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In ProMotion Pictures Competition, Students Tell Subway Stories

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood April 16, 2012 at 6:19AM

At first glance, the term 'branded content' sounds to me more like a rancher's term than a filmmaker's, but in the ProMotion Pictures competition, it's the stuff that sells.
"Tech Up"
ProMotion Pictures "Tech Up"

At first glance, the term 'branded content' sounds more rancher's lingo than filmmaker's, but in the ProMotion Pictures competition, it's the stuff that sells.  Created in 2004 as a partnership between NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, and Stern School of Business, ProMotion gives aspiring filmmakers and business students a chance to collaborate in the creation of a multimedia project featuring a sponsoring company's brand.

This year, the sponsor was Subway; the awards gala for the competition included the New York premiere of the two winning projects.  The participants' instructions: create a series of three short episodes based on the theme "Every Breakfast Sandwich Tells a Story."  

All thought of talking sandwiches aside, the two winners used the Subway brand in their shorts in a respectable, if not altogether subtle, way.  In one series, "The Loop," Alex finds himself caught in a time loop in Brooklyn with his friend Chris, and the pair unleash an army of Chris and Alex duplicates when they break the loop by ordering off Subway's breakfast menu instead of the lunch menu.  

The other series, "Tech Up," makes its Subway reference more delicately, with aspiring entrepreneur Anson Muller setting up a make-shift office in a Subway as he seeks venture capital for his somewhat hair-brained invention.

While I admired the wit of both teams' premise ("Tech Up" in particular does a fine job of balancing the classic webisode tone of awkward, quirky fun), the "branded content" concept still trips me up.

Branding and filmmaking make frequent, if strange, bedfellows.  To take just one recent example, James Bond fans are up in arms about the news that Agent 007 will be reaching for a Heineken, not his usual shaken-not-stirred martini, in the upcoming "Skyfall."  It's not the marketing itself that's troublesome (after all, Bond's been in commercials before), but rather the idea that a product placement could be the reason for a shift in a character's signature style.

It's fine that ProMotion Pictures gives NYU's film and business students the opportunity to work collaboratively with the financial backing of a big company.  But what we need most is artistic--and not branded--content.

You can watch the two winning entries at ProMotion Pictures's website.

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.