How to Make a Successful Branded Content Short Film

Become a better filmmaker by breaking down this short film showcase.


An Emerging Opportunity for Filmmakers that Embraces Story and Style

The term “brand” has become ubiquitous, from companies aspiring to connect with consumers to artists developing “personal brands” to reach audiences.

At risk of over-simplifying, a brand is a look, a universe, a personality. A company or artist creates content that fits into “the world” of their brand – this is good news for filmmakers, since it means people are producing short films and web content as a part of their branding efforts.

Branded content, an admittedly slippery term, is a sort of hybrid between traditional storytelling, product placement, and more traditional advertisement. The recipe changes from brand to brand and content to content. One of the marks of the “genre” is that it’s not always clear who produced the work. The idea is to make the branded element feel like an afterthought; like we’re watching a short film that just happens to be paid for by company (x), but that that part is less important than the story we’re watching unfold onscreen.

In any case, it’s a relatively new frontier for filmmakers, so let’s check out some examples to better understand what it all means.

1. I Am Yup’ik | Documentary | Dir. Daniele Anastasion & Nathan Golon, 2016

A 16-year-old Alaskan Yup’ik teenager leaves his tiny village and travels across hundreds of miles of frozen tundra to compete in a basketball tournament and bring pride to his village.

I am Yup’ik is not just a sports documentary. It is a short film about identity, about finding your purpose and celebrating your passion, in both success and defeat. This film, produced by ESPN, follows Byron, a 16-year-old growing up in the small village of Toksook Bay, Alaska. To say that this village loves basketball is an understatement. The sport unites the indigenous Yup’ik people struggling with cultural identity in this town of 617.

The film is beautifully shot. We feel like we truly experience this place – its snowy fields, its bay, its homes – so much so that the landscape becomes its own character. While we explore this corner of Alaska, we come to know the people just as intimately: Byron, Byron’s mother, his basketball coach, the people who make the pilgrimage across the state to watch the high school basketball playoffs. The village of Toksook Bay and its people truly come to life as the heart of this documentary around the sport that connects them.

Watching this film, we forget that it was made for ESPN. It doesn’t have the glossy imagery of the big budget ads they syndicate during their games, nor the glorification of winning we might associate with the brand. Instead, this is an intimate look at how a sport can infiltrate the lives of a town; how the everyday person can be touched by the love of a game. When a high school basketball tournament becomes the “Super Bowl” – that is when a sport has surpassed its purpose and is no longer about winning, but about bringing people together.

Such is the message ESPN hopes we will relate to them: this allure of coming together, finding our passion; a sense of unity within our communities. They hope that we associate not just sports, but what those games have come to represent, with their brand.

2. Castello Cavalcanti | Narrative | Dir. Wes Anderson, 2013

“We’re ancestors!”

For further proof that branded content is a legitimate storytelling genre, just look at what’s being made by some well-known directors. Prada’s Castello Cavalcanti is a short film directed by Wes Anderson – and it’s not their first collaboration!

It’s interesting to note that Prada doesn’t make an appearance in the film outside of a single piece of clothing. We usually associate Prada with luxury and aspiration, but that is absent from Castello Cavalcanti, as well. Instead, with Anderson in charge, the film spins a tale about a race car driver who crashes in the Italian hometown of his ancestors.

It’s a simple story contained to a single location and moment in time, but that doesn’t stop Anderson from employing his signature complex camera work and detail-oriented production design. He treats this script he co-wrote with Roman Coppola with his personal brand of humor and stylized filmmaking. In a way, Castello Cavalcanti is double branding, since it highlights both the luxury label and the film’s creator.

What precisely does Prada have to gain through this short film? Well, it’s fun, and it hits a meaningful note in the end. The short is about the long-term; the ancestral vein that connects people to a place and to each other. It suggests that, just like this town in Italy, Prada represents something established and more profound than what might first meet the eye. They’re a company willing to take risks, invested in the world of design and beauty even beyond their own products. Prada is part of the bigger picture, a heritage, something worth revisiting, that becomes a part of you – Prada is Castello Cavalcanti in the hands of Wes Anderson.

3. Why This Road | Documentary | Dir. Ben Proudfoot, 2016

As the son and grandson of fish fryers in coastal Massachusetts, Dan Portelance dreamed of a life elsewhere as a famous chef. Just when his goal was within reach, his restaurant failed, leaving him penniless and struggling to find purpose. This is the story of how Dan realized his true passion and built a new life from the ashes of potential defeat.

We learn most from our failures, even if those are the hardest lessons to learn. This short documentary produced by Charles Schwab centers around this theme. We’re introduced to Dan Portelance, a man who wanted to become a great chef but who lost everything when he opened his first restaurant. The film lets Dan narrate his story of finding his true passion and marries this with complementary impressionistic visuals.

Why This Road is a series of short films around people who “own their future”, as part of Charles Schwab’s campaign #OwnYourTomorrow. We are always looking toward tomorrow, and Charles Schwab wants you to see them as part of the future you imagine for yourself, even as it evolves.

What works so well for the series is its universal appeal. Everyone can relate to the challenges and triumphs of starting over, in both big and small ways. It’s a message that applies to filmmaking as well: some of the best lessons are the most difficult ones, from tackling shooting constraints to budgetary limitations!

4. Roshambo | Narrative | Dir. Jonathan Doe and Guy Aroch, 2013

A couple wanders through Brooklyn as they play “Roshambo” (Rock, Paper, Scissors) to determine their fate.

Fashion films are their own animal of the branded content world. Generally, they are designed to create desire and aspiration within the viewer. “Don’t you want to have the glamorous life suggested by this film?” is the question often found lurking beneath the surface.

What Roshambo, produced for Free People, does so well is balance the carefree beautiful lifestyle we so often see in commercials, with a love story. Yes, we see the clothes, but we spend far more time looking at the characters and watching their relationship unfold. Because of this, Roshambo succeeds in making us care more about the characters than about what they’re wearing. In that sense, branding may seem counter-intuitive – the brand makes itself a footnote in its own content. But many brands are betting on this as an effective strategy for becoming more entwined in the lives of their consumers.

From Roshambo | Dir. Jonathan Doe and Guy Aroch, 2013

From Roshambo | Dir. Jonathan Doe and Guy Aroch, 2013

They’re both fashion films, but the styles of Castello Cavalcanti and Roshambo are markedly different – the voice of the director shines through in each. Castello Cavalcanti takes us through the story in carefully orchestrated long shots; Roshambo dances handheld through the streets of Brooklyn, using natural light and rapid cutting to pull us along. Both Prada and Free People collaborated with filmmakers to capture the personalities of their brands within the context of the short film form, while keeping their labels subdued.

It is the universe – the imagination captured by these companies, and not the products they sell – that are the focus of some of the best branded content. By taking a backseat to the world in which their customers really live and by producing content that their customers actually want to watch and to engage with, brands are using short films and series as their new marketing strategies. And that’s great news for short filmmakers!

 Courtney Hope Thérond, with

For help making your own short film, check out our in-depth online filmmaking course, designed to keep with your vision and schedule from concept through final cut – more guided than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.


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