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How Big Brand Sponsorship Saved Our Indie Film (pt. 1 of 2)
Guest Post by Amy Lo
Behind every finished film, there are 1,001 war stories.
This is just one small part of how we willed into being a film called Planet B-boy , and maybe it’s a rare, lucky case. But when it mattered most, it was a big-time brand that 1) came to our rescue with cold, hard cash; 2) allowed us to keep complete creative control; and 3) gave us greater ownership of our own film to boot. They didn’t even realize how crucial it was to us, but the truth is, Samsung saved our indie film.
Starting on our own
I met a filmmaker named Benson Lee who had a great character-driven story structured around the vibrant resurgence of breakdancing around the world. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to produce it. Industry broadcasters and production companies loved the idea but said essentially the same thing – go and shoot it, show us a rough cut. Fair enough. We turned to equity investors and scraped together enough to buy plane tickets and cameras….Fast forward through production highs and lows, and three months later, we had 300 hours of footage to log in four different languages. We also had a negative bank balance. So what next?
Rallying our cohorts
Between going back to investors and trying to raise money, we didn’t wait around. We posted a clip on YouTube, rehauled our website, and started reaching out to b-boys and folks online for feedback. While Benson went through footage, I spent days seeking out those who would become our most ardent supporters. Our video racked up tens, then hundreds of thousands of views, netting us our first featured spot on the YouTube front page. As the momentum grew, we did our part to keep it going.
One of our first videos showed main characters dancing in distinctive settings, like the Eiffel Tower and a Buddhist temple. We started getting messages from all over the world “Come film here!” and “What about our town?”, so we figured why not open it up through a video contest? Anyone could send us footage of their own choreography in front of their own city landmarks, and selected shots would form an epilogue to the movie during the end credits. With the community involved, our film ended up covering dancers from every continent – except Antarctica (though we did get b-boys from the Arctic Circle in there!).
It was a simple way for people to connect with the film, and individual participation naturally fit with the film’s themes about self-expression – how each dancer interpreted the art form and made it their own, feeding their own culture back into it. Early on, I had also gotten the idea from Four Eyed Monsters to collect email addresses and zip codes as “screening requests” – and we got 500 subscribers from Poland in a single day – a fan in Warsaw had built their own mini-movement around the film.
Sticking to our story
Meanwhile, we had been shaking the money tree and editing the film simultaneously but were running out of equity investor options. We didn’t have a rough cut yet to show distributors or production companies who might put up finishing funds – and if we were able to get that far on our own, would we necessarily want to give up creative control and rights to our film?
When we explored the idea of sponsorship, we were clear on our parameters. Our first priority was being able to make the film our own way. That was never in doubt and wasn’t negotiable. One key difference between commissioned work versus independent work looking for support: We were the ones who could set the terms. Any sponsors would have to be on board with our creative independence, and we made that authenticity itself an integral part of our proposal.
Figuring out our strengths
Once we established what we wouldn’t do for sponsors, we still had to think carefully about what we could offer them. There weren’t many indie film examples we could turn to. We weren’t cult filmmakers like David Lynch, Spike Jonze, or Wong Kar-wai. We had no guarantee of distribution or a film festival premiere – we didn’t even have a film yet.
But we did have footage – 300 hours of amazing dancing and stunning back stories that wouldn’t all fit into our feature-length film. We had plenty of “content” to lend to a willing partner. Going back to our initial YouTube clips, we also had a growing following and the potential to transcend a niche audience once we had a finished film. The creative goal for the feature was to show b-boy culture in the truest light possible, and through our characters, also make it a relatable story about identity and self-expression. It was a story we were passionate about, and it seemed like something a sponsor could get behind.
Doing our homework
Where to start? We connected to Samsung after much due diligence and research. We asked around for help and suggestions within the b-boy community, and we drew up lists of target companies. We found as much information as we could about each: decision makers, past projects, other forays into sponsorship, and what their mandates might be. Some companies supported the arts through non-profit arms, while others fielded proposals through their in-house marketing departments or ad agencies.
Samsung seemed our best match as an electronics company. They had empty hardware; we had content to fill it. I built a sponsorship proposal tailored to them around this idea. We promised to give them a series of five trailers as exclusive content – for embedding into new Samsung cell phones, mp3 players, and other portable media devices, and in retail displays and product road shows. The videos wouldn’t be commercials for Samsung product; they would strictly promote the film – and identify Samsung as our supporter. And for this, they were willing to put substantial money towards us finishing our movie, a mid-six-figure sum that meant all the difference for us, and was less than the cost of a traditional 30-second ad for them.
Tomorrow, Amy concludes with some thoughts on “Taking The Long View” of brand sponsorship of indie film.
For more on this subject check out: “Can Brands & Indie Films Collaborate Without Sacrificing Integrity Or Goals?“
Amy Lo is a 2010-2011 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow. Through her production banner Mental Pictures , she develops and produces feature films, documentaries, and new media, focusing on director-driven original stories. She can also be found on twitter @amy_lo .