The Branded BAFTA

March 17, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

How branded content is kicking down the doors of the film establishment.

The film industry on is on the eve of an invasion from brands. We know; that sounds disgusting to anyone not in advertising. But stay with us here because if this expeditionary skirmish is anything to go by it could be a very welcome revolution. The moment that heralded this was a few weeks ago, when this year’s BAFTA for British Short Film went to a brand-funded video, Room 8, directed by James W. Griffiths for Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series.

Essentially a piece of branded content, that still slightly awkward phrase doesn’t do the film justice. Imaginative, intriguing and self-contained, Room 8 deserves its role as 2014’s champion of the short film genre. Had it been made within the traditional production process of the category it would still have won. But if it weren’t for Bombay Sapphire, it would likely never have become the film it is. Prior to this threshold moment, James was an unsigned Director with a very modest reel. By winning a public competition he’s achieved more than he’s ever hoped for.

Product: Bombay Sapphire
Title: Room 8
Production Company: Independent Films & Indy 8
Director: James W. Griffiths
(Based on an original idea and outline script by: Geoffrey Fletcher)
Series Producer: Ohna Falby
Line Producer: Sophie Venner
Director of Photography: G. Magni Ágústsson, ÍKS
Ad Agency: Gravity Road
Editor: Michael Aaglund
Sound Design: Martin Pavey
Post Production House: MPC

Mark Boyd is one of the Executive Producers behind the Imagination Series. Founding Partner of the agency Gravity Road, he’s familiar with the winces the phrase ‘branded content’ provokes. When he and his Co-Partner Mark Eaves set up Gravity Road two and a half years ago, the discipline was struggling to find its feet. “Even though more and more people were beginning to do content, they weren’t being particularly smart about it,” he says. “They weren’t creating content with audiences in mind.”

Since then, people like Gravity Road have started to make progress in the field, but the vast majority of brands still don’t get it. “A lot of branded content is shit,” Mark admits, “the kind of stuff that wouldn’t happen if it didn’t have some branded money behind it. It’s not stuff that you want to spend time with and it’s very self-referential.”

Naturally, he’s optimistic. And the extraordinary success of Room 8 and the Imagination Series is testament to the fact that some brands are brave enough to change things for the better.

Bombay Sapphire approached Gravity Road soon after they set up shop with the abstract aim of encouraging imagination. They didn’t just want a self-congratulating campaign around the theme though. “They wanted to evidence that,” says Mark. “They wanted something that would ignite the imagination of consumers.”

This was always going to be ambitious. But with Heide Cohu working on the Bombay Sapphire side – one of the brains behind Red Bull’s dramatic adventure into the stratosphere – there was no fear of conservatism from the Client.

Gravity Road’s idea was based on the shortcomings of the film industry. Building on the knowledge that in that in that year the vast majority of films were either current franchises or rehashings of old hits, the agency prescribed the industry an injection of originality. And Bombay Sapphire was going to deliver this remedy.

They would create a competition with the final aim of creating five short pieces of video content. Oscar-winning script writer Geoffrey Fletcher, best known for 2009’s Precious, would write a few lines of intriguing dialogue, stripped of any stage direction. Anyone could then submit their realisation of this script and five winners would have their films made and premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. “You could be anybody,” says Mark, “a barista, a dentist. You didn’t need film experience. Just to imagine something that’s really bold.”

Working with Geoffrey, the team from Gravity Road and Bombay Sapphire spent about 12 weeks crafting and intensively developing the springboard script that would hopefully stimulate people’s imaginations. Then they launched and the submissions started coming in.

At this point, Gravity Road went about finding themselves a production company to make sure the winning films were as slick as possible. But whether it was the budget or the unconventional nature of the project, some companies weren’t interested. Not so for Independent, “I thought it was absolutely fantastic,” remembers Jani Guest, Managing Director at the production house. “It was very clear that this was not a money-making project, but I wanted us to prove to ourselves we were capable of producing a short film project, working with Directors developing scripts and handling the production of a low-budget film.”

Jani and Independent dived into the pitch headfirst, knowing the risks of doing something so unfamiliar to them and embracing the unknown. Gravity Road and Bombay Sapphire didn’t take long to make their minds up. “It was a pretty unanimous decision,” says Mark. They chose Independent as their production partners.

Meanwhile, away from all the boardrooms, freelance Editor and hopeful Director James W. Griffiths was looking for funding to make a short film. He had a simple, oddball idea – a man opening a box and seeing an exact replica of the room he’s in inside, putting his hand in and seeing a huge hand appear above his head.

Naturally, he was struggling to find funding. “There’s not much money to go around,” he says. “There are schemes that fund short films, but there are so many Directors these days that it’s hard to find money.”

With the purse strings of the film establishment closed to him, discovering the Imagination Series was a revelation for James. They were offering money to make a short film and the competition was completely open to the public. “You need to jump at that opportunity,” he says.

Miraculously, Geoffrey Fletcher’s dialogue slotted rather neatly into his idea, and even helped it evolve into something more substantial. “There’s something about dialogue that sparks your creativity,” he says. “When you have a restriction rather than a blank page.”

James adapted the dialogue into a proper script, moved his idea from the original setting of a German POW camp to a much sunnier setting of a Soviet prison (“I thought that might have more chance of being funded by a brand,” he explains) and sent his work off to be judged in Tribeca.

After a day and a half of frantic debate, the judges emerged with five winners – scripts that Independent would produce. Room 8, James’ creation, had come out on top.

James was thrilled. The budget Bombay Sapphire provided was in a different league to anything he’d had to play with before – “a good amount for a short film,” he says. “Before Room 8 it was very small budgets.”

Independent didn’t share James’ assurance. For a company that had built their reputation on TVCs, the money was a worry. They were given the same for each of the five films. “The budgets were incredibly limited,” says Jani. She was concerned that they might not live up to the quality they were used to delivering. “They were far less than we’ normally be given for a 30-second spot,” and some of these films would end up over six minutes long.

The production company rose to the challenge, enlisting the help series producer Ohna Falby and line producers for each film who knew the short film territorry to help navigate through the finite budgets, for which Independent were very grateful. With MPC providing post-production for next to nothing, “the whole thing was kind of a labour of love,” says Jani.

On top of that, some of these Directors were naturally inexperienced, adding an element of the unknown that a production company should always be wary of. Going into production with people who might be totally incompetent must have been a worry.

That said, at least they knew they wouldn’t have problems with the Client trying to direct the films. “Even though they had a limited budget, [Bombay Sapphire] were very supportive, creatively, to the talent,” says Jani. “One thing they were insistent on was that the Directors felt they had a certain amount of freedom to explore their own ideas.”

That’s an important factor in why James was so happy with the project. It wasn’t an ad, nor was it an ad pretending to be something more exciting. “There was nothing in the rules that said the main guy has to drink a bottle of gin,” he jokes. “It didn’t have to be a happy ending or anything like that.” This was refreshing, especially as James was familiar with other competitions where filmmakers enter for the privilege to make a commercial using their own resources.

Celebrating their BAFTA win. From left to right: Mark Boyd (Founding Partner, Gravity Road), Heide Cohu (Global Brand Communications & Creative Director, Bacardi), Jani Guest (Managing Director, Independent), Verity White (Head of Production, Independent) and James W. Griffiths (Director).

Thanks to combined talents of everyone involved, Bombay Sapphire ended up with five prime examples of short video content, in no way shouting at people to buy gin, but assets to the film landscape that people found genuine entertaining.

They premiered at a big event at Tribeca and then launched online for all the world to see the films. And here came another challenge – the battle against the short film establishment that has built its infrastructure upon festivals. Bombay Sapphire wanted everyone to see these films, but they were up against the institutions. Mark describes a normal short film Director’s process. “You make the film and you hold it back so people come to festivals to see it, make some money that way. That was challenging and some people in the project took some time to appreciate that Bombay Sapphire’s involvement is built on the assumption that they will launch for free online.”

Unsurprisingly, its eventual BAFTA win has helped everyone involved with Room 8. Bombay Sapphire now have a stake in the world of film and the critical acclaim to back that up, just like Red Bull have done with the world of adrenaline. They are now more than a drinks brand and the second Imagination Series is well underway.

Gravity Road have created a branded content project that’s genuinely interesting, one that competes with (and wins awards against) content, branded or not. Independent have got themselves a new Director as reward to taking a chance on unknowns like James and James has got the whole package – a US agent, a US manager, a UK agent, representation as a commercials Director and the attention of big-time producers.

The one point to take away from Room 8’s ultimate success is that, much to Mark’s relief, branded content is no longer all shit. It could be a sign that eventually whether something is funded by a brand will become irrelevant to its quality. But in 2014, a piece of branded content winning a BAFTA is still remarkable, so for now we’re allowed to marvel at that fact.

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