A screenwriting friend, Paul Pastore, passed on an article from the NY Times last week: Branding Comes Early in the Filmmaking Process (This is the only link for a while, so make sure to read it.)
It’s no big secret that branding has been heavily embedded into everything we see on any screen, including movies, TV, and web content, but it’s especially interesting to look at how soon it begins to show its ugly head.
Hollywood writers used to complain about studio heads wielding too much power over the story, characters, and dialogue in a film, and now a corporate sponsor can carry just as much weight. It’s been all over sports as long as we can remember, and it’s been entering theatres near you with increasing frequency. You’ve seen them, films that have so many product inserts they look like something out of NASCAR or the US Tennis Association. Characters that have to have their Red Bull in every scene, or run with an Ipod, and how many computer and cell phone logos do we have to see?
The Soft Money Game
In the indie world, it’s not much different. A few years ago, producers talked about “soft money” when discussing branding in films. Soft money is a complicated principle worthy of Enron and Bernie Madoff in that it is really the sale of nothing but air. It represents the compilation of funds that come to the film based on a very specific sequence of very specific conditions that are iffy at best. The state tax credits to filmmakers are the most prominent example, in which individual state governments offer refunds, rebates, or tax credit certificates to filmmakers after the film is shot, presuming the shooting schedule and location meets the criteria of that state. This has been a hotbed of contention, since it literally takes a team of CPAs and lawyers to audit the applications to determine the amount that is credited back (which may not be what the investors were promised) and the process often takes much longer than promised, since nobody involved truly understands the rules.
Film producers are able to raise the funds for films with investors based on the promise of these “soft funds” at the end of production. But if something happens along the way, that final credit or rebate may be in jeopardy and the producer is screwed. (If you think producers make a lot of money for doing nothing, you can now see how that’s not true.)
But that’s not the only kind of soft money. Another kind involves funds that do go directly into the film in exchange for produce placement. This seems like a simple deal, but if any of the other parts of the financing fall apart, then the film may be delaying in shooting, or may not make it into distribution, which means the product is never seen. As you can guess, product placement contracts are predicated on the expectation of the product being viewed by an audience. If the money is given out up front to a production that doesn’t complete (and there are many reasons this will happen), the producer is once again screwed (see note above).
Scripting for Soft Money
Now, we back up all the way to the script itself, which has gone through many many permutations to meet the whims of the cast, director, producer, and location. Once product placement is in the mix, the script gets another rewrite to incorporate a home spa, car, candy bar, pair of shoes, cosmetic, cereal, tea bag, or any one of a million products. Your lead now chews cinnamon gum every time he chases a perp, and his partner comments on it in two scenes. We see him stop at a newsstand to buy some. For writers, this means giving up valuable real estate in the script—killing a few lines or even a scene to make room for a commercial interruption.
Then there are barter deals. In low-budget indies the “product” may be a motel or restaurant that offers free food or lodging to the production in exchange for shots of their logo. And either way, it’s evident that the film probably wouldn’t be getting made without that product logo somewhere.
Product placement is often a relatively simple deal in films not expected to make money, but in the Hollywood (and the major indie world of New York), it’s a full-time business. There are agencies (Google search: product placement) that have whole divisions of account managers who work with film producers on identifying product placement opportunities and then negotiating the deal. Sometimes lawyers will work independently as go-betweens. So one line in your script may support a team of people you will never meet, and there will be a lot of pressure to write it the way they want you to. (What would Signs have been like, if the little girl left glasses of Dr. Pepper on the table instead of water?) On the other hand, whole films have been written, based on promotion of a single product, most notably Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail.
How Does Product Placement Help The Writer?
They say it takes an average of seven years for a script to make it to a theatre. Now you know why. Does this help you in writing your script? Not really. It helps you in marketing it to understand that maybe you have more leverage than you think. You can mention product placement opportunities in your pitches to producers, because that’s how they think.
When you do your elevator speech about the screenplay you have lovingly nursed to perfection for the past 2-20 years, the producer will be thinking about possible leading actors and products that will help get the film made, sell it to distributors. A tie with Nike, Dominoes, Pepsi or Coke, or any other product your intended film audience likes will do that. Make a list yourself, and it will give you extra points with producers. And look for ways to incorporate products naturally in support of the script, rather than having them added later. It can be easy to do. Characters can hold an important discussion while shopping at Lowes or Walmart, instead of sitting on a park bench. Remember the scene from He’s Just Not That Into You, where Jennifer Connelly learns husband Bradley Cooper has cheated while they are shopping at Home Depot? That was no accident. And it was also a better scene, filled with irony.
So, if you don’t like the idea of your script being a billboard for Cherios, then make your film locally with your friends as actors (seriously) using a few credit cards to pay the bills. You can preserve your integrity and you might end up with a film that can get you more work—where you will be writing scenes for Cherios.
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