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An Introduction to Product Placement:

The 2004 documentary “The Corporation” has a segment about real life product placements that companies pay for (such as people paid to talk loudly in public about a song they just heard or a product they just tried like in “The Truman Show”), which I think is a scary extreme of where branding was already headed ten years ago. I suggest everyone take the time to watch it sometime, and yet with a daily dose of skepticism I still see value in the future of brand integrations bridging the divide between creativity and commerce. There are bad integrations that go overboard and are obvious and painful and there are good integrations where it is not noticeable at all and feels natural. And finally now with online branded entertainment there are web-series that are completely produced by the brand’s agency to appeal to specific audiences of customers.

When done correctly, integrations don’t impact the actual story at all, but are merely the clothes the character has on, the makeup they wear or the beverage they drink. And they don’t talk about the brand by name because real people don’t usually do that. If done poorly, it can end up feeling like watching a two-hour advertisement. Most people don’t mind watching commercials before a show if it means the entertainment is free and the shows are void of outside interests. This is the model that worked for so long, after all, and kept shows free from too many overt brand placements. With DVR’s came the need to re-up placements and in many cases it has been used poorly as a means to get funding and remind you to buy stuff in case you forgot.

When Is Product Placement Appropriate?

As Mark Harris illustrated in this GQ article in 2011, and as Steven Soderbergh similarly pointed out recently in his speech at SFFF about the state of cinema, the number of studio films produced each year keeps dwindling, meaning indie filmmakers and smaller production and film finance companies are taking up the slack and heading up a majority of productions being shot. With so much money at stake even in indie films, there must always be some cleverness in film financing: such as foreign pre-sales, tax credits, crowdfunding and other practices. It should be no surprise to anyone that blockbusters can drive a high price tag for integrations, even for only a couple moments of screen time. Studios use this to help fund big budget actioners, which often come off as obvious and result in throwaway and forgettable movies that can ironically hurt the integrated brand’s image.

For the indie filmmaker, product integrations can be equally helpful in offsetting production costs, such as props, wardrobe, picture vehicles and signage, even if the brand doesn’t pay for the placement. Integrations can be used incorrectly or overused in indies as well when they are paid, so don’t do that. After all, many companies do not ever pay for integrations (Apple, for example), yet they make products people want in their films so they are usually happy to at least provide their products and clearances without much of a hassle. Another good way to go is using local companies and brands. I managed integrations for one film that shot in rural Colorado and one of the characters drank a certain wine – so we reached out to local vineyards and used their wine for the scenes, getting them exposure and helping us on cost of props. That whole film’s budget was somewhere near 300k and the product/wardrobe secured was worth somewhere near 30k in rental or purchase costs. Renting props and wardrobe from the big guys usually requires large deposits and insurance, so if you can save even ten percent of your budget by using real brands in a subtle way, it does help the indie filmmaker.

When integrating products it can either provide a subtle sense of realism or when done sloppily can ruin the experience of seeing the film altogether and make it feel bastardized. Once you get to the point of mentioning brands in dialogue or making a concerted effort to have the label out in your shots, you’ve missed the point of integrating something from everyday life into a creative art form (that people pay to go see). I won’t be listing a bunch of examples, as there are many posts online that list specific integrations and why they were good or bad. I will say that I believe when a brand “sponsors” a show or webseries (such as many shows on Vice.com) it allows the show creators a budget and creative control to create something original, and is an ideal scenario really since the majors aren’t producing anything but remakes and sequels anyway. HBO has been a beacon of great entertainment for years, doing a stellar job of something studio execs had a few decades ago: the ability to bring together tremendous talent and let them do their thing. Netflix now has some original series as does Hulu, and both have more attractive models than one can find through this country’s cable providers.

Product Placement For Indie Filmmakers:

Despite the rant in “Blue Velvet” by Dennis Hopper’s character about how Heineken isn’t as good as Pabst, which seems like something a real crazy person might say, filmmaker David Lynch has held a consistent hatred for product placement in films, but I believe he is referring to paid integrations in films that are obvious and take one out of the film. Bad integrations. I think Lynch would agree that he makes films he can basically finance himself and most indie filmmakers are not in that position, and need free props where they can get them and sometimes paid integrations are done well and work for the filmmaker as well as the brand. I think as long as you’re not Amish or don’t grow all your own food or live as a hermit somewhere you’re probably not selling out by using real items on scene just as you would in the real world.

If you’re producing a short or indie film, and have no big name stars or distribution secured, you don’t have any chance whatsoever of getting paid to place products in your film unless you have a connection at the brand. Sorry to burst any bubbles if that was unclear earlier. Most brands, as I said above, are fine with granting you clearances and even providing free product if you reach out enough in advance so that their inventory can handle your needs and the brand can sign off on the request. Many people don’t realize this and try like hell to avoid showing logos or signage in fear of being sued, but the rule of thumb is generally that if the product is being used as intended you shouldn’t have any issues. For example: if a character in your scene is using a certain brand of laundry detergent to do their laundry, and their laundry comes out fine and the washing machine doesn’t explode or anything, you’re probably fine.

If you’re using a certain brand of laundry detergent to poison somebody in a scene, or if the laundry detergent breaks the washing machine, you will run into some problems getting a clearance for that brand of detergent. All major brands have a “brand image” they try to adhere to, but unless you are using the product incorrectly or it causes damage to something or someone — you are probably safe to use it. Another misconception is around cars, since having a hero’s car can drive big dollars in studio films (such as the BMW’s in James Bond franchise). You do not necessarily need a clearance to show a car’s logo unless you alter the design of the car in some way or use the car in some nefarious fashion. I once reached out to a car dealership on a shoot and was able to get them to loan us a dozen brand new cars for a scene we were shooting in exchange for taking a few photos they could keep of the stars in front of the vehicles. It was beneficial for the shoot and for the dealership. Going local is a great tip I’ll try to keep mentioning.

If you put your mind to obtaining a certain song clearance, or brand mention, or a dozen picture cars such as above, its perfectly possible as long as you act professional and courteous with everyone you’re encountering, and only use brands when absolutely appropriate to the script. I’ll also say that art directors can manage making their own labels for a lot of products and changing a letter or two to avoid the need for clearances or permission (many shows set at the White House use a sign that says “resident of the United States” rather than “President”). If you have a scene in a supermarket or convenience store it may be helpful to make the background less distracting by removing familiar logos, but there is a time and place for everything and like I’ve said before, as long it is completely natural to the scene I don’t see how it can hurt the integrity of the film. My point being, if you have a good art director they can usually tell when and where it’s appropriate.

How to Get Product Placement For Your Movie:

Finally, you’ve got a script and you’ve casted and scouted locations and you’re getting prepped and want to see if you can swing any product to help save on costs. You’ll want to start by going through your script with a highlighter to find out what you could use clearances or free product for and write down or highlight anything you see that could be a product. If you’re shooting a western, perhaps Levi’s or Carhartt could help provide the wardrobe for your main characters. Maybe the character wears Ray-Ban sunglasses or Nike sneakers, or drinks only one kind of beer or has a lot of conversations on his phone, or headset, or it all takes place in his car. You get the point, you’ve made a long list of brands that you can argue are essential to this character.

Once you’ve got a list of the brands you want to approach it’s again just a matter of being professional and courteous to the gatekeepers. You’ll go to www.erma.org — which is the Association of Entertainment Marketing Professionals, and do a search of each item on your list to find out which product placement agencies represent each one. Give the person listed a call and tell them what kind of project you’re shooting and sell up any aspects you can. Like I said earlier, with a few stars or some distribution deal you can go a long way. If it isn’t a feature or you don’t have any credibility you may need to give more passionate reasons for why they should work with you, but if you do it right they are almost always willing to help get their brand seen by more eyeballs.

As Soderbergh said in the speech I linked to earlier in this post, ““The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made…. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.” The artist should be able to focus on their project first and foremost, but as we live in a capitalistic society the artist must get paid to make art, so if product placement is done correctly and to supplement production expenses I think it serves a real purpose. If it is done in your face with mentions of how great the product is or whatever, it obviously serves no purpose other than to sell something and as Mike Ryan said here, it should probably be a free movie.