Harbinder Singh was skeptical about arranged marriages, but when he received a photo of his potential wife-to-be, he was wowed. “The charm, the smile, the personality … it shines right there,” he said.
Arvinder, a young woman in her early 20s in India, was also love-struck by Harbinder’s picture. She saw the New Yorker’s kind, loving eyes — a smile that seemed to be directed at her.
A thing as simple as looking at an old-fashioned, physical photograph sparked a whirlwind romance and a lifetime of love — all of it captured in a five-minute documentary, “At First Sight,” posted online and shown as part of a larger series at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. But it wasn’t just a heartwarming tale — it was also a subtle pitch for photo printers, with the YouTube version ending with the tagline, “What memories will you print?” followed by “HP keep reinventing.”
Since the dawn of TV, entertainment and advertising have been closely intertwined. In the 1950s, companies sponsored programs such as “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” where it was common to hear pitches for household products before the show and even see them mentioned in the program’s narratives. But as technology evolved, more consumers fast-forwarded through ads and cut the cord altogether. Brands sought out viral video content that they could sponsor on social media, fueling the growth of companies such as BuzzFeed and Vox. Now, they are going a step further by partnering directly with filmmakers.
Whether the aim is to encourage people to buy photo printers, athletic shoes or even fried chicken, companies such as HP, Nike and Church’s Chicken are increasingly pouring money into documentaries in hopes of capturing the attention of consumers who shun traditional commercials. The trend has been a boon to filmmakers, but it has also stirred debate over the role of advertising in nonfiction storytelling.
“As most audiences have fled (watching commercials on traditional television), you really have to reimagine how you are going to communicate with people. … A documentary is a really nice way,” said James DeJulio, chief executive of Tongal. The Santa Monica firm runs a platform that connects creators and other talent with entertainment companies and brands.
Funding remains a challenge for documentary filmmakers, who often rely on grants. Last year, 26% of documentary directors and producers said they planned to work on branded documentaries sponsored by a company, according to a study by the center.
For their part, companies say they believe sponsored documentaries are effective at reaching newer audiences.
“The key to standing out from the noise is to tell stories that are genuine and connect with people,” said Angela Matusik, HP’s head of brand journalism.
The Palo Alto company, which sells photo printers, is hoping its films will “encourage people to print more photos.” Already, 77% of viewers who were surveyed said “At First Sight” was effective in making them feel that way, Matusik added.
For brands, paying for documentaries can be cheaper than paying for TV ads in large national markets.
Church’s Chicken said it spent $10,000 to $20,000 for each of the several documentary videos it has commissioned. In 2016, the Atlanta fast-food chain posted a five-minute YouTube video on Compton, highlighting community members explaining what Compton means to them and briefly touching on the role of Church’s Chicken in their city — as one of the few establishments that survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Church’s also launched a docu-series on the World’s Fastest Drummer competition — because drumming could be loosely tied to drumsticks. The drumming series allowed the company to get in front of a younger, 18-to-35 male demographic that it wouldn’t have been able to reach with traditional media, said Georgia Margeson, senior director of advertising at Church’s.
Documentary filmmakers such as Martin Desmond Roe, a co-founder of Dirty Robber, have benefited from the increased interest from brands such as Nike. Last year, brand-related projects made up half of his production company’s yearly revenue — in the range of roughly $15 million. His company has worked on branded documentaries including “Breaking2,” a film about marathon running paid for by Nike that has received more than 5.5 million views on YouTube.
“It’s where our skill set meets their need,” Roe said. “People don’t care who is paying for it, so long as it’s meaningful … so long as it’s storytelling.”
But branded video challenges the very nature of documentary storytelling, said Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Assn.
“The strength of documentary film is that it’s independent,” Kilmurry said. “When you begin to get brands involved, it becomes much murkier in terms of what the motivations are.”
Traditional outlets that broadcast documentaries, such as PBS, have strict requirements for sponsor disclosure, often vocally disclosing major sponsors at the start of films. But when it comes to social media or some streaming platforms, those disclosures may not be as obvious.