Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shalt Make Your Own Movies!
It’s one thing to gain PR points via product placement in motion pictures or TV shows. But it’s quite another feat to create a movie or television show.
This is not a very common strategy, but thanks to the development of low-cost digital video equipment and the surplus of academic outlets teaching video production, PR professionals with a flair for the theatrical are able to pick up a camera and start shooting their own productions.
There is a noble history to this. Consider the 1948 feature “Louisiana Story.” Most people know this is the last movie directed by Robert Flaherty, the father of documentary filmmaking. It is also common knowledge that “Louisiana Story” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story, was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music (Virgil Thomson’s composition is the only film score to receive that honor).
What most people don’t know, however, was that “Louisiana Story” was produced by Standard Oil. Yes, that’s a company that rarely enjoyed positive PR. But with “Louisiana Story,” Standard Oil commissioned a feature film that played up the pro-development aspects of oil exploration in the Louisiana Bayou.
Johnson Wax took this challenge one better with its 1964 documentary “To Be Alive!” Designed to be a celebration of the world’s many cultures and the common bonds shared among peoples in all corners of the globe, “To Be Alive!” premiered at the Johnson Wax Pavilion at the New York’s World Fair (it was presented on three 18-foot screens) and won a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle, the first time a non-theatrical presentation was so honored by that celebrated organization. The next year, the film played in Hollywood and it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.
“To Be Alive!” is still playing – at SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The SC Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater presents the film in its original three-screen version. It reportedly still brings in visitors (no mean feat, considering the lack of tourist attractions in Racine, Wisconsin!).
Today, lower-cost video camera equipment is enabling PR professionals to make their own films. One of the most notable examples is Novo Nordisk’s documentary “Peaks and Poles: The Will Cross Story.” The film focuses on the Pittsburgh mountaineer who became the first person with diabetes to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and trek to the North and South Poles.
Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company that sponsored Cross, did not release the film theatrically. Instead, it used it for promotional and marketing purposes (it is available in DVD format as a 20-minute and 47-minute production). Copies of the DVD have been distributed to diabetes organizations, healthcare professionals, individuals living with diabetes, and members of the company’s international sales force.
Equally impressive is the four-part serial “Phished” created by the Night Agency in New York for webcast on Symantec’s Safetytown microsite. “Phished” follows the misadventures of an average Joe who discovers that his financial data has been stolen via the Net (or, in cybertalk, phished). Rather than sitting around waiting for outsiders to help solve his problems, this crime victim turns crime fighter in trying to hunt down and bring to justice the miscreants who hooked his information.
Although it is sponsored by Symantec, the anti-virus software company, “Phished” is not a commercial for the company or its product line. If anything, it is a stylish and entertaining production that approaches the serious subject of identity theft with uncommon originality. Scott Cohn, a creative director at the Night Agency, wrote and directed “Phished” (the agency also built the Safetytown web site and coordinated an online PR campaign, thus scoring a triple play with this project).
And that’s where the power and viability of D.I.Y. film and video production works: when the production transcends the inevitable PR hunger to sell-sell-sell.
In the fall of 2006, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (better known as Freddie Mac) wanted to increase the level of homeownership among Hispanics. So Freddie Mac’s creative team created a Spanish language TV novela exploring issues of homeownership. Promising a production where “hot storylines meet meaningful messages” (that’s Freddie Mac’s language, not mine!), the 13-episode “Nuestro Barrio” follows the married nightclub owners Manuel and Marisol in their pursuit of the American dream house. Several independently-owned TV stations in markets with large Hispanic communities broadcast “Nuestro Barrio” as a mini-series.
The ability of Freddie Mac to get this program on the air as a regular series and not as an infomercial is commendable. It is still currently being broadcast via local stations, and it is also being made available to mortgage lenders on DVD as a promotional product.
Plus, the notion of marketing something as serious as homeownership within the oversexed, campy melodrama of a novela is fun – and how often do the words “mortgage” and “fun” wind up in the same sentence?
The D.I.Y. nature of online video is also being tapped into. Another financial services, giant, ING Direct, tapped into this realm in the fall of 2006. The company launched the web site www.MoveOutMoveUp.com with a series of comic video clips showing sitcom-worthy hassles involved in renting while playing up the nirvana of homeownership – via the company’s subsidiary Orange Mortgage.
From a PR standpoint, ING Direct’s use of low comedy is refreshing – particularly the episode “Tea with Grandma,” where the visit of a visiting grandmother is disrupted by the excessively passionate acrobatics of the neighbors on the other side of the thin apartment walls. The company also discovered the joys of viral video distribution, as its clips have turned up on YouTube, Yahoo! Video and other online venues.
Of course, not every in-house production is going to win an Oscar or wind up on the National Film Registry. But the truly creative PR person cannot rely on old-fashioned press releases to get the word out and connect with audiences. At a time when it is too easy to make films and videos, it should be incumbent upon all PR professionals to channel their inner Orson Welles and grab a camera.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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I couldn't agree more. The web is going to go video crazy (more so than today) and you'll see the majority of companies flocking to video distribution channels to get their products seen.
Thanks for sharing my video mania, Lonelyblogger!