Tuesday, September 14, 2010
There’s a lot of talk out there about how the future of film’s financing lies in branding and sponsorship, but I very rarely hear much about the possible negative consequences. First, let me say up front - I’ve done a lot of sponsorship deals in the arts world and I’m actually in favor of such things. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it - some people make that argument and I respect it, but this isn’t a trash capitalism critique. Rather, I think that I keep going to conferences about the future of media and people are speaking a lot about advertising deals, leveraging brands, selling sponsorships, etc and no one seems to be thinking about the consequences of this - especially the potential downsides. There are many.
The first potential downside is that there’s probably no upside. It is highly unlikely that you will get any major brand to sponsor your film. Yes, there are examples and I can show them too, but “sponsorship” is the new elusive lottery prize for filmmakers that was once getting into Sundance or scoring a distribution deal - it’s always been the lucky few and this will hold true with sponsorship. As a friend of mine who is very high up in the marketing department of a major company told me - “if a filmmaker asks me for sponsorship, I would say they should pay me instead because they are gaining much more from my logo than I am gaining from them.” She doesn’t take meetings with filmmakers, this is hypothetical, but you get the point - good luck sister.
The second downside is...once again, no upside - but in terms of the money to be had. One of the boom areas for sponsorship and film right now is in film contests. In these, some ad agency, or a middle-man, works with a festival or some other well-known film world brand and runs a contest where filmmakers (hopefully lots of them) make short videos that somehow use the brand and the winner gets some prize.
Look at any of the film contests out there, now and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not linking to any of them so as not to target anyone, but the majority of them offer something like: 1) win a cash prize of around $10,000; 2) get to attend some famous festival where your short will be shown; 3) the brand owns your film and can use it for marketing, etc.; 4) there’s usually some vague promise that you’ll be discovered - perhaps a meeting with some ad agency, or something.
There are variations, but these are pretty common. The most common factor is the paltry award - they usually range from a digital camera to as much as $15,000 US and rarely more. Sure, that’s a nice prize if you are sill in high school or college, but it’s not going to save the industry. Then again, this is more than most distributors will pay you for your finished feature film that wins a prize at Sundance (I’m not kidding), so everything is relative. That said, I don’t think this is the panacea we’re looking for in the film industry, and it won’t fund many feature films (Yes, I know about Somerstown, but that’s an exceptional case). You are also giving up your rights for a paltry sum, and one that is much less than they would typically pay for a commercial.
Some people will argue that you get exposure. That’s true, but you can also get exposure from your average YouTube video and maintain your rights to your film. Plus, if your goal is to become an independent filmmaker, having a reel of advertisements might or might not be the best thing. I’ve actually seen this work both ways - good and bad - but some filmmakers get pigeon-holed into commercial work. They can make a very good living at it, so I’m not knocking it, but this can sometimes lead to people only seeing them as a commercial director, or more often, the director not being able to turn down that good paycheck to work on art films anymore. I can also point out many people who successfully navigate both worlds, so I’m not saying it’s a definitely bad thing, mind you.
The third possible downside is more of an ethical dilemma. I don’t have one with accepting sponsorship, but if we’re going to start exploring this kind of funding, I think it’s worth mentioning that for many people there is one. How independent are you if at the end of the day, you’re shilling for some company? How ethical is it to take money from a corporation that might support policies you are fundamentally against? Or that might support regimes that have less than stellar human rights records? Or that discriminate against LGBT employees? Not all companies do any of the above, but if you look at just a few of the companies actively supporting film right now, you might notice more than one potential ethical dilemma. If people start funding more films through corporate support, will this mean foundations and government will see less need to fund such art? What happens to edgier, or less commercial work as film becomes a quest for vast numbers of eyeballs to push a brand? These are just a few of the many questions I think need to be asked.
In my opinion, all money is tainted in some way. You can’t take money from the government or foundations and truly keep a clear conscience. We’ve had support for the arts from patrons, the church, foundations, government and now from corporations. None of the earlier models have been all that great, so we might as well try this system. At the end of the day, however, I find it a bit distressing that I continually appear at conferences that have plenty of panels about sponsorship and advertising models, but there’s never a panel about the bigger issues - neither the very realistic possibility that these won’t be a saviour to many, nor any discussion about the potential ethical dilemmas. More than once I have heard questions or statements about this from the audience, so some people clearly want to talk about it. Recently, this issue came to the fore when many people protested BP’s support of many arts institutions in the UK. I think we need more open debate about this, and that film festivals, conferences and magazines/news sites should be leading the discussion. In fact, I think they are doing a disservice to the filmmakers they are supposedly trying to help by not exploring all of this further.
I guess I should be extra cautious here and add, once again, a clear note that I am not against sponsorship or advertising in any old lefty sense. Nor do I think that people shouldn’t experiment with it as a financing model, or enter a contest if they are fine with the rules and the ethics. I’m just suggesting that we need some more realistic commentary on this subject and that it deserves some healthy debate. If BP wants to sponsor your movie - awesome. I just doubt it’s going to happen to many people, and we might want to think about what this means a bit more.