Characters in films eat, drink and wear clothes (sometimes). If they are eating, drinking and wearing branded or recognisable products you may be able to negotiate a product placement deal with the brand to subsidise the cost of producing your film.
Filmmakers may be aware that they need, in some situations, to obtain permission to use recognisable products. Product placement deals are about negotiating some kind of benefit for the filmmaker in return for using a particular brand in the film. The objective of the brand is to obtain a form of integrated, and hopefully unobtrusive, advertising by showing the product in an apparently non-commercial context. For the low-budget filmmaker product placement can be a way of getting a location, props, costumes or food for free, or maybe even negotiating some cash. It can also add a dimension of realism to your film if your characters are using brands that the viewers recognise.
If your lead actor is going to be drinking a lot of beer in the movie, why not try and get a beer brand to support you. If the brand sees a good marketing opportunity it may be prepared to commit cash to the project, or at the least it may agree to provide product for the film and some sustenance for the cast and crew. If you want to use an expensive item, such as a car or jewellery in your film, the manufacturer or designer may be prepared to lend you it to you for use in the shoot.
We are familiar with seeing recognisable brands in US films: Ray-Ban Wayfarers in Risky Business, BMWs in James Bond films and Fed Ex in Castaway. Australian films are not devoid of commercial references. Barry Ottos' character in Strictly Ballroom danced on the top of the dance studio in front of a Coca Cola billboard sign. Anthony La Paglia's character in Looking for Alibrandi worked for national law firm, Clayton Utz. A more recent example occurs in Bill Bennett's The Nugget, in which two characters have lunch in KFC.
While a low-budget film may not have the involvement of celebrities or even a potentially large audience, it may still be appealing to a brand for a variety of reasons: access to a niche market, ideological synergies with the subject matter of the film or philanthropic motives. Consider why an association with your film may appeal to a sponsor before approaching them with a proposal. If the characters in your film are young, funky and hip, then a clothing label that is repositioning itself as young, funky and hip may be very keen to deck the characters out in its gear.
If you agree to profile a brand in your film in exchange for some benefit, it is important to be clear, preferably in writing, about the terms of the arrangement.
Don't commit to something you are not willing or able to offer. The producers of Die Hard 2 learned this the hard way. They agreed to use a Black & Decker power tool in a scene in exchange for Black & Decker promoting the film. When that scene ended up on the cutting room floor Black & Decker ran straight to its lawyers, managing to negotiate a substantial settlement fee.
Be open and honest about the type of film you are making and how the brand will appear in the film. If the brand thinks it is agreeing to allow its product to be used in a family drama, and you are in fact planning on producing a soft porn thriller you are going to run into problems.
Be specific about what your obligations are in relation to profiling the brand and what the brand will provide in return. If they are providing cash, how much and when will it be payable? If they are providing free products, what, how many, when and who will deliver them?
- If you agree to credit the brand then be specific about the size of the credit, where it will appear and whether it will consist of their logo, their name or both.
While you obviously do not want to compromise the integrity of your film by using branded products in a way that makes your film look like a montage of advertisements, product placement can an effective way of bringing production costs down.
Alison Davis was a Legal Officer at Arts Law.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in if Magazine.