STUDENTS' BRANDED ENTERTAINMENT PROJECT BECOMES REAL BUSINESS

ProMotion Pictures' Clients Include Unilever's Axe, Volvo and Verizon

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LOS ANGELES -- As some marketers continue to scratch their heads trying to come up with creative ways to reach the lucrative 18- to 34-year-old consumer, others have figured out it might be a good idea to go directly to the source for ideas.
Unilever's Axe is ProMotion Pictures' latest client for short feature films promoting the product. The NYU student group is receiving $40,000 a film to create and produce three films.



Since its formation in 2004, Volvo, Verizon Communications and Unilever’s Axe have enlisted the help of ProMotion Pictures, an extra-curricular group of graduate students from New York University’s Stern School of Business and Tisch School of the Arts, to develop and produce branded entertainment projects for marketers such as Volvo, Unilever's Axe and Verizon.

Three short films per brand

The projects so far have come in the form of short films, with the marketers ponying up the funds needed to produce them. Each brand produces three short films, with students tackling the creative, and the marketer owning the final result.

The idea of ProMotion Pictures' was to serve as a way for NYU marketing students to work directly with corporations while gaining practical experience and reels as a result of producing entertainment projects, said Russ Axelrod, who co-founded ProMotion Pictures with Jeff Grossman. “We wanted to bring the schools together and give them exposure to branded entertainment,” he said. “We wanted to give students and understanding of the concept and work experience.”

It’s the combination of the business and creative community that has attracted advertisers and their agencies, calling the students involved with the group part of the next generation of marketers.

“What that group is starting to do is see the possibilities of branded entertainment and use brands as an interesting way to connect with consumers and not capitulate on their creative desires on what they want to do,” said Kevin George, director of marketing for Axe. “They understand what the medium is all about. They grow up with brands all the time and realize that brands can bring them entertainment without hitting them over the head.”

Exact demographic fit

What hasn’t hurt is the fact that the students fit the exact age group the marketers are going after.

“A lot of companies are trying to reach a more youthful demographic,” said Richard Marks, account director for Verizon Communications at R/GA Interactive. “Working with them directly and having them be part of your marketing is a great way to connect with that audience. They bring energy and passion. They’re engaged, they’re excited about working directly with a corporation. It’s real world for them. It takes their nose out of the books and puts them into real business problems and issues and gives them the feeling that they’re helping a company move forward.”

Volvo became ProMotion Pictures’ first client in 2004, after Euro RSCG expressed interest in working with the students. The resulting films, which the agency spent $100,000 to fund, were shown on the Web.

Each sponsoring advertiser presents a brief to interested students, telling them what the brand is looking for. Students then go off and develop concepts and pitch them to the company, delivering a script, treatment, director’s reel and a budget. Three winning ideas are chosen that are then produced, with each team consisting of a member from each school. The advertiser provides feedback throughout the production process.

More marketers lined up

After the first Volvo films project was finished successfully, marketers have continued to line up for the service.

Last year, Verizon turned to ProMotion Pictures to come up with creative ways to promote its new broadband service through three- to five-minute films.

The films, each produced for $40,000, bowed online in October at www.verizonbroadbandfilms.com, where they can still be viewed. The company has the rights to use them in various ways over the next couple of years. It also spent an additional $25,000 to produce a documentary on the making of the shorts that it will eventually distribute, as well.

Verizon decided to work with ProMotion Pictures after being introduced to the group through its agency R/GA. The agency knew that Verizon was looking to attract the hard-to-reach 18-to-34 demographic and felt that ProMotion Pictures’ previous effort was the right fit.

Verizon declined to disclose how many people have watched its short films, but the “reaction has been very positive,” said Beth Mulhern, who worked with ProMotion Pictures as director of interactive marketing for Verizon. She said the films ultimately helped the company not only market its new broadband service directly to consumers but also served as a tool to help employees educate customers on the value of broadband. “Some employees spend a lot of time talking to people how broadband changes lives,” Ms. Mulhern said. “[The films] went another step further in showing, in a creative way, how it changes lives.”

'Absolutely recommend' student's work

Mr. Marks said he would “absolutely recommend” the program to other advertisers looking for content. “This type of program is creating the type of video content and branded entertainment that’s becoming more and more prevalent.”

The limited experience of the students has yet to deter advertisers from working with them. “They’re such respected business and film schools,” Mr. Marks said of Stern and Tisch. “We had no hesitation.” But that’s not to say there weren’t concerns. “It certainly helped to have an example,” said Mr. Marks, referring to the films that were produced for Volvo.

Added Ms. Mulhern: “We had our moments. It was an unknown. At Verizon we’re very careful with every dollar we spend. We want it to work hard for us. When you’re spending that kind of money, it raises some questions. But we had confidence that if anybody was going to have experience with broadband, these students would. It ended up being a positive experience from start to finish.”

Now Axe, which targets 18- to 24-year-old men with its line of body sprays, is in the midst of reviewing scripts for the next three films -- each five- to seven-minutes long -- that the company will produce with the students. Director Spike Lee, a graduate of the Tisch program, is one of the judges. The films, which are being funded at $40,000 each, will be produced over the next three months, with each set to premiere on May 1.

Axe short films

The shorts will likely be distributed online or made available on video-on-demand. They will serve as the follow up to the successful short film series “Evan and Gareth” that Axe rolled out last year, and attracted an audience of more than 3 million to date across various platforms.

The future of Axe’s marketing efforts is “entertainment and content based,” Mr. George said. “We focus on one thing: Let’s create content that guys want to seek out rather than push a 30-second ad on them all the time. Axe is always looking for new ways to reach out to young consumers, so ProMotion Pictures was very interesting to us. They’re the same age group. We’re looking forward to seeing what they come up with for our brand.”

The group is now looking for sponsors for the summer and the fall, with the hope of being able to produce three brand-backed projects per year.

ProMotion Pictures may have generated interest from brands, but the idea of working with a real marketer has also attracted interest from students. For Volvo, roughly 75 students attended the company’s presentation. For Axe, more than 100 students attended the brief. Verizon received 29 concept submissions, up from the 19 it received for Volvo.

Impacting student careers

“The schools are embracing it,” Mr. Axelrod said. “There’s a lot of momentum now. Students understand it could advance their career.”

Not surprisingly, the group hasn’t hurt the careers of its founders, either, helping them land branded entertainment gigs in the real world. After graduating from NYU in May, Mr. Axelrod took a job in business development at Robert Riesenberg’s Full Circle Entertainment. He recently moved on to develop brand-backed projects for Microsoft’s Xbox division. Meanwhile Mr. Grossman, who graduated in 2004, has gone on to oversee branded entertainment at CBS.

Mr. Axelrod said that he and Mr. Grossman intend to remain active with the group, but the day-to-day duties are being handled by a new set of students.

“This is our baby,” Mr. Axelrod said. “It does great things for the school and students. We’re in this industry. We believe in it.”
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