When the NBA ended its season last year because of the pandemic, one of the first calls Chris Paul made was Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Mr. Paul, then a point guard with the Oklahoma Thunder, knew he wanted to keep a record of what was going on and he wanted Mr. Grazer’s help.
“The idea was basically to film everything that happened that night in that game and what would become of it,” said Paul. “We had no idea what was going to happen next.”
The result was “The Day Sports Stood Still,” a documentary about the shutdown, the NBA’s pandemic bubble, and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the league. (Mr. Paul appears in the film and is executive producer.) It’s a portrait of the way the pandemic rocked the sports world, but also an example of how Covid-19 has shaken the entertainment industry.
The film, which debuts Wednesday on HBO and HBO Max, comes from Mr. Grazers Imagine Entertainment and a recent addition to Hollywood: Waffle Iron Entertainment, the production unit of Nike.
With more people at home clinging to their streaming services, many of which don’t allow ads, companies need to be creative in how they get in front of audiences who no longer see 30-second ads. More and more people are turning to traditional Hollywood production companies like Imagine to work on feature films like “The Day Sports Stood Still,” which is inspired by Nike’s ethos but doesn’t know any of the traditional brand audiences who are used to seeing it.
“The best partnership you can have is a marriage in which the issues between the company and the story are coordinated,” Grazer said in an interview. “When you have Chris Paul and Nike is part of the marketing, that’s an extra ingredient why someone is going to see it. You will feel like Nike is advocating this and Nike is doing good things. “
Data from research firm WARC showed that advertisers’ spending on broadcast television decreased 10 percent year over year in 2020, while online video spending rose 12 percent. Much of that money went to streaming services like Hulu, YouTube, and Peacock that accept advertisements. But those who don’t allow ads, like Netflix, are still unavailable for traditional marketing.
“Streaming offers advertisers fewer and fewer opportunities to connect with consumers in a meaningful way,” said Justin Wilkes, chief creative officer of Imagine Entertainment. “One of the final ways to do this is with long-form content. It’s all circular. This goes back to the earliest days of promoting and underwriting the great entertainment program. “
Brands have been associated with movies and television for almost as long as the media has been around. Long before he became president, Ronald Reagan hosted the popular television program “General Electric Theater” from 1954 to 1962.
In the past ten years, branded films have only increased.
In 2014, Patagonia funded a full-length documentary about dams entitled “DamNation”. Pepsi sponsored the 2018 film Uncle Drew, in which basketball star Kyrie Irving recreated his Septuagenarian character from a popular series of Pepsi Max commercials. The film grossed $ 42 million and was one of the first branded entertainment campaigns to be turned into a major motion picture. “Gay Chorus Deep South,” an Airbnb-produced documentary, debuted on the festival site in 2019. Apple’s acclaimed “Ted Lasso” began life as an NBC Sports promotion for the acquisition of the English Premier League broadcast rights.
Imagine Entertainment, the production company founded in 1985 by Grazer and Ron Howard, founded Imagine Brands in 2018 to match companies with filmmakers, hiring Wilkes and Marc Gilbar, creators of the Pepsi Uncle Drew campaign and executive producers on the film to lead the group. The division has produced both feature-length documentaries and narrative films with partners including Unilever, Walmart and Ford.
Imagine also works with consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. The company that effectively created soap operas when it began sponsoring serial radio plays to promote its soap products in the 1930s is co-funding a feature film with Imagine called Mars 2080. It will be directed by Eliza McNitt and will begin production later that year. The film, due to be released in theaters by IMAX in 2022 before switching to a streaming service, focuses on a family relocating to Mars.
It grew out of a breakfast in New York in 2019 where Mr. Wilkes, Mr. Howard and Mr. Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble, discussed technology in the pipeline. The Imagine team later toured Procter & Gamble’s research labs in Cincinnati to see examples of their “Home of the Future” products and meet their scientists.
Kimberly Doebereiner, vice president of future advertising at Procter & Gamble, said the company was hoping for longer storytelling like “The Cost of Winning,” the four-part sports documentary for its Gillette shaving brand. It debuted on HBO in November.
“We want to be more engaging so that consumers can draw on our experience and create content that they want to see as opposed to news that annoys them,” she said. “Finding a way to serve content in places where there are no ads is definitely one of the reasons we rely on it.”
It’s all part of a conscious shift in brands to better fit into consumer lives, as companies like Apple and Amazon have, said Dipanjan Chatterjee, an analyst at Forrester. And they want to do this without advertising, which he said has “no credibility” with consumers.
“If the right story has the right ingredients and is worth sharing, it won’t act as intrusive advertising,” said Chatterjee. “It feels a lot more like a natural part of our life.”
Alessandro Uzielli, head of global brands and entertainment at Ford Motor Company, first met with Imagine Brands in early 2018. He was looking for a way to complement Ford’s advertising campaign for the relaunched Bronco with entertainment that would reach a younger audience. The result was “John Bronco,” a 37-minute mockumentary directed by Jake Szymanski (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”) with Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as the greatest fictional pitchman of all time.
The short film earned a spot at the Tribeca Film Festival and is now streamed on Hulu. In addition to guest appearances by Tim Meadows, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bo Derek, it helped reintroduce the Bronco, a sport utility vehicle that the automaker pulled in the mid-1990s.
“This has helped us speak to an audience that we probably wouldn’t speak to alone,” said Uzielli.
“It was Imagine’s project, and we didn’t want to tarnish their process to try and make it feel like too big a sales job,” he added.
Mr. Szymanski, who has made both feature films and commercials, including ads for the Dodge Durango starring Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character Ron Burgundy, said Ford had given him a lot of creative freedom. “I think they could have tried to put a much bigger shadow on it than they did,” he said.
Imagine Mr Szymanski and Mr Goggins trying to make John Bronco the next Ted Lasso – an effort in the early stages of development.
“It’s kind of a win-win situation,” said Szymanski of a possible television series based on the character of Goggins. “I don’t think Ford would have any creative control over it, but having a character named John Bronco in the world would be a good thing for them.”