SCREEN AFRICA EXCLUSIVE: On the second day of the 7th Durban FilmMart (DFM) which runs concurrently to the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF), Todd Brown, head of Acquisitions at Los Angeles-based production and sales company XYZ Films, presented a session exploring how filmmakers can use short films to grow their brand and audience.
Brown explained that while XYZ specialises in high-end genre films, the principles discussed in the session titled ‘Using short films to build brand and audience’ can be applied across a very broad spectrum.
“There’s a lot of talk these days in critical circles, and I think a lot of negative talk, about how Hollywood has become massively brand focused. Whether it be the new Transformers film, or the newest Marvel movie or Star Wars…it seems that the only things Hollywood are interested in are the things that already have built brand awareness,” Brown said as his opening statement. He said that while this is true now, it has always been true, since the beginning of film in the 1920s where the directors were the brands that were driving the film industry. “If you’re a director, you are a brand. If you’re a producer, your job is to build your director into a brand, and that’s not a bad thing, that’s actually a very powerful and positive thing,” said Brown.
Brown went on to explain that branding in its most commercial and basic terms is building a relationship between the product that you’re creating and the audience that you’re trying to sell it to. “You’re building an assumption of value,” said Brown. Adding that this is why branding works, because when people see a particular name attached to a product they assume that it is of a high quality or it is at the least familiar. Brown likened this definition of branding to the film industry, explaining that the only difference here is that the core brand is the director: “The most important three words in marketing a film are ‘A film by….” This core premise means that the most important job as a filmmaker is to build yourself into the brand.
Brown used Neill Blomkamp (Chappie District 9), South African-Canadian film director, as an example to further illustrate his point, saying that Blomkamp was working in film and television for more than ten years before he made a name for himself. It was only after he released a short that went viral and got people’s attention in a way that made them want to know what he was going to do next, that he started making a name for himself as a director. “Cultivating a brand like that is not just a useful part of building a career in this industry but it is increasingly becoming an essential part of your career in moving forward,” said Brown.
There are a few reasons for this and the most important is the digital revolution. The digital revolution has changed our world completely and particularly in the film industry, it has changed the relationship between the creator and the audience. “Until about five to six years ago the basic mechanics of the film industry had functioned the same since about the 1930s… The digital revolution has made the traditional and established industry incredibly gun shy because systems that had been predictable no longer are. And this means that decisions are being made not so much around fostering talent or putting the time into building something, decisions are being made in terms of risk management. So anything that you can do as a creator to demonstrate that you’re a safe bet, that you’ve already got an audience, that you already have people that are anticipating your work is going to help drive you forward.”
Additionally, the fact that we now have mobile phones that can record in HD and editing tools available on mobile, means that we have better access to filmmaking equipment than professional filmmakers did ten years ago. Brown said that this leaves no excuse for filmmakers to not be creating. “In that kind of environment if you’re not making something you’re not a filmmaker. Nobody is going to take you seriously if all you have is an idea and a pitch. There’s too much competition… The technology has gotten so cheap that everybody knows that you could be making something so why aren’t you. And when people are being very cautious and risk averse in their decision making they need somebody that can prove that they can make something.”
This is where the smart use of short films of different kinds can be used as an extremely powerful tool to not only show an audience, producers, financiers etc. what you can do, but to also create awareness of who you are as a director. Brown went on to explore the concept of using short films to build your brand with three case studies. He explained that original proof of concept short films in particular are a great way to show what you can do as a filmmaker, especially for emerging filmmakers. “As a company we do this all the time, especially when working with first and second time directors who are trying to be established. We go out and create something that not only says ‘here’s our idea’ but also shows that we can actually execute it.”