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The New Ad Frontier for Filmmakers


A new production company, Maximum Entertainment, woos big-name film directors such as James Marsh and Gus Van Sant and uses them to win clients

When the big ad agencies and media companies contract, gaps in the landscape form wherein new blossoms can sprout. One such newcomer is Maximum Entertainment, a production company that makes video ads. Maximum's pitch, to marketers and ad agencies that might be interested in hiring it, revolves around the company's stable of directors, almost all of whom come from the world of film.

The Internet continues to rework most long-held assumptions about media and marketing, but many advertisers, rightly or wrongly, still spend serious sums to ensure they get beautiful images. There are ego issues associated with hiring famous directors—all marketers think their products are stars—but the real dividends come from unusually memorable ads. (A favorite, at least around my cubicle, is the "My Life, My Card" American Express spot shot by critics' darling and Rushmore director Wes Anderson.)

Other companies, of course, dangle rosters of big-name film directors to draw in ad work. Maximum's trump card is its knack for attracting well-known directors who are new to shooting ads. Among its stable: James Marsh, who just won the Best Documentary Oscar for his Man On Wire; James Gray, who helmed the Gwyneth Paltrow/Joaquin Phoenix film Two Lovers; and Gus Van Sant, whose direction of Sean Penn in Milk netted Penn his second Best Actor Oscar. In its short life, Maximum has made ads for the likes of Estée Lauder Cos. (EL), Time Warner's (TWX) TNT cable channel, and Tommy Hilfiger (TOM).

In its most idealized form, a company like Maximum—which was founded by star cinematographer Harris Savides and producers Jim Czarnecki and Maria Gallagher—solves two problems. It produces commercials for recession-battered advertising agencies that have cut back on in-house production. And it provides revenue to directors who make the sort of "small" movies that are cherished by the cognoscenti but rarely do boffo box office. "There's no point in being shy about it," offers Man On Wire's Marsh. "Making documentaries is not exactly a lucrative way of making a living."

And star directors know something about making sound and motion sing. TNT is currently airing a promo shot made by Maximum and director Gray that promotes the network's dramatic series, which include Saving Grace and The Closer. In the words of Molly Battin, a senior vice-president at the cable network, "What better person to put our brand in the hands of than a director who deals with intense emotional dramas?"

The kind of bright dividing line that once kept many major rock musicians from the ad world never existed for filmmakers, and there's a long history of cross-pollination between film directors and advertising. Maximum's Zoe Cassavetes, who has directed spots and movies, points out that no less a director than Federico Fellini worked on ads.

Now, though, a company such as Maximum can offer something different to an established director. A new frontier of storytelling is forming, be it serials that play out in Web videos or a hybrid where such videos augment the narrative established by films and TV shows. Maximum is now plumbing such forms by making a push into what the trade calls "branded content"—that is, advertiser-sponsored programming, be it documentary films or Web series. Thus it can offer to underwrite its directors' first tentative toe-dips into these new waters.

Maximum is still a smallish business, one that measures revenue in seven figures. (Its directors all get paid on a per-project basis.) And a stable full of top-tier talent alone does not ensure success. It's not hard to find ad executives who remain leery of film directors; you will be shocked to hear that Hollywood types have a reputation for being divas. Still, the likes of Maximum represent one more way in which the decay of older business models spreads out monies, and opportunities, to new-style players. It also shows how a marriage between established talent and advertising—in one media realm, at least—may yet push nascent narrative forms forward.

Fine is BusinessWeek's MediaCentric columnist and Fine On Media blogger .

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