'Heroes' Star Steps Behind Camera for American Eagle

Milo Ventimiglia Directs Web Series Aimed at Chain's Millennial Target

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CHICAGO -- When you're a young, good-looking prime-time TV star, most people don't care about your aspirations behind the camera. But "Heroes" star Milo Ventimiglia has come up with an unlikely way to circumvent the problem: branded entertainment for a teen retail chain.
Actor Milo Ventimiglia's behind-the-camera project for American Eagle is a series of stop-motion-animated webisodes that take a skewed look at the holidays.
Actor Milo Ventimiglia's behind-the-camera project for American Eagle is a series of stop-motion-animated webisodes that take a skewed look at the holidays.

The 30-year-old actor has been directing for five years, but they're projects most of his teen fans haven't heard of. His webisodes for clothier American Eagle, however, are targeted directly at his fan base -- millennials, the youngest of the Gen Y cohort. After all, the actor is also well-known for playing Rory Gilmore's brooding paramour on "Gilmore Girls."

"I've been directing for some time and had my production company for three-and-a-half years," Mr. Ventimiglia said in a recent phone interview. "We've had a handful of projects, but this is probably the biggest one."

Mr. Ventimiglia runs Divide Pictures with his friend, the writer and director Adam Green. (Russ Cundiff is a co-founder with Mr. Ventimiglia.)

Stop-motion animated spots
American Eagle is currently showing "AE Winter Tales," produced by Mr. Ventimiglia, on the 77E section of its website, which focuses on multimedia. The three-minute spots are stop-motion animated with a holiday theme, and they are narrated by actress Kristen Bell, Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz and rapper Lil John, among others. The spots have an edgy sense of humor, likely to amuse the target demographic and ostracize the old folks.

"We wanted to do something slightly different for the holidays while maintaining a familiar jumping-off point for the viewer," Mr. Ventimiglia said. "I grew up loving the classic [stop-motion] animated tales, and the opportunity to partner with American Eagle again and explore an alternate world to a magical winter wonderland provided a lot of twisted scenarios."

The first episode, for instance, is narrated by Mr. Ventimiglia and is based on his own experiences flying home for the holidays. A girl sitting next to him is mad about things he did as his "Gilmore Girls" character, a child behind him is bopping him on the head with a doll and an attractive lady across the aisle pukes on his lap.
Milo Ventimiglia
Milo Ventimiglia

"AE Winter Tales captures the spirit of classic animated holiday favorites while adding a healthy dose of irreverence and wit," said Kathy Savitt, American Eagle's chief marketing officer. "It's great to be working with Divide Pictures and some of today's brightest young stars to introduce a fresh and innovative content experience for 77E on ae.com."

American Eagle could not be reached for further comment on the story.

Not a big ad spender
This branded-entertainment strategy is an interesting one for American Eagle, which isn't much of an advertiser. The company spent a little more than $10 million on advertising in 2006, and less than $4 million during the first nine months of 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

However, the chain, which was relatively unpopular five years ago, has bounced back in recent years, becoming a Wall Street darling, thanks to dependable comparative sales results and a loyal millennial following.

This is Mr. Ventimiglia's second series for American Eagle. He recently directed "It's a Mall World," a 12-episode series that aired during commercial breaks for MTV's "Real World: Sydney." Styled as a faux reality show, the five main characters work in different stores at a mall. The hero works at a record store, pining after a coltish, fresh-scrubbed beauty working across the way at American Eagle.

The webisodes don't have any overt product placement, but consumers must visit the American Eagle site to view them.

Had his doubts
Mr. Ventimiglia admits to having had reservations about working with a corporation, but he said the process was positive, and he has been pleased with the number of consumers he's been able to reach.

"I think there's a lot of people that are looking at writing internet content for a large company and don't know how to pull it off," he said. "You have to walk the fine line of being over-branded and coming up with something cool that you can give back to the community of people around you."
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