Investors want problems in process ironed out first

With the traditional funding model for independent film under severe pressure, producers are always on the lookout for potential sources of alternative coin.

One such source is brand finance, in which a consumer product is persuaded to bankroll production in return for the promotional value and prestige of being associated with the movie.

Advertiser-supported programming is an established model in television, dating all the way back to the original soap operas, so named because they were financed by Proctor & Gamble. But it has never taken hold in film, because it’s much harder to give the brand a tangible return for its investment when there are no ad breaks to play with.

A few experiments in recent years, such as Eurostar’s funding of the Shane Meadows film “Somers Town,” which generated much criticism aimed at the filmmaker; Adidas investing in the soccer trilogy flop “Goal!” and Audi’s involvement in the collapsed project “Red Light Runners,” didn’t exactly encourage further innovation.

London-based marketing expert Ed Sharp launched his consultancy Film Tree last year to explore new ways of bringing brands together with film producers and distributors. Sharp’s background lies in brokering marketing partnerships between major brands and Hollywood movies. He’s convinced the potential exists to take this relationship a step further.

Sharp doesn’t believe brands can or should fully finance a movie, but sees potential in a hybrid structure where a brand provides gap coin — worth, say, $500,000 for a $10 million project.

But he concedes that it has been slow going to develop this model. The biggest problem, he says, lies in the volatile nature of indie production, which makes it very hard to offer brands a concrete proposition.

“We went out with a slate of projects earlier this year, and we lined up brands that were interested in coming aboard, but the problem has been on the producer side,” he says. “Very often something that looks ready to go has had major issues, with finance or cast dropping out, that have caused significant delays. That’s really problematic for brands.”

The two projects that have generated most interest are Iain Softley’s stylish romance “A Trap for Cinderella” and the Martha Fiennes spy thriller “Blown.” Both have the kind of commercial edge that is appealing to brands, which prefer contemporary or futuristic fare to period pieces. But neither has yet managed to pull together the right casting or co-financing elements to become a concrete proposition for the brands to invest in.

One obstacle to tapping brand finance is that companies will only consider projects that are already greenlit and certain to get made, Sharp says. Approaching brands with a hypothetical proposition simply doesn’t work. So producers still need to raise their funding via traditional routes, before they can pitch for corporate finance to start to recover their costs.

“One of the learnings is that there has to be a cast-iron logic for a particular brand to become involved in a particular project. You are competing for money that the company would put into TV advertising, sports sponsorship or other arts sponsorship, so they ask, is this film going to get distributed, is this film going to work?,” says Sharp. “We’ve seen examples of a brand asking their agency to come up with a return on investment number. They know if they spend $100,000 on a TV ad, they will get a certain return, so they want to know what return they will get if they spend that money on a film instead.”

The natural instinct is for brands to seek a product placement deal in return for their cash. But that can be counter-productive, both for the brand and the filmmaker, if it diminishes the creative credibility of the movie. However much Meadows insisted that the ending of “Somers Town,” when his characters traveled from London to Paris on the Eurostar, wasn’t dictated by the funding, critics and audiences suspected otherwise.

“We try to focus instead on the idea that the movie is a creative platform that can spin off lots of different uses for the brand,” Sharp says. “For example, we’re having conversations about a brand developing Web-based content, to be filmed alongside the making of the film, that the brand will have ownership of. These days all brands want to become broadcasters, because the Web has infinite capacity, so this is an opportunity for brands to use fantastic film talent to create that content, instead of the usual rubbish they make.”

For a brand, investing in a one-off movie is a high-risk gamble. If the film flops — or indeed, as in the extreme case of “Red Light Runners,” never finishes shooting — then the promotional value is zero. That’s why Sharp is exploring multi-platform ideas, where the film is just one element of a wider proposition. “We’re working with a company part-owned by Endemol on a deal which will include a film, but also a website, gaming, a novel and an interactive iPod book.

“Producers have to be up for thinking laterally about their creative concept. Just thinking in a purist way about cinemas and theatrical distribution, that’s not the way of the future.”

GLOBAL INDEPENDENTS 2010
Blueprint for change | Professional prospective |Fesival launch pad | Indie distrib reports | Avant garde influences the mainstream | Euro production houses turn to TV | Producers cut down overhead | One-stop shops boost Brit biz | Brands eye film funding cautiously | High rollers show serious pic game

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