Chelsea Gathers Around Campfire

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In 1999, when the advertising world started to buzz about interactive marketing, branded entertainment and the threat of DVRs, Chelsea Pictures signed Haxan, the directing team most famous for its work on the independent pseudo-reality horror hit The Blair Witch Project. Since then, the directors have become best known in the commercials world for their alternative approach to interaction, creating multi-dimensional branded internet experiences like Sega's "Beta 7" and Sharp's "More to See" campaigns via Wieden + Kennedy/N.Y. and most recently Audi's "Art of the Heist" via McKinney + Silver, all of which have been lauded for their results and creative innovation. The projects had been privately produced out of a Chelsea subdivision called Campfire, the partners of which were Chelsea EP and co-founder Steve Wax, directors Mike Monello and Greg Hale of Haxan and strategy maven Elizabeth Talerman, This fall Campfire will morph into an independent entity, in which Chelsea will have a stake.

Campfire will continue to deliver for clients the hybrid marketing approach made famous by its previous successes, combining viral films, live events, websites and online message boards that creates a community driven by an entertaining story-the seedlings of which developed with Haxan's work on The Blair Witch Project and its extensive and engrossing viral promotion. The partners describe the venture as a strategy and idea lab crossed with an entertainment company, experiential branding in which the consumers are involved in a compelling narrative that positively engages them with a brand. In "The Art of the Heist," actors played characters in short films, websites, and live events in cities around the country in a mystery that revolved around a stolen Audi A3. With consumer entry points in broadcast, print and online, the story changed daily for three months and made followers learn about the features of the car. Many issues are involved in forging this new territory, among them legal rights and ownership. The company's role in the production food chain and budgets are better established, though dealt with on a case-by-case basis. "Our clients are forward-thinking CMOs and agencies who have their ears," says Wax. "We're being very careful to talk strategy with clients and creative with agencies while respecting their relationships." And while production costs more than the percentage usually set aside for a broadcast spot, the media buy is significantly less and reduces with time as word of mouth spreads (Monello notes that periodically "Beta 7" message boards, founded in 2003, will become active again). Results are instantly measurable. "The average stick time is 10 minutes per day, and the only brand in front of them is Audi," says Monello, who has interviewed participants after the live portion of a job is completed. He adds that the project sites registered about 200,000 hits per day for Audi.

Campfire has already captured the interest of top agency creatives and is currently developing another big project. Monello and Hale will be based in Orlando, where they can work in small groups of people with plenty of production space, while Wax and Talerman remain in New York. According to Monello, Orlando is also an appropriate place for the type of projects they do because of the atmosphere of the theme parks. "There's the entertainment experience in the real world," Monello continues. "There's a level of interactivity. Theme parks are immersive. You're not watching a box." Talerman is quick to note that interactive isn't a euphemism for them. "The work is physically engaging," she says. Extensive projects like Audi that include events and various components are what Talerman calls "thicker," but Campfire will also produce "thinner" sites featuring web films and documentaries such as Levi's "World Gone Pretty" (501uncomplicate.com), which launched in the spring. Though their recent campaigns point toward the future of advertising (Campfire is among only two companies using these methods for marketing along with "I Love Bees" authors 4orty 2wo Entertainment), the directors' inspiration is the oldest possible form of mass communication. "We create a campfire tale," says Monello about the roots of the company's name. "It comes from the history of narrative oral tradition, with the campfire as the center of community. We're not doing anything new. It's older than advertising. It's both huge and niche in the sense that it's intimate, but reaching a massive audience through the internet."

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