A stubborn holdout of the celebrity-focused TV commercial, Japan is gradually waking up to the possibilities of online video content. Branded Shorts, a two-day festival that takes place in Tokyo, aims to spur things along by showcasing and awarding some of the best work from Japan and abroad.
On 7 June, two winners were announced for 2017: For Japan, ‘The World is One’ by Toyota; and internationally, ‘Notes’ for Take Note, a Canadian stationary retailer. The brands are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both examples were moving in their own way. The first is a look at the universal experience of youth, including the joy of first becoming a driver. The second tells the life story of a couple entirely through handwritten notes.
The film director Yoichi Sai, who served as jury president, said these and other branded films that stand out do so not for their promotion of a corporation or product, but for demonstrating their philosophy and their commitment to society.
The films stirred a wide range of emotions in the jury members, from nostalgia to feelings of bitter-sweetness and sadness: sensations that rarely come from 15-second TV spots. But jury member Takuma Takasaki, an ECD at Dentsu, perhaps summed things up most profoundly.
Takasaki has grown up creating 15 or 30-second TV ads. “That is now disintegrating,” he said. “My job is shifting towards this area…It’s still ambiguous, but from chaos you get something new and innovative. It’s an exciting category because it’s going to destroy the concept of commercials as we know it.”
That is no small statement from someone who works at a company where TV still dominates to such a large extent. Of course, TV commercials are not set to disappear any time soon. But for anyone creative, the potential for expression that the short film format offers is obviously appealing.
“The moment an ad comes up, I turn it off,” said Kamiko Inuyama, another jury member. “But [the winning entries] were strange and intriguing and made you want to see more of them…You naturally feel attracted to a story or something you can feel a rapport with.”
Yet defining what makes a good branded film is as hard as defining the successful components of any other creative endeavour. Isao Yukisada, a film director and jury member, said the best work offered “something that makes you want to watch it again and think about it from a different perspective”.
In a separate session during the festival, a panel of four directors and producers discussed the future of branded film. Yuki Saito said the demand for online films by brands is expanding rapidly. Budgets are also increasing, although in Japan they are still only a tenth of those globally, according to Yasuhiro Yano of Bloom&Co. The growth doesn’t mean producers are necessarily going to get rich. Speaking from an international perspective, Jani Guest, the executive producer and MD of UK-based Independent Films, revealed that her company received no payment for its work on Nike’s acclaimed ‘Write the Future’ film.
That is something that needs to change if the sector is to expand seriously. But all panelists agreed that greater creative freedom is the best thing about the format. At the same time, Peter Grasse, executive producer of Dictionary Films, said the focus must return to the craft element of filmmaking for anything meaningful to arise from the branded video segment. Grasse believes too much attention is currently given to the possibilities technology offers, at the expense of craft. “Great ideas crafted poorly don’t hold your attention,” he said.
The panelists showcased examples of their own work. Grasse presented a recent film for Diesel—an imaginative local adaptation of a global idea; Guest showed Nike’s ‘Write the Future’; Saito, ‘Shabu Shabu Spirit’, an engaging film designed to explain some of the principles of Japanese dining to visitors to the Milan Expo; and Katsuyuki Motohiro an episode of a comedic series for a collaboration between Nestlé Japan and the low-cost airline Skymark, a quirky effort based on his own experience that contains the immortal line, “He probably gets more girls than a PR man”.
The Branded Shorts festival launched last year as a spinoff from the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, which has been running since 1999.