Thursday, October 27, 2016
  • Friday, Feb. 5, 2016
Creative/Production Industry Survey: A Tale Of Two Golden Ages
Lee Daniels, creator of "Empire"
History’s lessons; the promise of the future; brand and Empire building

We are in the midst of what’s generally regarded as a Golden Age of Television with content creation opportunities across multiple platforms attracting marquee talent, big ticket writers, directors and actors, including feature artisans who earlier in their careers would have resisted the small screen. However, this isn’t TV’s first Golden era as historians have chronicled a stretch from the late 1940s through 1960 as extraordinary, starting with the likes of The Philco Television Playhouse, Westinghouse Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre, The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre, innovations such as the telecast of the stage production of Mary Martin in Peter Pan, and brilliant teleplays by Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling and others brought into people’s homes.

Both Golden Ages are in a sense bookends for SHOOT which now celebrates its 55th anniversary. The first Golden era was winding down when SHOOT first hit the scene. And SHOOT has since broadened its coverage over the years, serving as a predictor of—and chronicling—the media, creative and production dynamics that have helped to bring about today’s Golden Age while casting a thoughtful eye as to what is in store for the entertainment and advertising sectors as they come closer together in the years to come.

On the occasion of turning 55, SHOOT seeks insights from the industry at large but first here’s some food for thought as to where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re headed.

To be sure, the two Golden Ages of Television share similarities, including live TV of yesteryear having as its counterpart today live productions of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and The Wiz Live on NBC and Grease: Live on Fox. And then there’s that matter of sponsors being woven into programming as the Philco, Westinghouse, Kraft and Chevrolet references in our opening paragraph attest. Brands today are grappling with ways to make their way into existing programming, have created their own online channels, and are becoming increasingly active in generating original content beyond commercials.

At the same time, today’s brand, advertiser and agency efforts also underscore a profound difference between the two Golden Ages. The first era had a limited number of outlets, defined for decades by the big three networks of CBS, NBC and ABC. Now in sharp contrast there are assorted platforms spanning broadcast, cable, satellite, online and mobile. Many of these platforms are sans advertising or at least not ad friendly, accentuating arguably the biggest difference between the two Golden eras—the push/pull dynamic.

When the Big Three ad-supported networks were the only game in town, a captive audience had to “endure” commercials, good and bad, that were pushed at them. Now, though, viewers can push back, empowered to choose what they see and when they see it, zapping commercials or seeking outlets that don’t run spots. Thus it’s incumbent upon agencies and brands to create content—commercials and otherwise—that is relevant and of entertainment value in order to pull, elicit and earn attention from prospective consumers.

Successfully connecting with consumers through content requires that brands maintain a delicate balance of art and commerce, a prime recent example being a mesh of advertising and entertainment that emerged during this past season of Empire, Fox’s hit primetime series. Fox joint ventured with Pepsi, BBDO New York and the content creation studio Wondros to create and then integrate a piece of TV advertising into the plot of Empire. Series creator Lee Daniels said it was paramount that the fit be “natural and not forced.” Daniels wound up playing himself in the series, directing a commercial that was woven into the fabric of Empire. This entailed far more than inserting a spot into an episode; rather, a story was told over the arc of three episodes, beginning with the installment that debuted on Nov. 18, 2015. In this initial episode, entertainment impresario Lucious Lyon’s son Jamal (portrayed by Jussie Smollett) is building momentum as a pop star, taking a meeting with Pepsi execs to discuss becoming the face of the brand. He comes up with a fresh new track (which was actually created by producer Swizz Beatz) to make his case for being the ideal Pepsi spokesman, wowing the soft drink maker.

The following episode shows the filming of Jamal’s Pepsi spot being directed by the Oscar and DGA Award-nominated (Precious) filmmaker Daniels. The next installment of Empire places us at a press conference during which the ad is screened. Immediately after, during the actual Fox network commercial break, the Daniels-helmed Pepsi spot is again shown.

The backstory that brought production house Wondros into the equation dates back some 18 months when company founder Jesse Dylan directed and interviewed Daniels for a documentary about Sundance for Robert Redford. Daniels and Dylan connected, resulting in what Wondros chief creative officer Anne-Marie Mackay described as “a very speculative kind of discussion about Lee directing commercials. We decided that if anything came up we felt was suited for Lee, we would reach out to him. In the meantime, Lee asked me to get involved in a Timbaland project with him, writing a script for a short film that embodied Timbaland’s music and creative spirit.”

During that collaboration, Mackay said she and Daniels bonded further, resulting in a fortuitous phone call that the Empire creator made to her when she was working at the Wondros office late one evening. He asked her to come to the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. immediately because he had some Pepsi people there who said they knew her. Indeed Mackay consulted for Pepsi before joining Wondros and her commercialmaking exploits in years past saw her work with Pepsi and BBDO on multiple occasions. The Four Seasons Hotel meeting got the ball rolling.

Mackay found herself as a common bond/intermediary with ties to Pepsi, BBDO and Daniels that helped her to facilitate what blossomed into a fruitful Empire/Pepsi collaboration. “It all had to feel organic in order to work properly,” observed Mackay. “Pepsi is very music driven so it was a natural storyline to show that part of marking a pop music artist coming of age would be a Pepsi commercial, with a brand lineage that included commercials with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyonce. Making Lee the director of the commercial, bringing him into the plot to make Jussie the voice of Pepsi also felt right. And Lee immediately went with the idea of Jussie’s character arguing with his father, wanting to be his own man and to tie his music into Pepsi.”

Mackay noted that making the commercial was “a big learning curve for Lee who ultimately embraced the idea of being able to tell a story in such a short period of time. It was a wonderful journey for both of us.”

That journey was made through production house Pony Show Entertainment, a Wondros sister shop well versed in working with feature and TV directors on commercials and branded content. Mackay exec produced the spot.

Daniels said he had some trepidation going in. “I always like doing things that are sort of scary—like getting into TV. I don’t like working in a safe zone. I was terrified when I first embarked on Empire. It was something so new to me. It was just like after years of doing theater I found the prospect of jumping into film to be terrifying. In the case of this Pepsi project, I had to get over the fear of playing myself in the series. And then came the hard part of directing a commercial. It’s hard to tell a story in the flash of an eye. Again, though, I don’t like working unless I’m afraid of failing. It’s a great motivator. It all turned out to be a great experience, different than that of some of my friends who tried out commercial directing. They told me it would be like ants all over a sugar cube—different people giving you notes, telling you to do this or that. But when I got into it, there weren’t any notes. It was a unique and fun experience.”

For his first foray into commercial directing, Daniels said that Mackay and Dylan provided a bit of a comfort level. “I’m always interested in working with people I like, surrounding myself with people I connect with.” At the same time, Daniels observed that it felt “odd being directed by a director” during his guest starring stint in the “Sinned Against” episode of Empire, which was helmed by Paul McCrane. The other two episodes in the Pepsi story arc were directed by Sanaa Hamri.

Mackay observed that the Empire initiative reflects how producers, creatives and brands need to think outside the box and to be open to exploring “new frontiers” in order to properly connect with viewers and cogently bring together the worlds of advertising and entertainment.

Among those new frontiers is virtual reality and the ad community has stepped up its involvement in that discipline. Goodby Silverstein & Partners for example has created an imaginative VR experience called “Dreams of Dali,” part of The Dali Museum exhibition “Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination.” “Dreams of Dali” takes viewers inside the mind of the legendary surrealist Salvador Dali by transporting them into one of his early paintings, “Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s ‘Angelus’” (1935).

As covered in this week’s VES Awards focus, visual effects house MPC turned out 700-plus visual effects shots, the title sequence and the VR adventure for the movie Goosebumps, based on the best-selling series of children’s horror books authored by R.L. Stine.  The VES-nominated virtual reality experience enabled moviegoers to put themselves inside an action-packed scene from the movie. MPC Creative produced the shoot and creative directed alongside Rob Letterman (director of the Goosebumps movie). MPC Creative also managed key aspects of the roll out to the public—the team created a custom Goosebumps VR app that housed the content which was loaded and quality controlled onto 30-plus Samsung Gear VR Headsets. The project lived as an installation piece in movie theater lobbies across North America and abroad. The Goosebumps VR Adventure was also part of Technicolor’s exhibit at CES.

CES too was the venue at which The Martian VR Experience—inspired by the Ridley Scott-directed feature film The Martian—was unveiled, featuring a set of episodic first-person adventures from the perspective of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon’s character in The Martian). The VR project springs from a partnership among 20th Century Fox, Fox Innovation Lab, RSA Films, and The VR Company. Executive produced by Scott and directed by Robert Stromberg, this interactive, immersive adventure runs 15 to 20 minutes  with viewers getting the chance to perform tasks as Watney strives to survive, buying time for his rescue. Viewers can fly onto the surface of Mars, steer at zero gravity through space, drive a rover and experience other key scenes from the hit film in a 360-degree VR environment. The Martian VR Experience will be available across tethered VR platforms in 2016.

Creating the sound for The Martian VR Experience was Drazen Bosnjak, founder/chief creative officer of Q Department (well known in the commercialmaking community) and its new VR sound technology company called Mach 1. Also showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, The Martian VR Experience represents Fox Innovation Lab’s first major commercial endeavor in virtual reality. The Lab brought Wild—The Experience (based on the feature film The Wild) to last year’s CES as a proof of concept.

Sundance too reflects an evolving landscape. This year the festival’s New Frontier section is showcasing some 30 VR projects.

To gain perspectives now that SHOOT has reached year 55, we sought feedback from a select group of industry execs relative to lessons learned from the past, where we are today, the promise of the future, and the daunting challenge of meshing art and commerce as well as entertainment and advertising. We posed the following survey questions:

1) What industry developments and/or whose work over the years has had the greatest positive influence on you?

2) What change(s) in the business do you love and why? And, what change(s) in the business do you dislike and why?

3) How has your role evolved over the years? What do you like most about that evolution? What do you like least?

4) What lessons learned over the years carry the most relevance for your career and business today and in planning for the future?

5) Looking towards the future, what are the most pressing questions for which you are seeking answers as you look to evolve your career and your company? Responses can span such sectors as the economy, business, creative, technological, media.

6) What’s your New Year’s resolution, creatively speaking and/or from a business standpoint, for your own company and/or as an individual?

7) While it’s always precarious to predict the future, in your informed opinion what do you envision for the industry—creatively speaking and/or from a business standpoint—in 2016?

Click here to see and scroll thru the survey responses. Or click on NAME below.

Name Title Company
Andy Azula Executive Creative Director The Martin Agency
Mark Benson CEO MPC
Don Block Owner/Executive Producer GARTNER
Sean Bryan Chief Creative Officer McCann New York
Jon Collins Global President of Integrated Advertising Framestore
Karen Costello EVP, Executive Creative Director Deutsch LA
Andreas Dahlqvist Chief Creative Officer Grey New York
Phillip Detchmendy Executive Producer RSA Films
Stephen Dickstein Founder MRS. BOND
Violaine Etienne Founder/Executive Producer Serial Pictures
Corinna Falusi Chief Creative Officer Ogilvy & Mather New York
Bonnie Goldfarb CEO/Executive Producer harvest films
Steve Golin Founder, CEO Anonymous Content
Lola Lott Principal/CEO charlieuniformtango
Paul Matthaeus Founder/Chairman Digital Kitchen
John Maxham Chief Creative Officer DDB Chicago
Matt Miller Executive Creative Director BBDO San Francisco