That’s Advertainment

That’s Advertainment – Company Business and Marketing

Laura Rich


Jason Reitman has an idea for a movie. It’s about a suburban mom whose son is dying of cancer. To ease his discomfort, she goes on a quest for marijuana. The fish-out-of-water tale follows the mother’s uproarious adventures in the pot-smoking subculture.

Just one problem: Reitman’s financial backer, Ford Motor Co., said no. “It had to be PG-13, somewhat respectable,” says Reitman. So the 23-year-old independent filmmaker (and son of Hollywood producer-director Ivan Reitman) pitched a story about a guy who goes to extremes to save a goldfish. Ford green-lighted this one, which, not coincidentally, features a main character who drives around in a 2001 Ford Focus. “I didn’t get to make a movie about a mom and pot, but I did get to make a movie about a guy saving a fish,” he says.

For independent filmmakers like Reitman, corporate marketers are stepping in where maxed-out credit cards or generous college roommates once served as the most viable financing options. Even veteran moviemakers, eager for a change of pace, are getting a piece of the action. In the past 18 months, BMW, Diet Coke, Ford and Volkswagen have all paid for the production of a handful of short films. In the process, they are breathing new life into the moribund realm of online entertainment.

Filmmakers don’t seem bothered by the idea of corporate sponsorship. “The more financial sources we have, the better for us,” says John Frankenheimer, the director of Manchurian Candidate and Reindeer Games who made a short for BMW Films. “There’s no difference in doing this for BMW than for MGM. We’re always trying to sell something.”

Call it advertainment – a blending of entertainment and advertising not seen since Procter & Gamble underwrote TV soap operas in the 1950s. The short films are being used to draw visitors to corporate Web sites and also are being picked up by online film sites like AtomFilms and Mediatrip.

For advertisers, it’s the latest attempt to keep their brands in front of consumers – even as traditional ads are increasingly muted, channel-surfed and TiVo-ed into oblivion. Some of the short films, like Reitman’s goldfish opus, Gulp, explicitly feature the company s offerings. Others downplay the product placement; their directors and backers treat the shorts as legitimate entertainment that will draw visitors to marketing Web sites. In any case, the films are, relatively speaking, a bargain. Ford spent about $600,000 on a half-dozen short films, about as much as the cost of a single 30-second TV commercial.

The most advanced practitioner of the advertainment art may be BMW. The German automaker created BMW Films last year and signed up a group of new and established directors to create short films for its campaign. The movies – directed by Frankenheimer, Alejandro Gonzatlez Inarritu, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie and Wong Kar-Wai – are collectively known as The Hire and feature British actor Clive Owen chauffeuring characters in various BMW models.

“We wanted it to be really compelling entertainment in which the car has a role,” says Jim McDowell, VP of marketing for BMW North America. “We couldn’t be hung up on ‘it can’t be shot at, dirtied or dented.”‘ The strategy behind The Hire was to break through the clutter of car marketing and reach customers where they hang out – which turned out to be the Web.

It seems to be working. According to Nielsen Net Ratings, BMW’s site was the fastest-growing site for the week of May 27, spiking 55 percent. McDowell says the carmaker hasn’t decided if it will fund a new round of advertainment. The films have an afterlife: They will be copied onto DVDs and mailed to BMW customers. The company also has a deal to screen them on the Independent Film Channel.

The infusion of cash for entertainment aimed at the Internet comes as most other capital has abandoned the medium. Online entertainment boomed in 1999 and 2000, and Filmmakers found plenty of dot-com sources willing to finance short subjects. But with the flameout of big-spending startups like Digital Entertainment Network and, interest in the genre as a money-making prospect cooled and funding dried up. With advertainment, Web entertainment seems to be headed for a mini-renaissance.

Which explains why several production companies are gearing up to cater to the new genre. Hypnotic, an online film company formed by the merger of Hypnotic and Nibblebox, will produce films funded by advertisers. And John Ratzenberger, who played postman Cliff Clavin on Cheers, has launched a company called Big Red Tent to focus on content For advertisers’ sites. The story of the mom searching for pot will have to wait.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Standard Media International

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group