As much as branded content has grown and evolved in the past decade, making entire films that are branded—and getting them into film festivals, or even into wide release—remains a daunting frontier.
The successes are notable but few. Think, most recently, of the Pepsi-backed comedy film Uncle Drew. Or before that, Lo and Behold—the Netscout-financed, Werner Herzog-directed documentary about the promise and perils of the Internet.
In making a branded film, it's extraordinarily tough to create something that's a sound investment for all parties involved—for the filmmaker (who lends his or her skills and reputation), for the viewers (who lend their time), and for the brand (which lends the money).
Earlier this year, though, a New York hospital, working with Hollywood talent and an unconventional ad agency, added to the small pile of success stories, striking that tricky balance in an unlikely sector—healthcare. And it did so in a way that went beyond a film and into an experience that didn't just entertain but actually changed behavior.
The film was Corazón. It was made by Montefiore Health System, director John Hillcoat, actors Demian Bichir and Ana de Armas, a small cadre of other Hollywood talent, and ad agency JohnXHannes—a small but highly promising shop that operates leanly and focuses on just a few projects at a time.
JohnXHannes is led by John McKelvey and Hannes Ciatti, a former creative-director team from Droga5 (they did a lot of Under Armour work, including the Misty Copeland campaign). Their work at the new agency has included the Squarespace campaign from the 2017 Super Bowl starring John Malkovich, which won them an Emmy for best commercial.
Muse caught up with McKelvey and Ciatti over coffee at last month's Cannes Lions festival, where Corazón walked off with a Grand Prix in the Health & Wellness competition. They explained the whole journey of the film from concept to execution, and how relying on a small team of creators made it work.
Through a mutual connection at the Tribeca Film Festival, McKelvey and Ciatti were introduced to Montefiore CEO Loreen Babcock, who wanted to make a different kind of advertising.
"It was a hospital that knew it had to market itself, get more visible, get more prominent in New York," says McKelvey. "They know they don't get a ton of return on their regular spend—hospital advertising's pretty forgettable. It became this very interesting partnership, with no brief in the beginning. It was just, 'What do you want to do?' "
McKelvey and Ciatti visited the hospital over a period of a few months, and were quickly struck by the life-or-death stories of many of the patients. They soon realized that dramatizing a true story would be more gripping than any glossy, made-up marketing pitch could pretend to be.
"To see these doctors and surgeons literally fighting for human life every day, we knew we couldn't just make an ad," McKelvey says. "It couldn't be fleeting."
They were drawn to one true story in particular—that of Elena Ramirez (played in the film by de Armas), a sex worker in the Dominican Republic whose heart was failing and who collapsed during her work and was left for dead. A Montefiore surgeon, Dr. Mario Garcia (played by Oscar nominee Bichir), happened to be in Santo Domingo doing pro bono work that same weekend. He helped Elena get to Montefiore in the Bronx for a life-saving mechanical heart surgery that could only be performed there.
While learning about Elena's story, the agency also discovered the huge issues around organ donation in the U.S.
"About 115,000 people are on the list waiting for an organ, and half of them will never get one," says Ciatti. "The interesting part is that 98 percent of Americans agree with the idea of organ donation. But because it's an opt-in system, only one in five New Yorkers is actually a donor. We needed to find a way to connect with them, and to get New Yorkers to think about that in a different way."
Thus, the campaign took shape: JohnXHannes brought in a story producer, a show runner, the actors, and Hillcoat (who directed The Road, among other films) and set about crafting a short film that would double as a call to action for organ donation, in partnership with Donate Life.
Check out the full film at corazonfilm.com.
The artistic goal: Make something worthy of the Tribeca Film Festival. The business goal: Get Montefiore recognized for its cutting-edge work. The humanitarian goal: Boost the number of organ donors in New York as much as possible. In the end, the campaign succeeded on all fronts.
A Timely Movie
Whatever its ulterior motives, any movie has to succeed on its artistic merit. Does it move the viewer? Is it worth your time? This may be doubly true of branded films, where audience skepticism is naturally higher. With Elena's story, and the assembled talent, JohnXHannes felt they had a winning formula.
"The stories are incredible, better than any fiction writer could do," Ciatti says. "This one stood out to everyone just because of the narrative. It has two different countries, a huge act of human kindness. It tackles themes of sex working, sex slavery, prostitution, immigration. It had so many things that were culturally relevant right now."
Making a movie, rather than an ad, helped convince the talent to sign on—and for less money than they would want for an ad. Remarkably, McKelvey says Corazón was made for "literally the same price as a TV commercial."
The charity aspect helped, too.
"They were so into it," McKelvey says of the actors. "Demian is fantastic. He's an organ donor and an Academy Award nominee [for 2011's A Better Life] from Mexico, and just a beautiful guy. Ana as well—she just came off Blade Runner, and then, for significantly less money, came on board and did this. She's a Cuban immigrant to the U.S., and it resonated with her. She knows the sex industry, how brutal it can be in Cuba. It was a lot of people who signed up for the belief in it."
Funded by Montefiore, produced by Serial Pictures and JohnXHannes and backed by an integrated ad campaign (including out-of-home, digital, social and radio), Corazón had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival—which Montefiore sponsored this year—on April 20.
The hospital isn't overly branded in the film, and doesn't need to be. It's intrinsic to the story. Indeed, the film features real Montefiore surgeons at work.
"They did a real heart surgery. That's the first time it's ever been filmed like that," says McKelvey. "You've got an Oscar-nominated cinematographer [Bradford Young] in there with all the proper cameras. This woman was having the same surgery as Elena, and they let us film it. It was just mind-blowing."
The film went on to be a Tribeca X finalist, honoring storytelling at the intersection of advertising and entertainment. Including online, some 10,000 New Yorkers watched the film in its first week alone.
Making a good movie was just one part of the equation. Getting people to become organ donors was a key goal, too, perhaps the most important goal—and not an easy task via the passive experience of watching a film.
So, JohnXHannes created a digital experience for people leaving the theater. They built a technology where the moviegoers could hold their phones up to their hearts and bring Elena to life on movie posters in the lobby when the phone's accelerometer detected a heartbeat. (The same thing worked for pedestrians looking up at Corazón billboards in Times Square.) Then, they were immediately asked to sign up as organ donors.
"No one thinks about organ donation," says McKelvey. "You do it maybe when you get your license in America, and you pretty much never think about it again. We knew we had that very small window where it was in people's faces and very moving. When people left the cinema, right then, they just saw a heavy, true story. It was important to get people in that environment."
Once again, it was about doing something real—not just an ad.
And it worked: In the first seven weeks, the campaign recruited 4,000 new donors. Given a single donor can save up to eight lives, "finger's crossed that will help over 30,000 people already," says McKelvey.
The Agency Model
Making a movie is a daunting prospect for any ad agency. JohnXHannes says it pulled it off through a model of staying small and bringing in specific talent for specific projects, which keeps costs down and keeps the creative vision and execution limited to a few heavily invested players.
"In an agency, you get busy with multiple things at once," says McKelvey. "The way they do it—with an ECD on 5 percent of each project—it's not really practical, but you make it work. Whereas we have a relatively low-cost model. We can do one project at a time and devote to it. That means we can do what it takes to make it. If we need to travel to California and spend time developing it, we can. Unshackling ourselves from the traditional model has meant we can work in different ways. Take on one thing. Be able to devote to it. Keep your costs down. And bring in experts, so you're not always shopping around the same tools."
"You can't tackle the same problems with the same group," adds Ciatti. "You bring in experts as needed. You bring in a screenwriter [Kelley Sane wrote Corazón], or a story producer. It's not like an agency that has 100 people and has to always use the same people. We can build to the project. Retainers don't really exist at the moment anymore—they're really rare. It's all project based, and that's what we like doing. Take on projects one at a time, make it really good. Have production attached to it, so you make something real, and you're not just talking and talking and talking. We believe in actually making things. That's the only thing you see at the end of the day."
This model allowed the agency to complete the entire Corazón project in just six months.
"Normally, it would take you a couple years to make a feature film," says Ciatti. "But we brought in the right teams at the right time, and the right partners. We don't really believe in pitching, either. The directors didn't pitch. We had a phone call with them, with different production companies, and we decided on Serial. There was never a pitch component. We brought them in from the beginning. They wrote the screenplay with us. They produced it with us. Same with the digital component—we partnered with those guys back in December. If you bring people in early, they become part of the solution at the end of the day."
What's Next for Corazón
The Corazón story isn't over. As of late June, the campaign was still attracting some 80 new donors a day, with thousands of people still coming to the site. Agency and client are working to get the movie in more film festivals, and negotiating with Delta and other airlines to run it on flights into New York. "Movies have such a long lifespan," Ciatti says. "They're a little bit timeless. Even in two years, it could still bring people to the site and get them to be an organ donor.
Also, Donate Life—which coincidentally had a big advertising hit of its own with "World's Biggest Asshole" two years ago, an intentionally crass comedy piece that's in many ways the polar opposite of Corazón—is very committed to the film, having integrated its API with the campaign to make the logistics of privacy and data collection around organ donation easier to manage.
Finally, it turns out Corazón may be the beginning of a trilogy of Montefiore films. "We're going to try it for three years," says McKelvey. "Mix it up a bit maybe, but do something with them again."
For McKelvey and Ciatti, it's been a challenging but gratifying project—livening up an often moribund category with an experimental piece, rooted in real life, that goes well beyond traditional advertising.
"Tackling real human issues is really rewarding," says Ciatti. "It's work that we enjoy, and we've done before with Under Armour. To make a cultural impact in the world—that's really humbling."