While many national brands are getting increasingly frustrated at the diminishing returns of tying into major Hollywood movies, some brands, like DKNY, are beginning to mine opportunities in the indie film arena that they hope will deliver a better return-on-investment.
The eponymous fashion company and its founder, designer Donna Karan, have co-produced a short six-minute film called "Friday Night Fever" with the Film Movement, Shooting Gallery founder Larry Meistrich's new outfit, and Details magazine.
"Donna's involvement and interest in film was the spark. She always has wanted us to bring the [ad] campaigns to life in a more three-dimensional way," says Anjali Lewis, senior VP-global marketing communications at DKNY. Other than the occasional spot, TV advertising is not normally a part of the media mix for the print-centric brand. According to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, DKNY spent just south of $20 million in total advertising last year.
Unlike mega brands like American Express, which can afford glittery talent like Jerry Seinfeld and Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, DKNY opted for an indie approach.
"Friday Night Fever," a short written and directed by Tjebbo Penning, about a Russian immigrant trying to carve out a life in New York City, is intended to work in tandem with the print ad campaign from last Fall entitled "New York Stories."
"It's more about corporate branding and less about selling. We wanted Larry's piece to live well beyond spring or fall or whatever season," says Lewis.
"I've had this idea for a while to bring progressive-thinking brands to the independent film space. I'm glad [DKNY] had the balls to do it," says Meistrich, who was one of the producers of the 1996 Oscar-winning film "Sling Blade" starring Billy Bob Thornton. "The execution was not an obvious one; it wasn't about 'buy clothes for $299.' It was to create a piece that reflects the true vision of a filmmaker while thematically reflecting what Donna Karan was looking to express through its brand."
Many a well-intentioned partnership gets derailed by an inability to collaborate. Both sides acknowledge growing pains in the relationship.
"It's always a scary thing to step out of your box," says Lewis. "We had to say this is not a campaign and it's not about getting a shot of that dress or that suit. This was a big jump for us to give up a lot of control and put our faith into people who know what they're doing from a narrative perspective to really be able to tell our story."
According to Meistrich, one of the bigger challenges in the relationship between brand and filmmakers occurred at the beginning of the process. Penning's original screenplay had to do with euthanasia, a subject matter that doesn't fit with the brand's "hip and fun" image.
"You're working with a creative person and you want them to be able to express and run with it. At the same time, there is a list of do's and don'ts for our brand," says Lewis. "I don't think of euthanasia as controversial, but it is dark and it's hard to make light of that and stay true to who we are. It didn't convey our DNA."
Fortunately, Penning, who was approved by DKNY, didn't throw a fit. His experience both in the feature film world and the advertising industry had prepared him to have a plan B, which culminated in "Friday Night Fever."
Meistrich also gives Lewis and her team much credit for managing its relationship with its ad agency Laird & Partners throughout this process. Lewis acknowledges that the shop was asked to step back a little and not be as involved as if it were a seasonal shoot.
DKNY was involved and offered notes to the filmmakers every step of the way from the writing of the script and casting to production and editing.
The film crescendos with a dance number with the protagonist in a white DKNY suit that is an obvious reference to the John Travolta disco-dancing character in the 70's hit "Saturday Night Fever."
"It wasn't really about the clothes; it was about what the clothes represented," according to Lewis. "You wouldn't necessarily discern the clothes as DKNY."
"Friday Night Fever" was a part of the December release for the Film Movement's subscription DVD series and made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film will also screen theatrically beginning in April as part of Film Movement's theatrical release program. It is also running on the DKNY and Details Web sites.
While it's too early to measure the film's impact on DKNY's revenues, Lewis indicates that retailers have responded positively. The film has been screening at stores. With its male protagonist, it is targeted towards men, according to Lewis, which is a shift in strategy. "Our company has always been focused on women."
%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Lewis says she'd be open to doing a feature-length film and that the cost wouldn't necessarily be prohibitive. "We'd consider longer-form if we had something to say. Now that we have the relationship [with Meistrich], the conversation continues."
Neither Lewis nor Meistrich would divulge the costs of this project but the DKNY exec says it was "nominal" as a small fraction of the investment for a regular ad campaign.
As Meistrich continues to push his DVD subscription model for films by emerging directors, he is also committed to more co-productions with brands. Film Movement has partnered with Visa, Nissan, and Bombay Sapphire in similar ways. "Brands are realizing that they pay for content and that they should be more involved in the content, beyond product placement. I very much wanted to prove a point that brands can be producers. That they can be nimble and forward-thinking."