10 tips for effective business film

10 tips for effective business film

S G Collins, Postwar Media
12 August 2016

I've been involved in using film and video to help corporations market themselves for most of my adult life. Over the years I've seen similar mistakes repeated, and I've also seen strategies that work great. Today I'm going to rassle those observations into one place. Things to consider when you're commissioning a movie for business objectives.

01.   Have a coherent strategy for creating media.

In my life I've seen too many companies being reactive in their use of business film. Maybe their exhibit design for an upcoming trade show has some video screens in it, and at one meeting somebody asks 'Hey, what are we gonna put on those screens?' Or maybe they hear tell of a competitor's whisper campaign against them, and the cry goes out: 'We need a video!' These are legit purposes, but they're not coming from a position of control.

It's better, of course, to be proactive and intentional in all your marketing communication, including movies. It's best to get together and decide how you want to change people's minds next year. Then, choose your media tools to meet that mission — including web, print, and movies. Occasions will still arise when you need to react nimbly to market stimuli. But then you will have the strength of your core vision already in place. It's better that way, believe me.

02.   Serve your viewer. Not your boss.

This is a tough one, I know. But it's important. Remember that if you make your viewer happy, your employer will end up happy too. Whereas if you just do what you're told, you may not be doing your company any favors. No matter how much money you throw at a film production, if the final result fails to connect in that viewer's mind, the effort fails and the entire budget has been wasted. So be ready to fight the good fight — that is, to fight for what your viewer can really perceive and relate to. See your message from the viewer's perspective, and you'll stand a better chance of making contact.

03.   Speak plainly with your film.

There are two kinds of mistakes people make in the language of business movies. One is to assume that the viewer thinks just like you, and uses the same vocabulary you and your pals use in the lab. The other is to think the viewer is utterly unlike you, and speaks some alien language that you should try to imitate.

A great many corporate communicators spiral into the trap of using weird formal language in business films. They feel a need to put on an unnatural voice to fit in with the crowd they're addressing. They might use passive voice, because they've seen so much bad writing that does. They might try to sound like what they think doctors, scientists or tech-buyers sound like. They end up writing narration that nobody can hear, and putting titles on screen that nobody has the energy to interpret. The text might be decipherable on a page in an academic journal, but is utterly unintelligible as a movie. It's just awkward.

Once the language of your film makes their eyes glaze over, you are now burning money.

Your viewer is a human being. And a busy one. They don't have time for technocorporatemarketingspeak. They want to know how this thing you're offering will make their life better. They want something real, and they want it soon. So the language you use with them had best be direct and conversational — and helpful. Find the smallest number of syllables that tell the truth clearly. And credit your viewer with enough intelligence to meet you halfway.

And watch out for trendy buzzwords that go stale faster than milk. Your message is more than a cluster of catchphrases. If you try too hard to sound like this year, you'll soon sound like last year. It's wiser to be the rock in the storm, than to be part of the storm.

04.   Never send a movie to do a brochure's job.

A movie is not print. And the printed word is not over. The strengths of one medium do not make another medium obsolete. Use movies for the things movies are obviously good at. Use the web, print ads, direct mail, posters and brochures for what they are good at. That just makes sense, right? But you'd be surprised how many people treat a movie as if it is a piece of print collateral.

05.   Don't be afraid of beauty.

Image and product are not really separate things. Sometimes people lose sight of that.

Remember that your viewer doesn't owe you their attention. It's a gift they grant you as long as you keep them engaged. This means you need to give them something good. Give them value. Whether you’re teaching sixth grade math, or explaining why your software kicks the other software's ass — you’re selling an idea. Somebody is either going to get the point, or not get it. But meanwhile, they’re also gonna form an impression of you. Which means: style is substance. Your corporate image is itself a product. But even when the product is a bit of hardware or code, the way you sell it expresses your image. It forms your voice, and identifies who's speaking. That identity should be somebody we like.

06.   Don't mistake stimulus for experience.

Flashing and blinking are not information. I will admit, today’s business operates on a mythic plane where buzz has the same atomic weight as meaning, and being hip is more important than being solvent. Culture is real. We live and die by it, and business is no exception.

Film is a design confluence of moving pictures, graphic messaging, animation, music, sound effects and the spoken word. With film, you control what the viewer knows when. You also modulate the pace of the experience, draw the emotional curve, and, essentially, regulate the flow of adrenaline.

That is the power of filmmaking. It is possible to take that power to a wrong place.

Because of how we evolved, our eyes involuntarily snap to movement. There may be a lion in those bushes. The choice of where to put our attention happens somewhere upstream of the intellect. Therefore, visuals that blink, change color, and move a lot, will literally command the attention. The filmmaker can exploit this involuntary response just to keep us from looking away. And the sheer rate of stimulus may give the user the illusion of having had an experience. But it is not experience. And it's not good enough.

Let's make it exciting, but let's make it real and meaningful too. Because if a minute later your viewer feels empty again, they will smell manipulation. And then their trust has a crack in it.

07.   Beware of playing it safe.

I’ll tell you something I realized a long time ago. All communication is risk. If there’s nothing at stake, it’s not real communication. If there is something at stake, then something is being sold. So communicating is truly the opposite of being safe. We need to acknowledge that, even if it goes against the received wisdom ambient within some larger corporations.

It's important to listen to your lawyers — and your hairstylist, and your greengrocer, and your mom. But do not let your lawyers have the last word on a film. Always be willing to push back. If you let your regulatory experts write the final draft of your script, you may never get sued — but you'll never get noticed either.

08.   Know how much you want to spend on a project. And tell your vendors.

In the old days, we used to play a weird game where a client actually knew their budget target, but kept the creative company in the dark about it when the project went out to bid. The trouble is, every minute a creative spends dreaming up a proposal that's way beyond your price range, is one more minute wasted of your time too. A smart creative can compare your goals to your budget, and suggest what they believe is the most effective / achieveable approach to the problem. This is way more powerful than trying to to scale a big idea down to fit a little budget. Remember there is nothing wrong with having a small budget.

When you are in the situation of trying to do a lot with a little — it happens sometimes! — it's a good idea to make your whole team aware of the constraint your creative vendors are working within. That way you can avoid the unpleasantness of misplaced expectations.

I'm thinking in particular of one afternoon I was working for free to take one extra product shot for an ad agency with little or no film experience. The video part of the project had sprung on them as an afterthought, and the agency could only come up with € 5000 to cover the whole thing, including a day of live action shooting and talent! But at the end, they realized they needed one last product closeup. I wanted to be nice, so I volunteered. While we were setting up the shot, an art director breezed in and cheerfully asked why I wasn't shooting this in 4K (pretty rare at the time). Nobody had told him what the budget was — and that it had already been spent.

09.   Keep a close, not ironclad, connection from your style guide to your film look.

If your company already has a visual style, with preferred colors, fonts and design motifs, naturally any movies you publish should respect that look. And if you're quite busy using movies in your communication arsenal, it sure helps to maintain consistency across multilple media producers.

However, most corporate style guides have two things in common: [1] they're intended to be idiot-proof, so even a robot can follow them, and [2] they are created by print people, not film designers. So if your filmmakers follow a style guide too slavishly, the enforced result may look a lot like ... print. Video is a glowing medium, using additive color, whereas print is a reflective one, using subtractive color. The two media behave differently. To effectively straddle both worlds requires a certain subtlety of mind and eye, and a bit of wiggle room with the rules. I had an important client whose official logo color was such dark blue that it would read as black on the screen. I cheated the color so it didn't.

10.   Please remember this is not about technology.

Technology makes filmmaking possible. Filmmaking is not technology. Filmmaking is a way — any way — of using motion pictures to convey meaning. The meaning is the only thing that matters.

I know of two ways to be led astray by talk of technology in digital filmmaking. One way is to be dazzled by 'big' technology. Like, how much this camera costs. Or how astonishing these visual effects look. The other way is to be lulled by the allure of 'small' technology. Because it means your cousin can do it cheaper.

The wonderful thing about the democratization of digital video technology is that it empowers some very talented people to prove themselves in a realm to which they may not have had access 20 years ago — when the boys with the big iron machines were gatekeepers of the art.

Just be aware that the same democratization has also empowered millions of clueless people.

The success of your next business film will not depend on hardware or software. It will rise from the goodness of the ideas, and the mastery of their expression. And that is all. And let no one persuade you otherwise.

S G Collins, 12 Aug 2016 Amsterdam