How to use Product Placement: Part 1

  • Film & Funding

Product placement is used to finance many a feature film or TV series nowadays. The essence of product placement is easy to set out, however, giving you as much information as possible, we have opted to release not one, but two guides on the matter.

This first will focus on the basics of explaining to you how to get in touch with brands, what to expect from a deal and what to be careful of when looking for a brand to work with. Our second guide looks at the differences between product placement in film and TV, and will demonstrate which brands and trends to look out for.

What is product placement?

Product placement is a way of helping filmmakers and TV producers either achieve, control or maximise the impact of their production budgets. At its simplest level, it involves providing advertisers with some exposure in their movie or TV production in return for cash or goods/services.

Heineken’s association with the latest James Bond movie Skyfall is a high profile example of this. Other film examples to have attracted attention in recent years include GM’s association with the Transformers series and Volvo’s partnership with the highly successful Twilight franchise.

What are the pitfalls for filmmakers?

Some filmmakers go into this area with the wrong mind-set, thinking that they are doing the brand owner a huge favour. In fact, most brand owners have very stringent criteria regarding the kind of exposure that will work for them. Filmmakers that want to make headway in this area need to understand that they are dealing with very professional, media savvy executives that often have more to lose then the filmmaker does.

Filmmakers also need to be realistic about what they might get out of a product placement deal. Just because Skyfall generated over £30m from product placement doesn’t mean every film production can do the same.

Forced references in the production are also a concern, especially now that social media chatter can make or break a film or filmmaker.

What is the first step?

The way product placement works varies considerably depending on the profile of the filmmaker. If it is a large Hollywood studio, for example, it will have a division responsible for all forms of commercial relationship. This division will have access to an ongoing pipeline of high-end productions.

With pretty strong guarantees regarding release dates and the prospect of big movie marketing budgets, brands will typically keep up an ongoing dialogue about opportunities as they arise. The kind of deal that typifies this scenario was the one between Sex and the City 2 and HP. In this case, HP had a very clear idea about the franchise it was buying into.

This situation is different for independent filmmakers. Here we are dealing with one-off projects that may have limited marketing spend and few guarantees over the level of distribution they will achieve (let alone the kind of box office reaction they get).

Understandably, brands are more nervous and will usually appoint specialist agencies to vet projects for them. An example of such an agency is Pinewood-based consultancy NMG, which has worked with brands on titles such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, One Day, Johnny English Reborn, The Iron Lady and Prometheus. For indie filmmakers, agencies like these are generally the best first port of call.

Are there many agencies in the product placement space?

London and LA are both strong centres of activity for the product placement business. The Knowledge lists 23 companies in this category. Among these are well established firms like Propaganda Gem and Seesaw.

Based in London, Seesaw has placed clients in more than 20 high profile feature films during the last 12 months. These include The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2, The Iron Lady, Midnight In Paris, The Dark Knight Rises, The Bourne Legacy and Skyfall. Confirming the growing interest in this field, Seesaw has seen a 68% increase in enquires year on year.

So what happens if a filmmaker contacts an agency?

As custodian of the brand, the agency will want as many salient details as possible to make sure that the film is the right opportunity. A film has little value for a brand if it doesn’t get a cinema release, even if going to DVD. This is one reason a lot of brands prefer to work with TV.  

Having identified a film and an opportunities in the script, ad agencies will negotiate a contract with the filmmaker covering what the brand will supply and how many visual and verbal references it will get.

What kind of money is on offer?

This aspect of the business is very opaque. But filmmakers need to avoid unrealistic expectations. It’s easy to look at trade press headlines and assume that millions of pounds/dollars are changing hands. But that’s very rare. Usually, the headline figure being quoted is how much the brand is spending on activating its association. In other words, it might buy into a movie for $1m then spend $20m on related events and advertising (money that doesn’t go near the filmmaker).

Just as importantly, a lot of product placement deals outside Hollywood blockbusters don’t see money change hands. Instead, what is on offer from the brand are goods and services. An example is the provision of cars. Here, a company might provide a fleet of cars and related labour costs in return for exposure during the movie. They aren’t paying for their involvement but they could save the producer significant sums of money. Similar deals can be struck with regard to props, set and wardrobe.

Are there any other benefits worth having?

Not to be overlooked is the role brands can play in marketing a movie. When BMW linked up with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (a deal put together by Propaganda Gem), it used its assets across TV ads, PR, dealership events, auto shows and digital. In doing so, it provided support for the film in the crucial run up to release. A growing number of producers and brands are now finding ways to forge effective marketing partnerships which don’t actually require the product to be mentioned within the film.

For the second part of this guide, click here