After the Sundance Film Festival started generating criticism for turning into a Nascar-like promotional blitz for brands, marketers have become a little more savvy about how they generate buzz for their products.
The answer: Produce entertainment content that unspools alongside the films looking for distribution deals.
Captain Morgan, the red-coated icon of Diageo’s rum label, is the focus of “The Unsinkable Henry Morgan,” a 30-minute documentary, helmed by veteran commercials and musicvideo director Michael Haussman, about the search for the privateer’s lost fleet of ships in Panama.
Film follows a team of artists and experts, including costume designer Colleen Atwood (“Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Alice in Wonderland”), and author Stephan Talty, as they explore the legends surrounding Morgan’s exploits in Panama and the cultural impression he left there.
Project is the first of a multi-platform branded entertainment roll out planned by the spirits conglom that will also see the doc air on the Sundance Channel, include events and an exhibit at the film fest, and spin off a graphic novel.
In its 30-plus years, Sundance has fought to maintain its roots as a showcase for independent film and maverick voices even as it evolved into a mainstream attraction.
But success, invariably, led to an influx of outside commercial interests piggybacking their brands on the fest’s cachet. The streets of tiny Park City, Utah, became festooned with banners for brands and their swag-filled lodges, forcing fest founder Robert Redford to speak out against the ubiquity of peripheral marketing.
The lines are clearly blurring again this year with the Sundance Channel increasingly using the fest as a selling point to attract advertisers — the same way other fest organizers, like those behind Tribeca, have used various platforms to showcase core sponsors.
The presence of the “Henry Morgan” doc at the fest — while not an official Sundance selection — is likely to raise hackles among Park City cineastes.
“At Sundance Channel we’re always looking for daring and innovative ways for our sponsors to connect with our highly curious and connected audience,” said Sarah Barnett, Sundance Channel g.m. “By working closely with Diageo, we were able to design an extremely specific and effective content play for its brand at both the Sundance Film Festival and on our channel.”
“The Unsinkable Henry Morgan” bows on Jan. 18, at the Filmmaker Lodge in Park City, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Fritz Hanselmann, the lead archaeologist featured in the film, where Haussman and Talty, author of “Empire of the Blue Water” will speak about the production.
Doc will then air on the Sundance Channel on Jan. 20.
To promote the project, Diageo also enlisted production designer Dante Ferretti (“Hugo,” “The Aviator”) to build a 10-foot replica of The Satisfaction, Captain Morgan’s flagship, to set anchor at Sundance Channel headquarters on Main Street in Park City during the fest.
Venue will host the premiere afterparty, where photographs from the doc’s shipwreck expedition and behind-the-scenes shots from filming will be on display. Atwood was also tapped to design Captain Morgan’s signature coat for Diageo, which will be on view.
Separately, Diageo created a graphic novel for its iconic privateer, produced by comicbook artist Ben Templesmith (“30 Days of Night”) and Marvel Comics vet Michael Bendis.
With “The Unsinkable Henry Morgan,” Diageo was looking for a way to bring Captain Morgan to life, and “tell the story of one of the most notorious privateers of all time,” said Tom Herbst, VP of rums, Diageo North America.
Although backed by a brand, Haussman treated the Captain Morgan film as a commercially driven project with value as a subject in and of itself.
“Most people have at least heard of the infamous Captain Morgan, but to this day, I don’t know if people know whether he was real or just a fictitious pirate,” Haussman said.
“For me, that was the most intriguing reason to take on the project. Our artists and experts acted as investigators, using their skills to paint a more accurate picture of Henry Morgan, the man. What we were not prepared for was the enormous scale of his feats, or the historical significance his conquering of Panama played in reshaping the country and the decline of the Spanish empire forever.”
Project began in September 2010, when a team of U.S. archeologists, led by Hanselman discovered six iron cannons belonging to Morgan. Armed with funding from the Captain Morgan brand, the team discovered and excavated artifacts from the wreck of a 17th century wooden ship near where five of Morgan’s ships were lost in 1671 off the coast of Panama on the shallow Lajas Reef, including The Satisfaction.
It remains to be see how fest goers will react to Diageo’s aim to make a splash not just on the periphery of the fest but as partners with the Sundance Channel on a doc about the rum’s namesake character. The end result, afterall, is not to sell tickets, but increase alcohol sales.
Company’s other brands like its Ciroc and Bulleit bourbons will also benefit from exposure at the Sundance Channel’s venue. On Jan. 21, Tom Bulleit and Jeymes Samuel, the director of “They Die by Dawn,” will debut a trailer for the upcoming short film’s preem.
Whether all that sits well with Redford is now up to him.