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With less advertising on streaming, brands make more movies

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When the NBA ended its season last year because of the pandemic, Chris Paul made one of the first phone calls to Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Mr. Paul, then a point guard with the Oklahoma Thunder, knew he wanted to keep a record of what was going on and he wanted Mr. Grazer’s help.

“The idea was basically to film everything that happened in that game that night and what would come of it,” said Paul. “We had no idea what was going to happen next.”

The result was “The Day Sports Stood Still,” a documentary about the shutdown, the NBA’s pandemic bubble and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the league. (Mr. Paul appears in the film and is executive producer.) It’s a portrait of the way the pandemic rocked the sports world, but also an example of how Covid-19 turned the entertainment industry upside down.

The film, which debuts Wednesday on HBO and HBO Max, comes from Mr. Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and a recent entry into Hollywood: Waffle Iron Entertainment, Nike’s production company.

As more people become home and depend on their streaming services, many of which don’t allow ads, companies are realizing they need to be creative in order to step in front of audiences who no longer see 30-second ads. More and more people are turning to traditional Hollywood production companies like Imagine to collaborate on feature films like “The Day Sports Stood Still,” which are steeped in Nike’s ethos but not sporting any of the traditional branded audience venues.

“The best partnership you can have is a marriage in which the issues between the company and the story are coordinated,” Grazer said in an interview. “When you have Chris Paul and Nike is part of the marketing, that’s an added ingredient in why someone is going to see it. You will feel that Nike supports it and that Nike does good things. “

Data from research firm WARC showed that advertisers spend on television in 2020 declined 10 percent year-over-year, while spending on online video increased 12 percent. Much of that money has gone to streaming services like Hulu, YouTube, and Peacock that accept advertisements. But those who don’t allow commercials, like Netflix, still remain unavailable for traditional marketing.

“Streaming offers advertisers fewer and fewer opportunities to engage with consumers in a meaningful way,” said Justin Wilkes, chief creative officer of Imagine Entertainment. “One of the final ways to do this is with long content. It’s all circular. It goes back to the early days of promoting and underwriting the great entertainment program. “

For almost as long as the media has been around, brands have been associated with film and television. Long before he became president, for example, Ronald Reagan hosted the popular television show “General Electric Theater” from 1954 to 1962.

In the last ten years, branded films have become more and more widespread.

In 2014, Patagonia funded a full-length documentary about dams called “DamNation”. Pepsi sponsored the 2018 film Uncle Drew, in which basketball star Kyrie Irving recreated his seven-year-old character from a popular series of Pepsi Max commercials. The film grossed $ 42 million and was one of the first branded entertainment campaigns to be turned into a major motion picture. “Gay Chorus Deep South,” an Airbnb-produced documentary, debuted in 2019. And Apple’s acclaimed “Ted Lasso” began life as an NBC Sports promotion for the acquisition of the broadcast rights to the English Premier League.

Imagine Entertainment, the production company founded in 1985 by Mr. Grazer and Ron Howard, founded Imagine Brands in 2018 to match companies with filmmakers and hired Mr. Wilkes and Marc Gilbar, creators of the “Uncle Drew” Pepsi campaign and an executive producer on the Film to guide the group. The department has produced both full-length documentaries and short-story films with partners including Unilever, Walmart and Ford.

Imagine also works with consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. The company, which in the 1930s effectively created soap operas by sponsoring radio series to promote its soap products, is co-financing a full-length film with Imagine called “Mars 2080”. It will be directed by Eliza McNitt and will begin production later this year. The film, slated for release in theaters by IMAX in 2022 before switching to a streaming service, focuses on a family settling on Mars.

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July 16, 2021, 4:40 p.m. ET

It emerged from a 2019 breakfast in New York where Mr. Wilkes, Mr. Howard and Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble, discussed the technology in the pipeline. The Imagine team later toured the Procter & Gamble research labs in Cincinnati, looked at examples of their “Home of the Future” products, and met their scientists.

Kimberly Doebereiner, vice president of future advertising at Procter & Gamble, said the company was looking for more long-form storytelling like “The Cost of Winning,” the four-part sports documentary produced by its razor brand Gillette. It debuted on HBO in November.

“We want to be more engaging so that consumers can rely on our experience and create content that they want to see rather than messages that bother them,” she said. “Finding a way to deliver content in places where there is no advertising is definitely one of the reasons we get involved.”

It’s all part of a conscious shift in brands to better fit into consumer lives, as companies like Apple and Amazon have, said Dipanjan Chatterjee, an analyst at Forrester. And they want to do this without advertising, which he said has “zero credibility” with consumers.

“If the right story has the right ingredients and is worth sharing, it won’t act as intrusive advertising,” said Chatterjee. “It feels a lot more like a natural part of our life.”

Alessandro Uzielli, head of global brands and entertainment at Ford Motor Company, first met with Imagine Brands in early 2018. He was looking for a way to complement Ford’s advertising campaign for the relaunched Bronco with a piece of entertainment that would reach a younger audience. . The result was “John Bronco,” a 37-minute mockumentary directed by Jake Szymanski (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”) with Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as the greatest fictional pitchman of all time.

The short film earned a spot at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now streamed on Hulu. In addition to guest appearances by Tim Meadows, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bo Derek, it helped reintroduce the Bronco, a sports utility vehicle that the automaker launched in the mid-1990s.

“This has helped us to speak to an audience that we probably wouldn’t speak to on our own,” said Mr Uzielli.

“It was Imagine’s project, and we didn’t want to tarnish their process to try to make it feel like too big a sales task,” he added.

Mr Szymanski, who has directed both feature films and commercials, including ads for the Dodge Durango starring Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character Ron Burgundy, said Ford had given him a lot of creative freedom. “I think they could have tried to put a much bigger shadow on him than they did,” he said.

Now imagine Mr. Szymanski and Mr. Goggins trying to transform John Bronco into the next Ted Lasso – an effort in the early stages of development.

“It’s kind of a win-win situation,” said Mr Szymanski of a possible television series based on Mr Goggins’ character. “I don’t think Ford would have any creative control over it, but having a character named John Bronco in the world would be a good thing for them.”

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