it comes to brand storytelling.

I expect the playbook to have evolved just as fast and just as much by the time we convene in New York next May for the third Brand Film Festival, and we’re looking forward in the meantime to tracking the constant evolution of brand storytelling at PRWeek and Campaign.