August 15th, 2008

How Marketing is Taking Over the Film Industry

By Kaleem Aftab
The Independent

James Bond is in deadly peril, so he does what every self-respecting action hero would do: checks the time on his watch and makes sure he has his car keys, thus ensuring that the brands that paid handsomely for the positioning are showcased.

We can all laugh at this blatant commercialism – and much of the time we do. But now that product placement has become the norm (and thus quite easy to ignore), some brands are coming up with increasingly surreptitious means of showcasing their products – even to the extent of becoming film financiers. Eurostar, whose old home at Waterloo was heavily featured last year in The Bourne Ultimatum, decided to announce its move to St Pancras by paying for Shane Meadows’s new film, Somers Town.

The advantage in financing the picture is that companies have complete control over how and where their logos are used. Also, with new digital technologies it is cheaper to make a low-budget film than to pay for product placement in a blockbuster. When Eurostar originally approached Meadows, it wanted him to make a short film of around 30 minutes in length. Recently, funding short films has become a popular marketing ploy for companies targeting young audiences. In return for the cash, they get their products showcased. These films will usually be submitted to festivals or put on to the internet.

The plan for the Meadows project changed when the director declared that Somers Town would work better as a feature-length film. The cross-channel train company was happy to oblige, and when the film was nearing completion it used an agency to approach distributors to come up with innovative ways of presenting the film to the public. The implication was that creating brand awareness was more important than box-office returns.

However, when Somers Town was accepted into the Berlin International Film Festival it started to receive good advance word. Meadows had made a delightful low-key black-and-white comedy about childhood friendship. A boy from the Midlands runs away from home and is befriended and helped in London by a young Polish immigrant, whose dad is a builder working on the construction of the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras.

I liked the film but found the numerous plugs for Eurostar tedious: for no reason whatsoever, the boys would inform each other that “it only takes two hours to go to Paris” and on several occasions they walked past posters for the company. The ending sees the boys taking the train to Paris. Next week, the 74-minute movie is being released in cinemas, and the marketing of the film omits to mention Eurostar’s involvement. Audiences are being duped into parting with their cash to watch this glorified advert.

In the early days of television, companies would act as underwriters for shows; drama serials got the moniker “soaps” from their washing-powder sponsors. Wings, the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar, back in 1927, contained a plug for Hershey’s. The 1980s saw the explosion in product placement in movies. Blockbusters such as Back to the Future showcased futuristic cars, while Spike Lee’s indie hit She’s Gotta Have It featured sneakers from a certain shoe company. Brands pay huge amounts to have their wares featured in blockbusters.

The Eighties excess of product-placement soon led to a backlash, and savvy brands have started to take a dramatic new approach that is far harder to spot. Apple, for example, makes a big play out of the fact that it doesn’t pay for product placement. Instead, it has cultivated relationships with many of the top prop-masters.

And it’s not just brands that are getting in on the act: Tom McCarthy’s recent indie favourite The Visitor received partial financing from pressure group Participant Media, which claims to be “the leading provider of entertainment that compels and inspires social change”. McCarthy says of the relationship, “My one concern before agreeing to accept their money – and, admittedly, that came down to a decision on how to finance the movie– was that they would try to put the message first. I said, ‘Look, this has to be a character movie and not an issue film’... audiences want to see a good story and they don’t want to be taught something.”

Another fruitful partnership was cemented in Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours: the film promotes the Musée d’Orsay, as the museum came up with the original idea. As Assayas explains: “They couldn’t invest money but they allowed us to take some pieces out of the museum to use in the film and shoot in the museum at a reduced rate.”

There is no indication while watching these films of the influence being wielded on the script. The heavily disguised marketing methods means audiences watching a movie now need to be as savvy about who is financing a film as they are about directors and stars. 

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