A 'Hero' Looks to Create Branded Content

Q&A: Milo Ventimiglia on His New Venture With Generate

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As actors such as Ashton Kutcher use their production companies to experiment with branded entertainment in front of the camera, others, including Milo Ventimiglia, are looking to go one step further by developing original web content with brands in mind.

Milo Ventimiglia stars in NBC's 'Heroes.'
Milo Ventimiglia stars in NBC's 'Heroes.' Credit: NBC
Mr. Ventimiglia, star of "Heroes," "Gilmore Girls" and the upcoming "Gamer," first dabbled in branded content two years ago, when he produced and directed animated web shorts for American Eagle. The spots were produced by Divide Pictures, the 5-year-old production company he co-founded with producers Russ Cundiff and Dino DeMilio. This week, Mr. Ventimiglia and Divide have a new home with Generate, the Los Angeles-based production studio co-founded and helmed by Jordan Levin, with which Divide has inked a new production relationship and first-look deal to create original content.

Mr. Ventimiglia has a long history with his new boss, dating back to his days on "Gilmore Girls" on the WB, where Mr. Levin was the CEO. "Jordan was one of the first guys to give me a chance behind the camera," Mr. Ventimiglia said, citing a series of network promos he directed during his "Gilmore" stint. After the two had left Warner Brothers, they found a way to reconnect. "I saw all the projects they were working on and I thought, 'Wow, these guys really are accessing the same types of relationships that we are, but at a different level,'" he said.

Mr. Levin said he's been impressed with Mr. Ventimiglia ever since he met the then-25-year-old actor during their WB days. "There's talent you meet that refuses to get boxed into a category, and we're attracted to that type of talent under our management division at Generate. They can express themselves wearing multiple hats," he said. "It was interesting from afar to track Milo's career and see he really stepped up and followed through on his ambitions and dived deep into the creative arena that most interested him."

In recent months, Divide has dabbled in everything from short-form web content to graphic novels. Mr. Ventimiglia said the Generate partnership is designed to yield high-quality video content that appeals to 18- to 34-year-old fans of science fiction and comic books, with a place for brands, too. "We want to come up with a cinematic piece that fits all the corners of what a brand represents," he said.

Mr. Ventimglia spoke with Ad Age days before heading off to New York's Comic Con, where he will participate in multiple panels for his role on "Heroes" and his work on Divide's new graphic novel, "Berserker."

Ad Age: So you're at work right now. "Heroes" work or Divide/Generate work?

Mr. Ventimiglia: I'm back to work, on the set of "Heroes." We're five episodes in already, five of 18 episodes. By the time we're back on air, we should be done with the whole thing. We've cut our production schedules down to nine days an episode. We've gone down from 16 days to 12, so we've significantly cut down. I'm sure the creative ideas are harder to get to when you get so spread out to 16 days an episode; what are you really filling those days with? I think the idea was to go back to the sentiment of the first season and the incredible things the characters were doing CG-wise.

Ad Age: So with such a crazy schedule, how many days a week do you get to work on Divide projects?

Mr. Ventimiglia: Every day. The way my days are structured -- if I'm on set three days a week, the other two days of a workweek are spent in my office. And throughout the day I'm catching up with my partner Russ and make sure I'm updated on everything going on.

Ad Age: The last time you worked with a brand, it was with American Eagle in 2007 for a series of "Winter Tales" shorts that aired online and for MTV's "It's a Mall World." What did that experience teach you about the production and distribution of branded entertainment?

Mr. Ventimiglia: When we were presented with the American Eagle opportunity, we saw a way to creatively produce and market for a brand -- but in a new way. The distribution was just something that seemed logical with the strategic business I've worked with in the last several years, regardless of whether it was online or the first commercial block in between an MTV show.

Ad Age: How did the American Eagle shorts perform for the company?

Mr. Ventimiglia: Something I always heard from American Eagle is that fourth-quarter went up that year as did sales of jeans. It was a $2 billion jean company when we were working with them and it was selling more jeans because of projects like "Mall World" and "Winter Tales." The conversation we had with Jordan was -- it worked for American Eagle so successfully because it fit its brand so specifically. This could work for any other company that wants to be portrayed in that light. That's what the Generate partnership is about.

Ad Age: Jordan Levin has a good reputation around town from his days at The WB. Do you find that your name opens doors too because you're an actor on "Heroes?"

Mr. Ventimiglia: I've been very fortunate to have opportunities that allow me to discuss projects that we're working on because of my day job, or past jobs I've worked on. That's one way to bring awareness to the projects, partnering with distribution channels online as well as production companies.

Ad Age: You've said you want to focus on bringing quality to online video. How can working with brands help you do that?

Mr. Ventimiglia: Being in the industry as long as I have, hearing how much money is spent on different commercials, you hear about companies that have a $1 billion budget, but can't seem to justify spending $1 million on a video. But a company like mine truly can create so much beautiful content that would benefit the cost of whatever tens of millions of dollars are to that brand. Times are changing, a paradigm shift is going on. It is a scary territory, but I think [branded content] is going to go in a direction of digital and online.

Ad Age: So you're at work right now. "Heroes" work or Divide/Generate work?

Mr. Ventimiglia: I'm back to work, on the set of "Heroes." We're five episodes in already -- five of 18 episodes. By the time we're back on air, we should be done with the whole thing. We've cut our production schedules down to nine days an episode. We've gone down from 16 days to 12, so we've significantly cut down. I'm sure the creative ideas are harder to get to when you get so spread out to 16 days an episode; what are you really filling those days with? I think the idea was to go back to the sentiment of the first season and the incredible things the characters were doing CG-wise.

Ad Age: So with such a crazy schedule, how many days a week do you get to work on Divide projects?

Mr. Ventimiglia: Every day. The way my days are structured -- if I'm on set three days a week, the other two days of a workweek are spent in my office. And throughout the day I'm catching up with my partner Russ and make sure I'm updated on everything going on.

Ad Age: The last time you worked with a brand, it was with American Eagle in 2007, for a series of "Winter Tales" shorts that aired online and for MTV's "It's a Mall World." What did that experience teach you about the production and distribution of branded entertainment?

Mr. Ventimiglia: When we were presented with the American Eagle opportunity, we saw a way to creatively produce and market for a brand -- but in a new way. The distribution was just something that seemed logical with the strategic business I've worked with in the last several years, regardless of whether it was online or the first commercial block in between an MTV show.

Ad Age: How did the American Eagle shorts perform for the company?

Mr. Ventimiglia: Something I always heard from American Eagle is that fourth quarter went up that year, as did sales of jeans. It was a $2 billion jean company when we were working with them, and it was selling more jeans because of projects like "Mall World" and "Winter Tales." The conversation we had with Jordan was -- it worked for American Eagle so successfully because it fit its brand so specifically. This could work for any other company that wants to be portrayed in that light. That's what the Generate partnership is about.

Ad Age: Jordan Levin has a good reputation around town from his days at the WB. Do you find that your name opens doors too because you're an actor on "Heroes"?

Mr. Ventimiglia: I've been very fortunate to have opportunities that allow me to discuss projects that we're working on because of my day job, or past jobs I've worked on. That's one way to bring awareness to the projects, partnering with distribution channels online as well as production companies.

Ad Age: You've said you want to focus on bringing quality to online video. How can working with brands help you do that?

Mr. Ventimiglia: Being in the industry as long as I have, hearing how much money is spent on different commercials, you hear about companies that have a $1 billion budget but can't seem to justify spending $1 million on a video. But a company like mine truly can create so much beautiful content that would benefit the cost of whatever tens of millions of dollars are to that brand. Times are changing. A paradigm shift is going on. It is a scary territory, but I think [branded content] is going to go in a direction of digital and online.

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