Spike Jonze’s Absolut Reboot

On its surface, at least, I’m Here, written and directed by Spike Jonze, has nothing to do with selling Absolut vodka. Its story line, about an inhibited male android who meets a free-spirited female and learns to live and love, has no Absolut bottle — no product shots whatsoever.

Ever since Fallon launched BMW Films in 2001 with David Fincher’s 6- to 8-minute shorts — featuring a mysterious man at the wheel of a BMW — an increasing number of marketers, including Sony and Ford, have produced branded entertainment for clients. But I’m Here, the 30-minute film from The Absolut Company and TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, adds a twist: It’s being produced and distributed as an art film rather than a long-form commercial masquerading as entertainment.

“This is an emotional expression of the brand,” says Anna Malmhake, vp, global marketing at Absolut. “None of us could see what a shot of the vodka would have added.”

The brand association is not kept hidden. The film’s on-screen copy announces, “Absolut presents,” as does a focus-grouped trailer titled, “I’m Here — A Love Story in an Absolut World,” which has been running online and, outside of the U.S., on TV. TBWA\C\D CCO Mark Figliulo says while they went out of their way “not to do product placement,” the marketing activity around the film is how Absolut’s being promoted. “[That’s] how we start to sell our brand better,” he says.

Mixing art and commerce is a decades-long tradition for the Swedish vodka. It has a history of enlisting artistic talents from all genres, from art to music and fashion, to lend pop-culture cachet to its brand. More recently, however, the brand has lost its trendy vibe and a lot of its buzz. I’m Here, in development for more than a year, is Absolut’s attempt to re-create some of the cultural excitement surrounding it as far back as the ’80s, when its print ads — including Andy Warhol’s interpretation of the bottle in 1985 — became collectors’ items.

“We wanted to get the brand back to when it was behaving its best,” says Jamie Gallo, president of TBWA\C\D, New York.

A feature filmmaker whose career began in music videos and advertising, Jonze had worked with both Figliulo and the agency’s executive producer of media arts, Matt Bijarchi, in the past. (Figliulo hired Jonze to direct “Auditions,” a Miller spot with talking animals, while at his previous job at Young & Rubicam, Chicago.) The agency briefed Jonze on the strategy, brand values and history, and he wrote the script.

“We wanted unfiltered Spike,” says Figliulo, who along with Bijarchi executive produced the short.

Set in a not-too-distant future where humans and robots are learning to co-exist, the film is part of the agency’s larger “In an Absolut world” campaign, which has the tag “Ordinary is no place to be.”

From its origins as a Swedish vodka made from wheat rather than potatoes, to its Bauhaus-inspired bottle design, the core of the brand, says Figliulo, has been “creativity drives superiority. It’s a fundamental belief system that when you do things differently you get greater results. That dictates you can’t do the average campaign.”

The short debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has since been making the rounds of the film-festival circuit, including last month’s in Berlin. It will also be shown in movie theaters in 10 U.S. markets. The agency is working to place it as non-paid media on TV, and screenings have been taking place at special events worldwide in anticipation of its online debut at imheremovie.com last Friday. An iTunes release of the soundtrack is also planned, and a book featuring original artwork and detailing the film’s production — including its association with Absolut — has been distributed along with a DVD of I’m Here.

“It’s not about vodka,” says Figliulo of the short. “It’s about the brand, and Spike’s brand, really. We own it from other media.”