The agency that became a film studio

Gravity Road fed on the imagination of ordinary consumers in its campaign for Bombay Sapphire, Mark Boyd explains.

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Sitting down with the Bombay Sapphire brand team and the Bacardi Marketing Excellence team, the challenge was blunt: they wanted a new type of communications.

Advertising campaigns had come and gone. The markets were crying out for some consistency and something they could get behind over time. The global business was looking to earned and owned opportunities and building something of value. After establishing the brand’s imagination proposition in advertising, it needed some "doing" rather than "saying".

Film was identified as perhaps the most democratic of the arts and a passion of our consumers. The idea resonated with the film industry; when surveyed, 81 per cent of the film industry thought imagination in short supply.

Idea: the plot thickens

Bombay Sapphire seeks to spark the imagination of consumers. A simple idea emerged, accessible to all: one script, five winning films, under the banner of the Imagination Series. We’d commission a great writer to develop a short film script, stripped of any stage direction, allowing the reader to imagine their film of the script: anything from a romantic comedy set in ancient Rome to a nihilist sci-fi set in deep space. The five most imaginative ideas would be selected and put into production. No film experience would be required, just imagination.

Such a script should be accessible, but nuanced enough to allow different interpretations and imaginations. Our writer must also be a passionate ambassador, who shared the same philosophy as the project team and a desire to make the platform bigger.

Partnerships: the cast

We had lunch with lots of writers but, in meeting the Academy Award winner Geoffrey Fletcher, we felt we had found an extraordinary collaborator. A partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival gave the campaign a credible launch platform and we were off.

Launch: the première

The new script was unveiled at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. The previous two months were focused on creating tools to support the launch. From the script itself to various online films, events, a big social media push – all packaged in an inspiring toolkit for markets.

Recruitment: casting

But post-launch, would anyone enter? Would anyone care? It was hard to resist checking the entry numbers every second day. Day two – still no entries yet.

As market take-up had been critical to the platform’s success, local and global initiatives came together in the toolkit. This unlocked the campaign and was key to its success. Alongside the polished global work, markets made this their own: deals placed single scripts in the back of taxis; countries arranged ambient film shoots in high-traffic areas to hand out scripts. There were partnerships with online writing networks, film schools and film festivals. A full-time social media team of scriptwriters mentored people as they considered entering.

One month from the entry deadline, it looked as though we might fall short of our target, benchmarked against two other international film competitions. But in the last 48 hours, entries started flooding in. We were three times over target with entries from 34 countries.

Judging: the most imaginative

We worked with the Tribeca Film Festival judges, shortlisting entries with Independent, our production partner for developing the short films.

A panel of the great and the good from across the international film industry reconvened at Tribeca to choose the five. There was a simple criteria: we were looking for the most imaginative ideas. After some passionate reviews, a consensus slowly emerged – five ideas stood out.

Production: on set

An intensive period of script development followed as Fletcher and the team mentored the winners. Our winners – from a dentist to fledgling directors – had different ranges of experience and production solutions were built around them. Filming took place from September to January, from the streets of Los Angeles to studios in Eastern Europe.

Fulfilment: the première

This all culminated at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Fletcher introduced the winners on stage for them to see their imagination realised on the big screen. Often, these projects feel abstract until you see the final output. Watching the films back to back, seeing the central script interpreted in such different, imaginative ways was testament to the original ambition. The films looked so strong. One winner has been subsequently signed as a director. All the battling with agents, script development, schedules and care had been worth it.

Fulfilment and year two: the sequel

On the back of year one’s success, the new script was revealed for year two at the latest Tribeca Film Festival. Same mechanic, same writer, but the Imagination Series was joined by new a judge, Adrien Brody, who did a read-through to reveal the new script.

Much branded content disappears without trace. The ambition was to behave like a film studio and create content that was just as good. The Imagination Series is a format – a starting point rather than an endline. It is now part of a three-year commitment to film and year two looks bigger than ever.

Mark Boyd is a founder of Gravity Road