Seek­ing con­sumers who skip ads, brands spon­sor doc­u­men­taries

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY WENDY LEE

Harbinder Singh was skep­ti­cal about ar­ranged mar­riages, but when he re­ceived a photo of his po­ten­tial wife-to-be, he was wowed. “The charm, the smile, the per­son­al­ity … it shines right there,” he said.

Arvin­der, a young woman in her early 20s in In­dia, was also love-struck by Harbinder’s pic­ture. She saw the New Yorker’s kind, lov­ing eyes – a smile that seemed to be di­rected at her.

A thing as simple as look­ing at an old-fash­ioned, phys­i­cal pho­to­graph sparked a whirl­wind ro­mance and a life­time of love – all of it cap­tured in a five-minute doc­u­men­tary, “At First Sight,” posted on­line and shown as part of a larger se­ries at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val in April. But it wasn’t just a heart­warm­ing tale – it was also a sub­tle pitch for photo print­ers, with the YouTube ver­sion end­ing with the tagline “What mem­o­ries will you print?” fol­lowed by “HP keep rein­vent­ing.”

Since the dawn of TV, en­ter­tain­ment and ad­ver­tis­ing have been closely in­ter­twined. In the 1950s, com­pa­nies spon­sored pro­grams such as “The Col­gate Com­edy Hour,” where it was com­mon to hear pitches for house­hold prod­ucts be­fore the show and even see them men­tioned in the pro­gram’s nar­ra­tives. But as tech­nol­ogy evolved, more con­sumers fast­for­warded through ads and cut the cord al­to­gether. Brands sought out vi­ral video con­tent that they could spon­sor on so­cial me­dia, fu­el­ing the growth of com­pa­nies such as Buz­zFeed and Vox. Now, they are go­ing a step fur­ther by part­ner­ing di­rectly with film­mak­ers.

Whether the aim is to en­cour­age peo­ple to buy photo print­ers, ath­letic shoes or even fried chicken, com­pa­nies such as HP, Nike and Church’s Chicken are in­creas­ingly pour­ing money into doc­u­men­taries in hopes of cap­tur­ing the at­ten­tion of con­sumers who shun tra­di­tional com­mer­cials. The trend has been a boon to film­mak­ers such as East Hol­ly­wood’s Dirty Rob­ber. But it has also stirred de­bate over the role of ad­ver­tis­ing in non­fic­tion sto­ry­telling.

“As most au­di­ences have fled (watch­ing com­mer­cials on tra­di­tional tele­vi­sion), you re­ally have to re-imag­ine how you are go­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple. … A doc­u­men­tary is a re­ally nice way,” said James DeJulio, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ton­gal. The Santa Mon­ica, Calif., firm runs a plat­form that con­nects cre­ators and other tal­ent with en­ter­tain­ment com­pa­nies and brands.

Fund­ing re­mains a chal­lenge for doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers, who of­ten rely on grants. Cor­po­ra­tions can pro­vide an ad­di­tional in­vest­ment boost, said Caty Bo­rum Chat­too, di­rec­tor of Amer­i­can Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Me­dia and So­cial Im­pact in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Last year, 26% of doc­u­men­tary di­rec­tors and pro­duc­ers said they planned to work on branded doc­u­men­taries spon­sored by a com­pany, ac­cord­ing to a study by the cen­ter.

“Doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers are in­ter­ested in di­ver­si­fy­ing their po­ten­tial forms of rev­enue and fund­ing,” Bo­rum Chat­too said.

For their part, com­pa­nies say they believe spon­sored doc­u­men­taries are ef­fec­tive at reach­ing newer au­di­ences.

“The key to stand­ing out from the noise is to tell sto­ries that are gen­uine and con­nect with peo­ple,” said An­gela Ma­tusik, HP’s head of brand jour­nal­ism.

The Palo Alto, Calif., com­pany, which sells photo print­ers, is hoping its films will “en­cour­age peo­ple to print more pho­tos.” Al­ready, 77% of view­ers who were sur­veyed said “At First Sight” was ef­fec­tive in mak­ing them feel that way, Ma­tusik added.

In the HP films, New York­based Red­glass Pic­tures pro­moted the power of printed pho­to­graphs through three re­al­life tales – a love story, a mys­tery and a dis­cov­ery.

“An idea of love at first sight felt like such a great way to honor this idea of love through pho­to­graphs,” said Sarah Klein, co-founder of Red­glass Pic­tures. “We wanted to tell the story of a ver­sion that re­ally did hap­pen through a pho­to­graph that did re­sult in true love.”

For brands, pay­ing for doc­u­men­taries can be cheaper than pay­ing for TV ads in large na­tional mar­kets.

Church’s Chicken said it spent $10,000 to $20,000 for each of the sev­eral doc­u­men­tary videos it has com­mis­sioned. In 2016, the At­lanta fast-food chain posted a fiveminute YouTube video on Comp­ton, Calif., high­light­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers ex­plain­ing what Comp­ton means to them and briefly touch­ing on the role of Church’s Chicken in their city – as one of the few es­tab­lish­ments that sur­vived the 1992 Los An­ge­les ri­ots. Church’s also launched a do­cuseries on the World’s Fastest Drum­mer com­pe­ti­tion – be­cause drum­ming could be loosely tied to drum­sticks.

The drum­ming se­ries al­lowed the com­pany to get in front of a younger, 18-to-35 male de­mo­graphic that it wouldn’t have been able to reach with tra­di­tional me­dia, said Ge­or­gia Marge­son, se­nior di­rec­tor of ad­ver­tis­ing at Church’s.

“This is a way that you can reach out to com­mu­ni­ties and es­tab­lish a voice among con­sumers that you may not have reached oth­er­wise,” Marge­son said.

Doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers such as Martin Des­mond Roe, a co-founder of Dirty Rob­ber, have ben­e­fited from the in­creased in­ter­est from brands such as Nike. Last year, bran­drelated projects made up half of his pro­duc­tion com­pany’s yearly rev­enue – in the range of roughly $15 mil­lion. His com­pany has worked on branded doc­u­men­taries in­clud­ing “Break­ing2,” a film about marathon run­ning paid for by Nike that has re­ceived more than 5.5 mil­lion views on YouTube.

“It’s where our skill set meets their need,” Roe said. “Peo­ple don’t care who is pay­ing for it, so long as it’s mean­ing­ful … so long as it’s sto­ry­telling.”

Roku, a Los Gatos, Calif.based maker of TV-con­nected de­vices and host of its own ad-sup­ported stream­ing chan­nel, says there is strong de­mand among con­sumers for branded videos. Last year, the com­pany launched its own branded con­tent hub on the Roku Chan­nel, get­ting con­tent from brands in front of Roku cus­tomers and on the big­gest screen in their liv­ing rooms. In re­turn, Roku re­ceives rev­enue based on how many house­holds the branded con­tent hub could reach.

“For them, it was truly an op­por­tu­nity to not only get scale to an au­di­ence they were look­ing to reach but to find a more en­gaged user, a cord cut­ter, some­one they sim­ply couldn’t reach in the liv­ing room any other way,” said Ali­son Levin, Roku’s vice pres­i­dent of ad sales and strat­egy.

The first videos to launch on the Roku Chan­nel’s branded hub were ex­plorer sto­ries spon­sored by beer com­pany MillerCoor­s. Roku view­ers watched about 70% of those videos to com­ple­tion, whether they were one or six min­utes long, Levin said. Cus­tomers spent more than 851,000 min­utes with the videos from Septem­ber through De­cem­ber, she said.

“The fact that we saw con­sumers pick to watch it and al­most watch it to com­ple­tion shows how much they value that con­tent,” Levin said.

But branded video chal­lenges the very na­ture of doc­u­men­tary sto­ry­telling, said Si­mon Kil­murry, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Doc­u­men­tary As­so­ci­a­tion.

“The strength of doc­u­men­tary film is that it’s in­de­pen­dent,” Kil­murry said. “When you be­gin to get brands in­volved, it be­comes much murkier in terms of what the mo­ti­va­tions are.”

Tra­di­tional out­lets that broad­cast doc­u­men­taries, such as PBS, have strict re­quire­ments for spon­sor dis­clo­sure, of­ten vo­cally dis­clos­ing ma­jor spon­sors at the start of films. But when it comes to so­cial me­dia or some stream­ing plat­forms, those dis­clo­sures may not be as ob­vi­ous.

With branded con­tent, film­mak­ers have to bal­ance spon­sor vis­i­bil­ity with ef­fec­tive sto­ry­telling.

In 2017, Dirty Rob­ber re­leased a 55-minute doc­u­men­tary for Nike that il­lus­trated ath­letes at­tempt­ing to run a marathon un­der two hours. None of them met the goal, with one run­ner miss­ing it by just 26 sec­onds. The com­pany said it shot footage of Nike shoes get­ting made for the marathon but opted to not in­clude it be­cause it took away from the sto­ry­telling. Nike agreed, and the doc­u­men­tary that ran on YouTube in­stead fo­cused on the strug­gle the run­ners faced to beat the clock. (Nike did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.)

Dirty Rob­ber held sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tions with stake­hold­ers in a docu-se­ries on rap­per Wiz Khal­ifa that was dis­trib­uted on stream­ing mu­sic plat­form Ap­ple Mu­sic in April. The se­ries of videos, which ran less than 15 min­utes each, were orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned to show Khal­ifa’s ac­tiv­i­ties over a week. But Dirty Rob­ber wanted to tell the story of Khal­ifa’s re­la­tion­ship with his friends, par­ents and son and how that has evolved as he’s be­come a prom­i­nent rap­per. The com­pany de­clined to dis­close the cost of the project, which was fi­nanced by Ap­ple.

“Now it’s not just branded con­tent for the fans,” Roe said. “Now, it’s real sto­ry­telling.”



Martin Des­mond Roe of Dirty Rob­ber

MYUNG J. CHUN Los An­ge­les Times/TNS

Com­pa­nies are pour­ing money into doc­u­men­taries in hopes of reach­ing con­sumers who shun com­mer­cials. The trend has been a boon to film pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies such as Dirty Rob­ber, led by Martin Des­mond Roe, from left, Chris Uet­twiller and Nick Frew.

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