Thomas Turgoose plays a runaway in Somers Town
By Alan Connor
BBC News Magazine
Shane Meadows' latest award-magnet is brought to you by Eurostar. More than product placement, they've funded the whole film. Is this the future for movies, music, novels, TV...?
You can imagine the trailer.
"SHE was a film-maker who couldn't find funding. HE was an advertiser looking for new ways to sell his clients' wares. In a world of fragmenting media, their affair was inevitable. But would it last?"
The top prize at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival went to Somers Town, the tale of a runaway teen by the feted director Shane Meadows - and paid for by Eurostar.
And other companies are funding plays, books and TV series to help you to hear their messages.
Somers Town, where the film is set, is a down-at-heel area of London where the Channel Tunnel has its new rail terminal. See the connection? Neither, initially, did Meadows.
The idea came from Mother, a beyond-trendy advertising agency where everyone sits around a 300-foot table. Having lost the account to do Eurostar's traditional ad spots, Mother suggested the company might like to fund what they call a "legacy project" - an independent film set in the area around their new station.
Next stop: approaching arthouse favourite Meadows. "I didn't want to get involved in some kind of corporate ego trip," he has said. But after some reflection, he suggested his regular screenwriter Paul Fraser and "when I read the script, I forgot about it being 'for' anyone and just got on with making it".
(Warning: slight "spoiler" ahead.) While the film looks nothing like an advert as we understand it, the final scenes are of a happy train trip to see the sights of Paris.
"The contract said that if Shane was asked to put in a smiling train driver, or had any other interference, he would take his name off the project," says producer Barnaby Spurrier.
Filming stopped when residents of the real Somers Town emerged from a pub for a ruck with snooker cues. And the storyline kicks off with the main character arriving in Somers Town and having his bag stolen - not on the Eurostar, of course, but still a mixed message about the area around the terminal.
So who's getting what out of this "content marketing"? According to the participants, it's very much a model of good practice. Meadows (whose ads for Asda's school uniforms have just launched) gets the money to fund a movie; Eurostar gives something back to its new home; and audiences get a new piece of storytelling.
Which way for film funding?
The actual benefits for Eurostar are hard to quantify, says Francesca Fisher, of ad industry magazine Campaign.
"Advertising works by making people feel warm inside about the brand. If Eurostar comes out of the film with a vague glow, it will have worked - but that's impossible to measure."
Of course, this glow is as likely to come from the story of the production - company funds nine-minute short which resourceful director converts into feature film - as it is from the tale told.
The benefits for the agency are clearer.
"Traditional TV and print advertising is not reaching audiences, because they're often somewhere else. So you have to try new things," says Fisher.
"Mother may not get a fee, or a cut of the box office, but they do get fame - and keeping your image at the top matters a lot internally in the industry."
Roots of cinema
But is it possible to enjoy the film knowing how it came into the world?
"If you were cynical, you could say it's playing to the money. But I didn't see that on the screen at all," says film critic Mark Kermode.
"Shane has one of those voices that's completely unique, and in fact there is far more evidence of wrong notes in his big budget film Once Upon A Time In The Midlands."
Matthew Sweet, of Radio 4's Film Programme is similarly philosophical. "If you go with the knowledge of why it was made, that's still better than going to see Bean and finding it's an advert for M&Ms, with those sweets in every scene.
"Nearly every major Hollywood film has a product placement arrangement: it was there at the roots of cinema and the beginning of mass popular fiction. In the 1860s, companies paid to have their products mentioned in serial fiction - characters would be described buying them in shops or walking past billboards."
Given that Meadows makes films about low-lifes beloved by highbrows, the deal is similar to the sponsorship of ballets and art exhibitions by banks - the difference being that the ballets and canvases seldom feature images of satisfied current account holders.
Pot Noodle play
Other examples to prominently feature an unrelated product or service include Coca Cola's very visible refreshments for the American Idol judges and, similarly, McDonalds coffees for US news anchors.
The BBC's Mark Easton has blogged about pop songs advertising chewing gum and clothing (see link, right), and the Department for Children, Schools and Families is considering asking the teen soap Hollyoaks to help raise interest in the new qualification, the Diploma. As Sweet points out, "soaps often forge relationships with campaigning groups and government departments when developing their storylines".
And long before Pirates Of The Caribbean was a film/game/pyjamas franchise, it was a Disney theme park ride.
Somers Town goes a step beyond, says Fisher. "Previously you might give £50,000 to have your brand of cigarettes in a film - the difference here is that Eurostar paid for the film in its entirety."
Products in popular culture, not necessarily product placement:
Brian May being driven by Ford
Playground chant favourites the Fast Food Rockers
24's Apple Macs (for goodies) and PCs (for baddies)
James Bond's Aston Martin, then BMW, then Aston Martin again
David Dundas' #3 hit Jeans On
Carole King enjoying the Hard Rock Cafe
ET croaking "Reece's Pieces"
At the other end of the Chunnel, the French film Summer Hours began life as a short film funded by the Musee d'Orsay. An earlier example of a piece of culture which would not exist without a desire for publicity from a third party is Fay Weldon's novel The Bulgari Connection, which contains three dozen sparkling descriptions of Bulgari jewellery. The writer received an undisclosed, but "not huge" sum from the Italian jewellers.
Unilever is backing a show at the Edinburgh Fringe "very loosely based on Hamlet", and more tightly based around their freeze-dried snack Pot Noodle.
A lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies tried to sponsor a thriller that would frighten US women out of buying cheaper Canadian drugs - the plotline was to see Croatian Muslim terrorists waging war on the West with poisoned Canadian medicines. But the novel never made it to the shelves.
And ITV's series about community policemen, Beat: Life on the Street, came about when the Home Office approached media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD for help in making people feel better about community support officers. Ofcom is currently investigating whether the channel should have made it clearer that the programme had £800,000 in Home Office funding.
Hidden helping hands
It can be long after the event - or never at all - that a hidden helping hand is revealed.
Thirsty work on American Idol
It's only recently, for example, that we learned that the 1954 animated film of George Orwell's Animal Farm was paid for by the CIA as part of a larger project to fund magazines and exhibitions that would keep European arty types away from socialism.
Likewise uncredited are the armies of "street teams" who will share with you, online and in real life, their enthusiasm for recording artists - an enthusiasm underwritten by those artists' publicists and record companies.
The legacy of the Somers Town "legacy project" may be more experimentation in paying for culture. With product placement rules for TV under discussion and with the rising stars of advertising, Google, weaved into more and more of our lives, "a word from our sponsor" might crop up when you least expect it.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I don't see what the problem is with the smiling train driver: they could have had him descend in a glow from a shining cloud and make the lame walk again too. On a more serious note: product placement seems to be the main driver behind many modern, content-free productions. As long as it's obvious, I think people twig they're being manipulated. It's a lot worse when it's subtle, as in the Apple=goodie, PC=baddie example above. Something like that slips in under the radar and I shudder to think what the effect might be on a generation of young people who have been subjected to similar techniques, which seem more common than ever.
Richard C, Glastonbury, England
Money for film making comes from the most unlikely sources, I don't think this source is any better or worse than any other. Sometimes I wish that all financing of film making were transparent so that we could make up our minds where vested interest comes in. All I know is that it takes money to make a film, and if we bother more as to where the money comes from rather than the standard of the film made with its assistance, then all is lost for the British film industry. It's nurturing as well as keeping talented writers and directors and all those other good folk concerned with the making of a film in work, exercising their talent, encouraging others to follow in their footsteps that is of utmost import, and financing has to come from somewhere for that to carry on.
Jan Davies, Nuneaton
Some filmmakers are on our side. There's a classic (pun intended), The Gods Must be Crazy. Coca Cola loved it, "such an honor to appear in a good film", they've claimed for 28 years. But my favourite is Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey, just look for product placement of PanAm Airlines. It's fascinating to see what Stanley did about it.
Jackie Pike, Austin, Texas
Working as a creative myself, I respect Mother. I attended a talk by them in 2001 at the New Blood designers exhibition in London when I first graduated. This extra, subliminal advertising is very effective. Psychologically it is an amazingly penetrative. Why give people what they want straight away, the demand has to be stimulated, then let the flood gates open. It is simply just another way to fuel consumerism, but this has been happening for years, we are simple now more aware of it. People in general are obsessed with the way they look and what they want... It is a self-sustaining market based on envy. But do we really want to fuel this behaviour?
Christian Jones, Mold, North Wales
I'm far more concerned by the funding of Hollywood by folk from the "dark side" (CIA etc). Flogging train tickets is harmless stuff compared to trying to influence the rest of the world to think the US is best.
John Farmer, Henley-on-Thames
The most shameful display of advertising in film has to be Castaway. The entire film is an advert for Fed-Ex, where the helpless Tom Hanks is rescued consistently by fed-ex parcels. On top of this football makers Wilson get a cut of the action. Every time I see this film on the shops or anyone me
stin, Texasntions it I feel like throwing up.
Matthew Smethurst, Leeds, United kingdom
The recent American remake of The Italian Job was such a blatant advertisement for Mini, in which the story was little more than an off-the-shelf package to stitch together scenes of a Mini taking on and beating all the best-known supercars and a helicopter gunship, that it's hard to believe BMW did not provide a large portion of the funding. It sounds as though Somers Town is, at least, relatively restrained in its tub-thumping for Eurostar and represents a substantial element of artistic quality.
Andrew Shakespeare, Cardiff, Wales
Reminds me of the Orange movie adverts shown at the cinema that parody commercial interference with movies - anyone remember Sean Astin being encouraged to star in Lord of the Ringtones? Still, can't be much worse than the product placement in iRobot where hardened, cynical cop Will Smith takes far too much time out to fawn over a pair of overpriced trainers.
Gerard Krupa, Coventry, UK
It's a fantastic idea if it's well done - they're going to have to set the film somewhere so why not get sponsorship for it. The alternative is either that we have to pay more to see it or they produce it on a smaller budget and so have to skimp somewhere. Along with product placement, corporate sponsorship is excellent - if it's badly done then no-one will go to see the film, and if it's well done then it's to everyone's advantage.
As a film fan, I detest unsubtle product placement in films and I resent being subjected to advertising in a film I've paid £10 to see. Notable examples are the Carlsberg lorry in Spider-man and the Gucci products in Hannibal. Whilst watching a film, you're trying to suspend your disbelief, trying to accept what you're seeing as real, only to have a less than subtle advert for beer or clothes wedged in. Considering the huge salaries paid to the stars of such movies, the producers can hardly claim to need the funds these in-movies ads pay.
DS, Croydon, England