Could Brands Fix Independent Film's Funding Problem?

The marketing industry's Hollywood aspirations are already impacting indie filmmakers

Announcing! Brandweek is headed to Phoenix, Arizona this September 23–26. Join us there to explore the future of marketing, discover cutting-edge strategies and network with the best in the business.

When writer-director Derek Mari and producer Dan Sima decided to make Crohnie, a short film based on Mari’s experiences with Crohn’s disease, they had to raise a production budget first. They considered private investments, crowdfunding and product integration deals—common ways independent filmmakers bootstrap productions.

Mari and Sima stumbled upon a windfall when they signed a product integration partnership, and landed funding for the entire project.

Marketers are offering a new funding pipeline to independent filmmakers at a time when pervasive financial issues plague the broader film industry. Studios are spending less on content acquisition, and that’s slashed filmmakers’ earning potential. Many filmmakers now consider brand funding a viable path to success, while others worry that quality will suffer if marketers’ unchecked influence suffocates artistic freedom.

Some brands are not only funding independent films but producing them. In 2021, Nike launched its own production studio, Waffle Iron Entertainment. One of the first films Nike signed on to fund and co-produce was Sue Bird: In the Clutch, a documentary about Bird’s basketball legacy that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21. Only eight days later, Insider reported that Netflix had acquired the film.

Marketers don’t need Nike’s budget, or their own production studio, to invest. A budget between $300,000 and $400,000—a small amount for a Fortune 50 company—could fully fund an independent feature film, according to a source who shared details on background.

“These projects involve directors who are not yet able to sell their own films and usually need to find someone or a team to help secure the film a distributor. …When you include the costs of agency fees and add in a distribution fee, you are typically looking at between $800,000 and $1.5 million,” the source told ADWEEK.

Who is connecting brands with filmmakers?

There are few relatively young companies brokering these deals between marketers and filmmakers. One is IPG Mediabrands’ production studio, Traverse32.

The studio has a direct line to IPG Mediabrands’ clients—marketing leaders at some of the world’s largest companies. The potential upside for filmmakers like Mari is that IPG Mediabrands manages a collective $40 billion on behalf of brand marketers, who might choose to allocate some of that to them. Traverse32 is working with Mari, Sima and their brand partner to finalize Crohnie’s production budget.

“We needed to create, basically, mini film studios for brands that wanted to play in the space. We set that up as Traverse32, and while it sits within IPG Mediabrands, because that’s where the media conversation sits within IPG, we work on any client, IPG or non-IPG,” said Brendan Gaul, Traverse32’s global president and IPG Mediabrands’ global chief content officer.

It’s not the first time Traverse32’s done this. It approached the Henkel hair care brand got2b with an opportunity to sponsor the documentary film Queen of New York, which premiered last October at NewFest. Got2b held a private screening for the film last month at the Sundance Film Festival-affiliated BrandStorytelling conference.

They’ll spend $2 million to make a commercial and $50 million to buy eyeballs. … Ted Lasso would have cost less than $52 million [to produce].

Michael Sugar, Oscar-winning film producer and Sugar23 founder

Got2b’s investment, plus Traverse32’s support, made it possible for first-time feature film director Emma Fidel and film producer Rob Profusek to deliver the film and plan for its distribution.

“The sustainable supporters of the arts are and can be brands,” said Profusek.

Oscar-winning producer Michael Sugar worked with P&G to co-produce an MSNBC documentary series, The Turning Point.

“It didn’t matter [to studios] that a brand was involved, because [studios] were thinking of it as a Hollywood project,” Sugar told ADWEEK.

The Turning Point features few, if any, P&G products. Reducing the number of times a brand shows up in the story keeps marketing from overtaking it. In 2017, Sugar founded a management agency, Sugar23, that strikes brand-filmmaker partnerships.

Even if a brand has a subtle presence in a film, its affiliation with the project could drive long-term consumer awareness. Plus, investing in film is more cost effective than linear advertising, given that brands will pay about $7 million to air a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl.

“They’ll spend $2 million to make a commercial and $50 million to buy eyeballs. You know, $52 million can make a great movie or TV,” Sugar said. “Ted Lasso would have cost less than $52 million [to produce].

“If Adidas had made Ted Lasso, they would have made a fortune, but they would have also made a massive impact on the consumer,” he added.

Partners must decide where to draw the line

Some filmmakers wonder if further merging branding and film will have consequences.

“I would hope that it could be done in a thoughtful way, where the brands are thinking long term—not only about their own representation—but also what the mission of the creatives is,” said Daniel Dae Kim, founder and CEO of production studio 3AD, also known for his roles on Lost and Hawaii Five-0. 

There aren’t industrywide guidelines dictating how much brand involvement is too much, but Traverse32 wants its partnerships to avoid editorial friction.

By the time Traverse32 showed Queen of New York to IPG Mediabrands client Henkel, Fidel had already wrapped production. Serendipitously, got2b hairspray cans wound up in Fidel’s footage, reflecting that the drag queens prominently featured in Queen of New York are loyal customers, and that the partnership was a good fit.

It will be hard to attract some marketers if filmmakers approach them after production, but it’s an option that completely preserves the filmmaker’s creative independence.

It’s worked out for Mari, so far. “A big reason that I am interested in working with [the brand] is because they fully support the vision and have been very hands off,” he said.

It’s common for Sugar23 to search for brand partners as soon as it determines a project’s commercial potential. Getting marketers onboard during or before pre-production means that they may work with directors on subtle brand integrations. 

Sugar tells marketers: “You put your names on stadiums, but you don’t tell the teams that play which plays to run or what uniforms to wear; you put your logo on a race car, but you don’t tell the driver which way to turn; and you put your logo on a jersey, but you don’t tell the players [how to play]. Why not put your name on another form of entertainment?”

Enjoying Adweek's Content? Register for More Access!