An Adrenaline Rush for Nonfiction
"In 2013, cinemas across Europe are going to be fueled with an adrenaline rush: A monthly action sports movie event, featuring compelling stories and heart-stopping stunts that have never been seen on a big screen," according to the press release issued by Red Bull Media House at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain on September 28.
The Red Bull marketing initiative entails the creation of a new section at the 2013 San Sebastian Film Festival which will be focused entirely on action sports, outdoor and adventure movies, and includes the start up of "Heroes by Nature," a series of monthly action sports movie events to be staged in selected cinemas across Europe, beginning in 2013.
The films included in the projected "Heroes by Nature" program are in 3D, and intended to give viewers a thrillingly immersive cinematic sports experience.
As preview to the ongoing program, Red Bull presented a double bill screening at the 2012 San Sebastian Film Festival, featuring the world premiere of The Art of Flight 3D and the European premiere of Storm Surfers 3D, for a sold out audience of over 2100 people at San Sebastian's Velodromo.
Salzburg-based Red Bull Media House sponsored production of both films, as well as the festival screening event, and holds all rights for distribution of the films in Europe. The U.S. rights are still up for grabs.
Australian surfer Ross Clarke Jones, featured in the Storm Surfers 3D, is sponsored Red Bull, the popular but controversial high octane drink that faced banning in Australia and elsewhere due to concerns over its impact on the health of consumers.
Although they are nowhere clearly articulated, the marketing goals of Red Bull Media House and Red Bull are fairly obvious. Both aim to be associated with health, physical prowess and exhilaration, daring and fun.
Additionally, the Red Bull advertising and social media slogan, "Red Bull gives you wings," fits nicely with Red Bull Media House's The Art of Flight 3D.
Storm Surfers 3D was previously screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, where sports documentaries and other nonfiction films are programed by Thom Powers, who has proved himself to be a powerful advocate for the corporate branding of documentaries. Powers is also founder and director of DOC NYC, the New York-based documentaries festival at which he joined filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, Spurlock's Cinelan company and Grey New York, the multinational advertising firm, in launching "Launch Pad," a marketing initiative to match completed documentary films with "like-minded" products or brands.
Appealing To Filmmakers
With its "Heros By Nature" iniative, Red Bull Media House is appealing to filmmakers worldwide to come aboard for the ride, proposing that they make sports and action films that fit the corporation's branding imprints. The high-budget, high-paying, high-exposure gig has got to be alluring for independent filmmakers, although the productions are fueled by marketing interests that do not necessarily abide by the standards of truth and authenticity that are applied to documentary films, including those that cover sports and sporting events.
In the Red Bull Media House scenario, the implied association of the controversial Red Bull drink with the achievement of a healthy and active and 'heroic' lifestyle presents a possible conflict of interest issue.
Red Bull Media House's heavy fiscal investment in the "Heroes of Nature" series, and its foray into the high exposure realm film festivals, is an indication that corporate branding of documentaries is bulldozing itself into reality, and blurring the boundaries where consideration of authenticity and ethics set nonfiction filmmaking apart from narrative storytelling in cinema.
The Slippery Slope
It's happening without much notice by the public and with little resistance from documentary filmmakers, nor much sound of alarm from the press. The clearest example of this is the Focus Forward initiative created by Spurlock, Cinelan and General Electric. In Focus Forward, GE, the multinational with corporate interests in everything from fresh water to waste disposal and banking, a long list of public complaints about its corporate behavior in all sectors, has commissioned top documentary filmmakers -- Joe Berlinger, Steve James, Errol Morris and Alex Gibney, among others -- to make three-minute 'documentaries' on the theme of innovation, which happens to be GE's logo slogan and marketing keyword. The fee to filmmakers is $20,000. That my be a handsome reward for a three-minute production, but it seems a paltry sum for the possible sacrifice of even one iota of integrity or credibility, or ability to do a strong investigative documentary about one of the many public grievances against GE at some time in the future.
At present, the Focus Forward branded content is being shown at GE-sponsored screenings at film festivals -- including prestigious Cannes, the corporation-driven Toronto International Film Festival, the fiscally-challenged IDFA and cutting edge Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has, to its credit, staged a critical panel discussion about the corporate funding of documentaries. The shorts are also featured online at GE's Website and at focusforwardfilms.com.
Additionally, GE is now funding a Focus Forward contest in which filmmakers will submit three-minute 'documentaries' in competition for a $100,000 prize and film festival exposure. One wonders whether the high profile filmmakers who the original $20,000 contracts can and will double dip.
What's the Future?
Nobody can predict how corporate sponsorship of documentaries can and will impact the standards for judging the veracity of nonfiction filmmaking, nor alter the public's trust that documentaries are delivering truths to them about important issues.
It can be generally assumed that documentary filmmakers are in the game because they have a passion for truth-telling, for investigating and illuminating the important issues, events and individual stories of good and evil, of achievement and tragedy that condition the present and future well being of our species and our planet.
And, if we use past observations to analyze current behavior, it's fairly obvious that corporations like GE and Red Bull Media House are not by nature altruistic entities that have public well fare as their key goals. They're driven by corporate self interest and their growth and profit goals are achieved through marketing strategies that sell sell sell their products and services, and enhance their public image. And, they're smart. And motivated.
It's clear that in funding the "Heroes of Nature" and Focus Forward initiatives Red Bull Media House and GE, respectively, gain tremendous and entirely positive exposure for their brands, intensive corporate and brand image polishing and the association with lifestyles that are attractive to consumers.
Bottom Line Bull: It's Not Necessarily Red
If their programs cease to deliver any of their expected rewards, you can bet that Red Bull Media House and GE will stop fundinf them on a dime. You can consider any other expectation to be pure bull -- whether it's red or another color.
Meanwhile, the corporate funding and its inherent compromises will apparently continue, making it increasingly difficult in the future for the public to discern the difference between documentaries and branded content, between genuinely investigative truth telling and subtly designed propaganda. So, sit back and enjoy the show. It's bound to be entertaining. Perhaps infuriating. Or, come to the table, and lobby against decreases in public funding for documentary films and the arts in general, or work to strengthen alternative means -- such as crowd funding, for example -- for independently financing documentary films.