- Hollywood production companies are stepping up to help big brands make film and TV for wide audiences.
- Brands are trying to get consumers’ attention as traditional ads are getting ignored.
- Insider rounded up the production companies helping brands make content for Netflix, Apple, and more.
Not only Mattel, but many other major corporations are turning to Hollywood-style films to reach consumers who are increasingly ignoring traditional advertising.
Marketers want to create high-quality filmed entertainment that can be sold to a major streaming service or another distributor, but most lack the necessary know-how or connections.
Then there are the production companies. A growing number of companies are pitching their ability to make films worthy of Netflix or Apple TV+ to brands with a few million to spend.
They range from producers like Ben Silverman, who have been doing brand work for a decade or more, to newcomers like Issa Rae’s Hoorae Media and Kevin Hart’s Hartbeat, who launched branded content studios in the last year. Many have hired ad agency professionals who speak the language of marketers, and some are actively courting Madison Avenue.
“Hollywood creatives are more interested than ever before in working with brands on the development of premium content,” said Julian Jacobs, a UTA partner and co-head of UTA’s entertainment marketing arm. “There is an understanding that great stories can be inspired and told with the purpose of a brand.” ‘Barbie’ is yet another example of this.” However, only a small number of production companies are capable of fulfilling this promise, he added.
Brand dollars to the rescue
While traditional advertisements are losing their effectiveness, marketers are seeing high-profile examples of films about brands airing on major streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
“In the past year, we’ve had a half-dozen incoming calls from brands asking, ‘What is our version of “Air” and how should we be thinking about it?'” said Marc Gilbar, who runs the brand division at Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s production company.
The funds are welcome at a time when streamers are trying to reduce their content budgets. Marketer dollars, according to producers, help them make and sell more projects, whether by helping them find a great writer or funding a sizzle reel.
Some are also looking to brand films to make up for revenue lost due to the dual Hollywood strikes. (Because brand films are frequently unscripted, they are not governed by Hollywood unions.) They also see brand work as a benefit for lower-level workers who have been idled due to the work stoppage.
And artistic talent that might have shuddered at the prospect of making what they perceived to be a long commercial has come around.
Anonymous Content is a production and management company that has produced films such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and Oscar winner “Spotlight” and represents A-listers such as Samuel L. Jackson and Emma Stone.
It has also created films for Adobe, IBM, and WhatsApp through its 5-year-old division, The Lab.
Getting talent to sign on was difficult at first, according to Zac Ryder, cofounder of The Lab. “How is this not going to be just a long commercial?” he wondered. Anonymous persuaded filmmaker Olivia Wilde of “Booksmart” fame to direct a short film for HP in 2020 called “Wake Up.” He claims that The Lab is now one of Anonymous’ fastest-growing units. “We’re the division that everyone gets excited about.”
Working on a brand is not without risk. Brands typically expect to be able to measure branded entertainment in the same way that they do traditional advertising, but the metrics are lagging. Many filmmakers simply want their film to be available on Netflix, regardless of whether this is a realistic goal. Some people also want to take an overly commercial approach. The brand usually has the final say on a project, but producers insist on rejecting projects that appear overtly promotional.
In alphabetical order, here are the 13 companies that are gaining the most traction with brands and distributors.
Anonymous Content: Founded in 1999 and majority owned by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Anonymous Content has been producing brand films since 2018. Earlier this month, it released “We Are Ayenda,” a half-hour documentary on Prime Video for WhatsApp about the Afghan Girls National Soccer Team and their escape from the Taliban; a documentary series called “Full Bleed” for Adobe is being shopped to streamers.
Boardwalk Pictures: The Emmy-winning production company responsible for Netflix hits like “Chef’s Table” and “Cheer” also has a brand division led by Caitlin McGinty, formerly of Relativity Media and The Story Lab. Notable projects include “The Show” and “The Show: California Love,” documentaries about the creation of the Super Bowl halftime shows, which were produced in collaboration with Pepsi and aired on Showtime. Boardwalk has also worked with REI, Unilever, and Marriott on projects.
Box to Box: The UK sports production company led by award-winning producers James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin made a name for itself with its Netflix docuseries “Formula 1: Drive to Survive” in collaboration with Formula 1. The show is credited with introducing the sport to a whole new generation of fans all over the world. Box to Box has also arranged for shows to be produced for a number of other sports, including the World Surf League and Major League Soccer.
Hartbeat is best known for its brand work, which consists of short-form projects such as a web series for Lyft that features celebrities including Hart himself pranking riders as a Lyft driver, and a short film for Sam’s Club, “Merry Like This,” which debuted in theaters last winter. Hartbeat hired Disney executive Brian Price, who was behind “Merry Like This,” in 2022 to accelerate its work with brands such as Lyft and Chase Sapphire.
Hello Sunshine: The media company founded by Reese Witherspoon to create female-centric content, Hello Sunshine is also regarded as a sophisticated branded entertainment producer by industry insiders. Zoe Fairbourn, the head of brand partnerships, previously worked on marketing deals at The Weinstein Company and Relativity Media. Among her notable projects is “Fair Play,” a P&G film about gender inequality that aired on Hulu.
Imagine Entertainment is a branded content powerhouse founded by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. The highlights of its brand division, led by Marc Gilbar, include Unilever’s “Dads,” a 2019 documentary on fatherhood directed by Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, and broadcast on Apple TV+; “Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker,” which sold to Paramount+; and “The Day Sports Stood Still” (HBO). “The future we see at Imagine is one in which brands can participate in telling their own stories,” Gilbar explained. “They just need to be aware of the trade-offs they’ll have to make.”
Promote Content: Ben Silverman has long advocated for working with brands, dating back to 2003 with the reality show “The Restaurant” starring Rocco DiSpirito and later “Biggest Loser,” which was sponsored by General Mills and Subway. Propagate, his current company, expanded to form a branded content division in 2018 thanks to an investment from merchant bank Raine.
Rupert Maconick’s Saville Productions has produced countless films for major brands with big-name filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Barry Levinson. “Own the Room,” a Shopify documentary that sold to Disney+; Herzog’s “Lo and Behold,” a software company Netscout documentary that sold to Magnolia; and “5B,” a J&J documentary that sold to Verizon. Maconick’s pitch includes the fact that he sells all of his projects to streamers and other large distributors, which is an important consideration for brands. “Brand-sponsored films can recoup money and have measurable marketing results that move the needle if done right,” he says.
Sugar23: Academy Award-winning Over the last year, Michael Sugar (“Spotlight”) has pitched himself to marketers as someone who can help them create content that entertains rather than interrupts. He’s been helping Anheuser-Busch parent AB InBev build an entertainment division and working with multiple Fortune 500 companies, including consumer brands it couldn’t name, since working with Time Studios to produce Trevor Noah’s “Turning Point” for Procter & Gamble. The brand division is led by CAA and Wieden + Kennedy veteran Matt Rotondo, but Sugar sees the work as a collaborative effort: “We think of the whole company as a white-label apparatus.”
Time Studios: Under the direction of Mike Beck and Alexa Conway, the iconic publisher’s film arm has its roots in unscripted projects that draw on Time’s journalistic heritage. It actively promotes that approach to brands. Recent Procter & Gamble projects include “Turning Point” films starring Trevor Noah (MSNBC) and Time 100 and Person of the Year specials for ABC and NBC, respectively.
Tribeca Studios: The branded content studio offers brands access to award-winning and well-connected Hollywood creative talent, distribution expertise, and a festival to showcase their work. Tribeca Studios, led by EVP Kate Oppenheim, has completed projects such as “We Could Be King” (ESPN2) for Dick’s Sporting Goods and P&G’s Queen Collective series (BET). It has secured brand distribution through Netflix, HBO Max, and CNN.
Ventureland: In 2020, filmmaker Kerstin Emhoff, producer Ali Brown, and director Paul Hunter founded the company. Ventureland, led by Oscar-winning producer John Battsek, creates a variety of content types. Recent brand projects include Abbey Road Studios’ documentary “If These Walls Could Sing,” which was acquired by Disney+, and “Rise,” a film about female entrepreneurs for Stacy’s Pita Chips.
Westbrook: Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s media company is assisting REI with its big entertainment ambitions, including a feature on the all-Black Mount Everest expedition, which is set to be released this year on a major streamer, and has leveraged its SVP and docs head Jannat Gargi, who came from Vice Studios. Westbrook Media, a separate division, has created premium content for Pinterest, Meta, and Logitech; a Samsung-sponsored reality show, “Exposure,” will air on Hulu in 2021.