Companies get in on documentary act

Corporations, the focus of recent documentaries, are now making their own films to reach the public

Corporations, the focus of recent documentaries, are now making their own films to reach the public

From moving pictures about heroism to stark depictions of war to stirring pieces of personal triumph, the long-form documentary has always provoked dialogue.

More recently, however, a number of celebrated documentaries have cast a critical eye toward particular organizations, including corporations.

Recent Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary which focused on corporations include Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Super Size Me (the fast food industry in general; and McDonald's, specifically), and Roger & Me (GM). And Robert Greenwald has become a grassroots celebrity for his documentaries critiquing companies such as Wal-Mart and Fox News.

But two companies are likewise getting into the documentary game, raising the question of whether documentaries and the cinema, specifically, might become the next conduit for corporate information.

Johnson & Johnson and the Fireman's Fund insurance company have both adapted messages for the long-form documentary. Whereas Fireman's Fund and AOR Ketchum brokered a deal with the History Channel for its Into the Fire in 2006, J&J, through its Centocor unit, is taking its film InnerState to the road in March through June, showing screenings in 14 different cities.

Greenwald says corporations are smart to use documentaries in an attempt to influence publics.

"Many smart people in these corporations have seen that documentary films are a way to reach people and affect hearts and minds," he tells PRWeek, adding that he's flattered that companies are emulating his model of showing screenings to specific communities. "Whether J&J will be able to get people to buy more drugs [through the documentary] is unknown."

J&J says the film's purpose is not to sell drugs, but to document three patients' experiences with psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn's disease. Though the documentary doesn't mention J&J or its products, the company's blockbuster drug Remicade is approved to treat all three diseases.

"One of the things we wanted to find was a vehicle to discuss really complex issues that we could communicate to the general public and patients alike," says Michael Parks, Centocor's corporate communications VP. "It's not an easy thing to get across in a 30- to 60-second ad."

The arc of the Fireman's Fund's Into the Fire was telling the story of "how post-9/11, firemen's services are basically under-funded," says Mark Owens, MD of Ketchum Entertainment Marketing.

"We didn't set up to make a documentary about the brand," he adds. "If it were a preachy story about what the brand was doing, it wouldn't work."

Fireman's Fund chose TV because the potential audience numbers were better, explains Owens.

"Do the [math]: If a theater has 400 seats and you get it out to 100 theaters; that's 40,000" per viewing, he says, adding that Into the Fire got 3 million viewers. "On television, you can do that really easily."

However, Owens admits that showing a corporate documentary in a theater is a "Holy Grail for what a brand would like to have. It is prestigious and has a great sound and feel." And how the public will react to a movie that is basically a communications vehicle for a corporation is difficult to predict.

"[A generally released corporate movie] sounds... really difficult to me," one entertainment business reporter notes, via e-mail. "What theater in its right mind is even going to book it? And like [the public] would pay to see a 'real' [corporate] movie?"

The reporter adds that corporations would more likely pay to get their brand prominently featured in a Hollywood film or go the route of limited release, like J&J did.

Not every company is convinced the documentary game is for corporations. One of Greenwald's targets, Wal-Mart, has no plans to get into the documentary business, according to Mona Williams, VP of communications.

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