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Raising Red Flags About Documentaries Branding

Considering the Implications of Corporate Sponsorship For Documentaries


The film Pink Ribbons, Inc. is one among a number of documentaries currently screening at IDFA 2011 that raise a red flag about the dangers of linking social issues, causes and advocacy with corporate sponsorship. It's a subject that needs standard-setting debate and continual vigilance.

Filmmaker Lea Pool's well-researched documentary investigates corporate sponsorships of pink ribbon campaigns designed to stir public awareness about breast cancer and raise funds for research for a cure.

The film examines the support of cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, an affiliation which corporate representatives describe as a natural outgrowth of the company's concerns for women, their largest constituency of customers. Yet, the film reveals that cancer researchers and those afflicted with the disease see little value derived from what is, in their view, a campaign that presents misleading impressions about cancer and cancer treatment, and fails to disclose that Estee Lauder uses known carcinogens in many of its products.

That last bit of shocking information clearly raises a red flag of warning above Estee Lauder's pink ribbon campaign.

As Breast Cancer Action board member Barbara A. Brenner points out during an interview in Pink Ribbons, Inc., there's danger in 'cause marketing' that gives corporations the appearance of acting in the public interest, while in reality they're exploiting public issues and concerns to stage public relations campaigns that are, in reality, in their own interest.

Estee Lauder's 'cause marketing' strategy isn't new. Nor is the debate occasioned by it. Nor is the dilemma in which social activists and public interest groups are placed when offered desperately needed funds that are presented as and/or perceived to be free from obligation to or influence by the corporate -- or, for that matter, private -- sources that are offering to fund them.

Granted, some charitable donations are entirely charitable in intent, but often -- as we see in the Pink Ribbon, Inc. expose of Estee Lauder's breast cancer initiative -- they are not.

Documentarians -- a catch-all term that includes filmmakers who, in the public interest blow whistles on such corporate connivances, as well as others whose films explore social, political and economic issues, and those who present inspiring personal stories -- are now being offered a new opportunity to receive corporate sponsorship for the distribution of their films.

Recently launched at the 2011 DocNYC festival, the Launch PAD initiative, introduced as a partnership between Grey Advertising, Morgan Spurlock and DocNYC, will arrange marketing marriages between already completed films and brands that ostensibly have 'messages' similar to those delivered in the film.

According to Thom Powers, DocNYC's Artistic Director, the sponsoring brand's products would never appear within the film. Instead, there would be brand association with the film's distribution via social media campaigns and on other platforms. The upside for filmmakers, per Powers, would be a longer life for their films and a greater presence with expanded audiences -- perhaps with clips or trailers of the film posted to the brand's Website or with corporate sponsored screenings in new found venues. Most importantly, filmmakers would receive an influx of much needed and well deserved funds.

In the current economic environment, in which independent documentary filmmakers are deeply hampered by diminished public funding for the arts, a decline spurred by the worldwide financial crisis and political climate, the Launch PAD scheme, which holds out the promise of a new funding stream with no strings attached, is bound to attract attention, and a lot of it.

With their pressing need to find new sources that are more substantial than a crowdfunding campaign, for example, filmmakers become susceptible to corporate sponsorship proposals that might seem okay because they avoid the obviously egregious requirements of product placements and/or editorial approval of content.

On the other hand, there are those pesky ethical considerations.

At the DocNYC launch of Launch Pad, Rosalind Lichter, a well known attorney who represents independent documentary filmmakers, asked Spurlock, Powers and the Grey team to help her understand the distinction -- in intent and as the end result of the branding partnership -- between a corporate-sponsored documentary and an advertorial. The panel's answer was that there would be no product association within the documentary's editorial content, that the connection would be more oblique, having to do with similar 'missions' shared by film and brand rather than the film being used as a vehicle to promote the brand.

So, what does that mean? As an example, Powers pointed to one of six Launch PAD test cases, a documentary about young ballerinas, suggesting that the supporting brand would be something not in any way associated with ballet per se, but with a wholesome corporation with a product that encourages young people to reach for their dreams.

Okay. What might that non-ballet-related brand be? No specific takers as yet.

So, let's indulge in some reasonable speculation: one purely conjectural possibility might be VitaminWater, a product that purports to be wholesome and fitting for those who are determined to be wholesome and fit. Ballerinas, for instance. VitaminWater's brand profile and message would, one assumes, find a comfortable fit in its association with young, successful ballerinas whose authentic story is told by a highly credible documentary filmmaker. Although the brand has no editorial presence in the film, the film's subjects and filmmaker would undoubtedly be perceived by their fans and the general public to be endorsing the VitaminWater.

If arranged by Grey, this hypothetical mating would certainly satisfy the agency's Grey mandate to serve its hypothetical client, and serve it well. Through Grey's offices, brands can embrace Launch Pad to associate themselves with a wide range of wholesome and engaging, pink and fuzzy, politically correct messages -- with which their corporate practices might not actually comply. That sort of greenwashing -- or image correction -- would work well for the sponsors.

But, is it really favorable for the filmmaker and the film? And, since the pairing deal is done after the film is finished, does it really meet with the expectations and standards of the film's subjects who will not know about it when they agree to be followed for the film?

Just consider that conjectured scenario pairing of VitaminWater and ballet. It's rife with red flag questions. The nutritional value claimed by VitaminWater has been questioned by watch groups, and the brand is actually a product of Coca Cola, a company whose policies and practices have been called into question. Would personal association with the brand sit well with the young ballerinas featured in the film? Would the filmmaker be comfortable with effectively spending his or her credibility on such an implied endorsement? Should filmmakers and film subjects be subjected to this kind of manipulation? How will their credibility be impacted?

At the Launch PAD launch, another issue raised (by me, actually) had to do with transparency. To what extent will sponsors be required to reveal their interlacing corporate ties, policies and behavioral record to filmmakers they approach about partnering with them? To what extent would corporate sponsors and filmmakers reveal the nature of their partnership to audiences who watch documentaries because they present a platform for commercial-free contemplation of truthful stories truthfully represented?

Another journalist presented the question of degree. How far do you go with corporate sponsorship and the branding of documentaries before you cross the line, and documentaries are no longer expected to be nor perceived to have any qualities other than those presented and claimed by brand-based commercials and/or advertorials?

The answers to these questions were, in a word, vague. Perhaps that's because Launch PAD and its founding partners have no certifiable answers. The initiative is too new to have any sort of track record.

Launch PAD is, however, already being scrutinized by media watchers. At Brandchannel.com, Abe Sauer comments about how Launch PAD differs from previous attempts to set up similar brokerages, and considers whether Morgan Spurlock's name -- now deemed to be a brand, in large part as a result of his corporate sponsored The Greatest Movie Ever Sold -- and Grey's clout will give their initiative the necessary edge to succeed where others have failed.

But the key debate among documentary filmmakers and industry watchers is not about projected success or failure, or practical applications. It's about ethics. And, the debate is international in scope. And, again, it is essential to the health, wellbeing and soul of the documentary genre.

At IDFA, the Launch PAD initiative has been covered by the festival's daily newspaper, and is being discussed by those who've gathered to watch Pink Ribbon, Inc. and 300 other documentaries on the festival program, and to catch up on the latest trends in the documentaries realm. Corporate funding is, apparently, a trend. An informal survey of IDFA attendees -- filmmakers, programmers, journalists and other industry people, and avid documentary buffs -- yielded the following range of opinions about it:

  • Many filmmakers indicated their opposition to the idea of corporate sponsorship of documentaries, saying that such funding, regardless of how it was presented or positioned, is a slippery slope. But they also acknowledged that they are desperately seeking funding solutions, and might accept corporate contributions if they seemed to fit.
  • Most filmmakers and others who expressed criticism of the Launch PAD concept and its underlying principals didn't want their identities revealed because they were afraid of antagonizing the powerful forces behind the initiative.
  • Several filmmakers, many programmers and some journalists said they saw no difference between what Launch PAD offers and the corporate underwriting of programs on public broadcasting systems.
  • Several commented that corporate sponsorship of documentaries goes back to the days when French furrier Revillon Freres funded the expedition that resulted in Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, and didn't prevent that 1922 film from becoming an enduring genre classic. Others countered with observations that times have changed.
  • Some lumped corporate sponsorship of documentaries with corporate underwriting that has sustained film festivals and/or other cultural institutions. Others say that funding organizations have different implications and impact than the sponsorship of individual projects.
  • Some suggested that corporations be called upon or mandated to give money instead to a general film development fund which is impartially administrated. Korean journalist Jissoo Han commented that there is such a fund in Korea that works well but, she acknowledged, it's possible that funds distribution may raise questions, although the funding process is transparent and subject to careful monitoring.
  • Sean Farnel, former programmer of Hot Docs, said he thinks the Launch PAD initiative's only flaw is that corporate sponsors are not paying enough to filmmakers, indicating that they receive a great deal more in value than they give.
  • Kartemquin chief Gordon Quinn emphasized the need for public funding of documentary films, even if it's only part of a film's total budget. "Public funding is necessary because it keeps other funding honest. Public funding is the wedge of integrity in what can become very difficult, dicey and complex funding situations," Quinn said.
  • Regardless of their pro or con stance vis-a-vis Launch PAD, everyone said that if corporate sponsorship were to be accepted by filmmakers it should be done with the utmost caution and constant monitoring.

Advocating for extreme caution, Patricia Aufderheide, head of American University's Center for Social Media and an expert on Fair Use in documentaries, said she views the Launch PAD program as an example of the kind of 'ambush marketing' through which Mobil Oil succeeded in being pervasively perceived as 'the thinking man's gasoline' by having its logo -- logo only, without any supportive or suggestive text -- appear during PBS program breaks, indicating the company's corporate sponsorship of Public Broadcasting. "This is, indeed, a very slippery oil-slicked slope," said Aufderheide.

With this debate about branding of documentaries in the background, Morgan Spurlock stepped into the IDFA spotlight to announce an update on Focus Forward - Short Films, Big Ideas, another Spurlock-spurred documentaries initiative with corporate sponsorship.

First announced at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, where documentaries are programmed by Thom Powers -- Spurlock's partner in Launch PAD -- Focus Forward is a series of 30 three-minute documentaries, each to be about an innovator (inventor, problem solver, trend setter), each to be made by an internationally recognized and well-respected (if not prominent) filmmaker. The films are to be commissioned and produced by Cinelan, the New York-based filmmaker-driven video publisher co-founded by Spurlock with Karol Martesko-Fenster (an innovative leader in indie film for several decades) and David Laks. The entire Fast Forward project is underwritten by General Electric, aka GE (NYSE: GE).

At his IDFA Focus Forward update, Spurlock referred to the three-minute documentaries as 'snackables' that would encourage viewers of short 'personal documentaries' -- like those currently posted on Vimeo, where the Focus Forward works will also be shown -- to become interested in feature documentaries. He was quick to point out that participating filmmakers will have complete editorial control of their 'snacks,' and retain all rights to the material.

Martesko-Fenster explained the nuts and bolts: Cinelan invites filmmakers to submit proposals for a three-minute documentary about a subject of their own choosing that illustrates or is related to the theme of 'innovation.' Some filmmakers have proposed one idea, others have submitted several. Cinelan reviews each filmmakers proposal, and accepts or rejects it. When several proposals are pitched, Cinelan picks the one it likes best. All proposals that Cinelan accepts are sent to the underwriter for approval. (Yes, I verified that last bit about underwriter approval. And, if it seems to you that there's a contradiction between Spurlock's claim that filmmakers have unfettered editorial control and Martesto-Fenster's statement that films are pre-approved by GE, well I can only say that I wonder about that, too.)

Neither Spurlock nor Martesto-Fenster made any mention of the budget for each three-minute production, nor about fees for filmmakers.

The Focus Fiorward news is that filmmakers Nelson George, Gary Hustwit, Katy Chevigny, Fredrick Gertten, David W. Leitner, Jessica Edwards, Michele O'Hayon and Peter Wintonick have signed on to the project, joining Steve James, Joe Berlinger and, of course, Morgan Spurlock, among others who were already attached.

The second part of the Cinelan crew's news update is that IDFA has entered into to a multiyear collaboration with GE and Cinelan to be a "strategic partner in their global initiative." Which translates, I think, into IDFA's agreeing to integrate screenings of the Focus Forward shorts into the 2012 program, which will celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary. And, one supposes, in exchange, IDFA expects to receive an anniversary gift of a -- hopefully handsome -- corporate contribution.

IDFA isn't the only festival to enter the GE and Cinelan fold. The first five Focus Forward 'snacks' will premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, specifically on Monday, January 23, 2012. And a curated collection of the 'snacks' will be presented at Tribeca Film Festival and numerous -- but unspecified -- festivals around the globe.

GE is really getting quite a lot of exposure for its money.

Harking back to Pat Aufderheide's remarks about 'ambush marketing,' it doesn't take much innovative thought or creative cool to come to the conclusion that if Mobil Oil became the 'thinking man's gasoline' merely by associating its logo with non-market-specific PBS content, GE will quickly capitalize on its connection to the innovation theme -- as exemplified in the 'short films, big ideas' of the Focus Forward series -- creating ascending sales figures for, let's say, the 'thinking woman's fridge,' along with the corporation's other products and services, including healthcare and pharmaceuticals, as well as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear energy, water and wind technologies, plus global commercial and personal finance services providing loans, credit, mortgages, financing programs, insurance and other quasi-banking functions, among other corporate offerings. There are some pretty heavy documentary buzz words on that products and services list.

And, if you're seeking an understanding of GE's motivation for underwriting Focus Forward, you need look no further than GE's Website's homepage, which serves as a banner indication of the company's interest in being associated with 'innovation.' That banner is another red flag for documentary filmmakers who are considering participating in the Focus Forward project -- or any brand-affiliated funding -- which will indelibly associate their names, passions, storytelling skills and creativity and their hard-earned reputations and credibility with a corporate entity over which they have no control but which -- according to the folks running the Focus Forward show -- ultimately has the power to yea or naysay their work.

How does the advent of a project such as Focus Forward really impact documentary viewers. There are no stats to show whether Spurlock's forecast of increases in viewer numbers or expansion of demographics will come to pass. But, what will be the impact on those who actually follow documentaries, and consider them to be the almost hallowed realm of serious discourse about the important issues that influence our lives, and who practically idolize the filmmakers who spend years researching, investigating and shedding light on dark or hidden subjects that must be exposed? Are we expected to enjoy nibbling on an innovation 'snack' that's been prepared, however gloriously, by a brilliant filmmaker who's capable of so much more?

I think of Joe Berlinger (sorry, Joe, to single you out as an example), who, as a filmmaker has demonstrated exemplary ethics, unfailing dedication and the superb storytelling skills shown in the 2012 Oscars shortlisted Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky) and, especially, in his 2009 release, Crude, which exposes horrendous corporate behavior related to oil extraction in the Amazon. Now we see his name linked to GE, the corporate underwriter of his upcoming and no doubt glorious snack about innovation. And, looking at GE's products and services list, we might surmise that the corporation may have provided equipment used in that oil extraction, which, as shown in Crude, ultimately poisoned the environment, displaced several indigenous tribes from their homelands and wiped out others. Yes, the link between GE and toxic waste in the Amazon is entirely speculative, but if it produces even the slightest conjectural crack in Joe Berlinger's credibility, we all lose.

That said, Sean Farnel's conclusion about corporate sponsorship is absolutely right: GE and other corporations that succeed in setting documentary-related 'ambush marketing' and 'cause marketing' initiatives into action -- through a branded filmmaker like Morgan Spurlock, via Grey Advertising or another marketing broker -- ain't paying enough, no matter how much they're planning to lay on.

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