American Theater

Chris Noth, best known as Mr. Big on Sex and the City, balances himself on a front-porch rail as he digs through a hanging plant, looking for clues in what has become an all-night hunt for his daughter’s tooth. Remiss in playing the tooth fairy for his young girl the night before, Noth’s character is stuck playing a game his daughter devised to cheer up the tooth fairy. The search for notes nestled throughout the house has him looking under pottery, behind picture frames, inside the fish tank and under the cymbals of his drum kit. As he fumbles through the foliage, a patrol car slows in front of the house and a security guard, played by CEO Jeff Bezos, shines a flashlight on Noth before driving off.

It is this combination of celebrities and cameos, plus prominent product placement, that Amazon and its ad agency, Fallon in Minneapolis, hope will help make the online retailer’s holiday season brighter this year. Five short films, produced by Tony and Ridley Scott’s production company, RSA USA, and presented under the “Amazon Theater” banner, highlight the site’s broad range of offerings, from frying pans to diamond necklaces.

Fallon, which created the much-lauded BMW Films series, is again championing the future of content and commerce. Using Amazon’s technology platform, these films offer not only prominent product placement in entertaining content, but a vehicle for consumers to instantly react and purchase products featured in the films. The effort offers a glimpse at what the merger of the PC and TV could mean: a shopping portal within programming.

Each week since Nov. 9, Seattle-based Amazon has released a new film, ranging in length from five to 10-plus minutes with credits, about karmic balance. “There is a karmic sense to the films and the project,” says David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, who developed the project while he was still at Fallon, with a core creative team of art directors David Carter and Christopher Toland, copywriters Greg Hahn and Mike Smith, freelancer Terry Rietta and director of broadcast Brian DiLorenzo. “You send good things out, and good things come back to you,” says Lubars.

With Amazon Theater, Amazon is giving its customers exclusive entertainment and, in return, if they take the time to explore the credits, they learn more about the retailer’s offerings, which may move more product outside its main book-sales business. (In 2003, Amazon’s overall sales totaled $5.26 billion.) Each film, which can be streamed from the home page or downloaded, focuses predominantly on a specific product category. “Tooth Fairy,” for example, which debuts on the site tomorrow, features home appliances, furniture and decor, while last week’s “Do Geese See God,” starring Blair Underwood as a frazzled urbanite seeking inner peace, highlights home electronics and portable gadgets.

Fallon, which began working with Amazon on a project basis early this year, determined that the holiday season was the ideal time to launch a branding effort since that is when the site receives the greatest traffic. The agency decided to use the company’s home page as the canvas for its message. No additional advertising is being used to drive traffic to the site.

“Amazon enjoys real critical mass,” says Rob Buchner, chief marketing officer of Fallon. “They are a network unto themselves. They have millions of people coming through their front door every single day, and they have as many as 30 million coming through every month. Amazon Theater is just another way to get people to stop, pause, be entertained and browse and discover the deepest corners of their online store.”

“The branding is as much in the delivery as in the content,” adds Lubars.

Amazon Theater launched with “Portrait,” highlighting women’s fashions and accessories. It tells the tale of an overweight woman, “Donna,” played by Minnie Driver, who becomes the envy of her officemates and her boss when she becomes thin and beautiful after sitting for a magical portrait. “Agent Orange” is a psychedelic love story of two strangers brought together by a lost goldfish on a subway ride, and highlights fashion and accessories for men and women.

Since the goal is to draw attention to Amazon’s offerings and generate sales, the products are displayed as prominently as the stars in the credits. Donna’s skirt, for example, gets a credit and is listed as a BCBG Max Azria Skirt. To get further information, or to order the product, all viewers need to do is click on the credit link, and the site leads them to it.

The scripts and production required a delicate mix of story and sell, but Carter says the creative team enjoyed more freedom in developing these Web films than they did on BMW Films, since the story line in those films revolved around a single character, the driver, played by Clive Owen, and featured action-driven plots. “These could be anything and could be all different styles, which they are,” says Carter.

“Do Geese See God” takes particular advantage of its Internet distribution. Viewers who click on certain items while watching get a different film experience than those who don’t. The film stays in a loop unless the user clicks on it, leading to an alternate ending.

“It is really taking advantage of the medium of the Internet, interactivity and being able to participate in the story,” notes Hahn. “The ending is bound through the technology of the Internet.”

The scripts were chosen from a pool of about 20 that were presented to the client. Fallon, which had storied success with BMW Films, including winning the Titanium Lion in Cannes in 2003, then returned to RSA USA, which produced the second BMW series in 2002. While using celebrity talent behind the camera was integral to the BMW Films effort, this time around, only one of the directors, Tony Scott, has an established career in feature films, notes Carter. The other directors—Jake Scott, Jordan Scott, David Slade and the Acne Film collective—mostly work on commercials and music videos.

“RSA has their feet in both camps, in having the resources to do things on a feature level that need that Hollywood support as well as being able to speak commercial,” says DiLorenzo. “In these kinds of projects, that’s invaluable.”

The production budget, which industry sources estimate at $500,000 per film, was considerably less than that of BMW Films, which sources say cost up to $2-3 million each to produce. Fallon and client executives declined to comment on the budget.

The Amazon series required filming in the Los Angeles area from mid-June until August. The fact that the agency was working with Hollywood talent only added to the complexity. “Since talent was an important part of this process, you really have to accommodate schedules in a way where there are a lot more tails on the dog and they all wag really hard,” says DiLorenzo.

Response in the industry has been largely positive. Bob Greenberg, chairman and CEO of R/GA in New York, who was on the interactive jury that awarded Fallon a Cyber Grand Prix in Cannes for BMW Films in 2002, says “it’s a twist on BMW Films, but it’s a good twist when you have a company like Amazon that can feature it right on the home page, with the amount of traffic they get.”

However, Greenberg says that while he’s a big Amazon user, neither of the films he had seen at press time “feel like they track with the Amazon brand.” Yet, he said, they are “cool and fun” and “may help them with a younger audience.”

The big question, of course: Will it sell? “My cynical side wonders if it will actually move product,” says John Butler, creative director and partner of Butler Shine Stern & Partners in Sausalito, Calif.

Kathy Savitt, Amazon’s vp of strategic communications, declined to share specific traffic figures since the launch, but says, “We’ve been very pleased with the results on all fronts.”

Last week, Amazon released its yearly Holiday Shoppers meter, which lists gift picks for the shopping season. It showed that the site has been seeing the busiest activity during the lunch hour. On Nov. 16, for example, 521,000 visitors were perusing the site between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. PST.

“If you look, you’ll see these spikes, and that spike also follows really dramatically for film views as well,” says Savitt. “So people are watching and shopping in great droves during lunchtime. It seems to be the thing to do.”

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