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Ten Predictions (and Hopes) for Branded Content in 2020

I’ve been writing top-ten prediction lists for film and media since 2006 – yes, back when my predictions included the final end of VHS (!) and what Google buying Youtube (Oct. 2006) would mean for indies. Last year’s predictions included Netflix buying a theater (pretty much), more brand studios (yes, again), and that Amazon would buy MoviePass and merge it with Prime (nope). Ok, sometimes I strike out, but my list is as much a wish-list as a prediction, so without further ado, here’s my inaugural top ten predictions (and hopes) for branded content in 2020:

1. More brand docs will qualify for the Oscars in 2020, and one will make the short list – This year, at least two brand-funded films qualified for the Oscars, 5B funded by Johnson & Johnson, and Gay Chorus Deep South, sponsored by AirBnB (there may be others in this list of 159 that qualified, please let me know if I am missing any). This isn’t the first time branded docs have qualified for the Oscars, DamNation qualified in 2014, and probably others. Qualifying consists of opening NYC and LA in a theater for a week and getting reviewed – but it’s a milestone nonetheless. Only 15 of these 159 will make the shortlist which move on for Academy consideration (which is announced on Monday, December 16th). I predict neither of these films will move forward; although Gay Chorus Deep South has Sheila Nevins from MTV (formerly of HBO) promoting it, so we can’t rule that out yet. Anyway, I predict many more films will qualify for the Oscar in 2020, and at least one will make the shortlist. It’s too early to guess which ones, but I’ll take a crazy stab and say that DAD’s, sponsored by Unilever/Dove Men’s Health, produced by Ron Howard and directed by Bryce Dallas Howard, and to be released on Apple+ has a strong shot at being a contender.

2. More brands will make narrative and fiction films – short form, feature length and episodic – Up until now, with a few exceptions, brands have stuck to funding primarily documentary films, and usually shorts. While there have been excursions into narrative and fiction films and episodic content, these have been in the minority. I predict we’ll see a big change in 2020 as more brands decide to make a broader range of content. I have clients funding narrative features and episodic, and I think we’ll see a lot more of it in 2020. And it can’t come too soon, as the field gets more crowded, brands will have to do new things to stand out. Funding narrative/fiction films can seem daunting, especially when you start dealing with stars and their agents, but it’s the logical evolution of the sector.

3. Someone will figure out that curation could be bigger than creation – Everyone wants to make movies, but what’s the biggest buzzword online? Curation. As I wrote back in July, brands need to take some of their content-energy and focus it on becoming trusted curators of the best content. There’s too much content being made, and we’ve become an attention economy, where getting consumer’s attention, and helping them find the best stuff to watch is of equal if not greater importance than making that same content. Trusted brands have a great opportunity to become my trusted curator, guiding me to the best stuff to watch (and I’d watch your ads in return for the favor). My hope/prediction is that at least one smart brand will make a big play in this space soon.

4. Quibi will be a game-changer… for about a year – Quibi launches in April, 2020 and it’s already looking pretty promising. They’ve spent over $1-billion on content, and sold out over $150-Million in advertising, and that will generate a ton of buzz for the service when it launches. And all of this spending on great content – from a mix of A-List directors/celebrities as well as influencers – will be a game-changer. Why? Because it’s raising the bar for what counts as “quality” short form entertainment. This will increase budgets and ambitions for anyone competing in the short-form space. I’ve already written about the many problems I have with Quibi; mainly that it’s a solution in search of a problem (we have lots of choices to fill our time, and don’t need Quibi’s help), but I think it’s sheer size, ambition, scope of offerings and novelty of its viewing experience is going to garner a ton of attention and subscribers. But I also predict that as consumers start looking at their subscription spend, there will be a lot of subscriber churn across the board, and Quibi will be hardest hit, as people realize they can get all they need from Disney+, Apple+, Amazon Prime and Netflix, not to mention YouTube and TikTok.

5. Budgets will increase – Of course, with Quibi spending a Billion on content, the other major streamers spending more than $30-Billion and everyone under the Sun contributing to the content glut, brands will have to increase budgets to compete. 2020 should be a record year for spending on branded content, and anyone making branded content will find budgets have to increase to make quality content that can break through the noise. No surprise here, but the increases in budget will start to put a lot of pressure on anyone who has to justify this spend to their boss, leading to prediction 6.

6. As content budgets increase, so will calls for accurate measurement – One of the biggest conversations at Elevate, the BrandStorytelling conference in July, was Fara Warner’s report on the need for better measurement. As Warner pointed out, brands don’t trust the metrics they’re getting now, need more transparent and accepted tools for measurement, and will demand better metrics to show a real ROI as content budgets increase. This conversation comes up at any convening of brands making content, as well as most gatherings of other film funders, and 2020 might be the year where the industry comes together to develop some best practices, build better tools and implement a variety of metrics for success. I hope so, because if not, this sector will likely face a severe backlash from the C-Suite as the economy becomes (inevitably) shakier in 2020, and bosses demand clear result.

7. We’ll see more Collaboration – between brands, and between brands & traditional funders of media (Platforms, Foundations and Producers). Brands collaborate all the time, but there hasn’t been much collaboration when it comes to branded content. I think that will change in 2020. As budgets rise, the market gets more crowded and calls for greater impact and measurement increase, many brands will realize the power of collaboration. And I mean real collaboration – not just several brands putting some money into a film and becoming part of a “logo soup” of sponsors, but actually coming together early in the process and co-developing, funding and then marketing content together. It won’t be easy - brands are notoriously territorial, have their own internal timelines and politics, among other issues. But if brands come together around a film, the impact can be much greater. I think we’ll also see this with brands partnering with traditional funders of film, especially by collaborating with foundations, who support some of the best documentaries each year. We’ll also see it with platforms – where the Netflix’s of the world will start to see brands as co-production partners, not just product placement and funding sponsors; and with producers – not as works for hire, but as equal collaborators. I would love to see Participant Media, Netflix, Cisco and Coca-Cola (or any of the other Business Roundtable brands) collaborating around an impact documentary, for example, and think we’ll see something like this in 2020. It’s been done to great effect already – in Finland, where the film The Unknown Soldier was funded and marketed through a collaboration of over 26 brands and NGO’s, and became the highest-grossing film in Finland’s history. If it can be done in Finland...

8. Brands will embrace diversity and gender-equity behind and in-front-of the camera – The explosion in branded content has not been coupled with any noticeable increase in diversity or gender-equity – in the stories being told, or in who is telling these stories. Sure, there’s been some minor exceptions, but overall, the content being made reflects the lack of diversity in the marketers making the decisions. This issue comes up at every conference, in multiple articles and keynote speeches, but very little has been done to rectify the situation. This can’t continue. Numerous studies in the film world have shown that increased diversity leads to increases in box office (this latest one from Movio is a good example). As branded content grows, it needs to address the need for diversity if it wants to stay relevant and attract audiences. I bring this up with every client but have yet to see any brand truly lead the charge on diversity. My hope – and prediction – is that will change in 2020, and whatever brand takes the biggest stand will see such great results that everyone will follow their lead.

9. The coming branded-content backlash(es) – This is the one prediction I hate to make, and I hope I’m wrong, but I think branded-content will face not one, but two types of backlashes. First, we will see our first branded content Kylie Jenner moment – which was close to a branded content moment itself, as the notorious Pepsi ad-mistake was a 2 ½ minute short film. But most of these tone-deaf moments have been more on the advertising part of the spectrum than branded content (see Peloton most recently). We’ve been lucky that none of these major mistakes have been made in branded content…yet. But it’s inevitable. Someone will step in the doodoo in 2020. It won’t be pretty, and it will likely help lead to a larger backlash that’s also long-overdue – against branded content in general. John Oliver’s 2014 piece lambasting native advertising has over 11 Million views on YouTube, showing his complaint had legs. As more brands enter this space, and the market gets crowded with both quality content and, well, junk, it’s likely that other creatives (indie filmmakers in particular), audiences and critics will begin to question just how much branded content we need in our lives. And critics love a bandwagon, so this will get ugly quickly. I don’t think we can avoid these pitfalls as an industry, but brands can avoid these issues individually by making quality content and thinking about how the predictions here apply to their content. Better films will break-through any backlash.

10. Last, in an obvious hat-tip to my “sponsor”... BrandStorytelling will remain the best place to learn about the current state and future of branded content - Alan Kay once said “the best way to predict the future is to invent it,” and if you want to be around those inventing the future of branded content, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better venue than BrandStorytelling – at Sundance in January, or Elevate next July. If you can’t make it, you can always subscribe and learn by reading, but my prediction is that attending is the best way to see the future of branded content in 2020. Hope to see you there.


About Brian Newman

Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre, consults on content development, financing, distribution and marketing to help connect brands and filmmakers with audiences. Clients include: Patagonia, REI, Keen, Yeti Coolers, New York Times, Shopify Studios, Stripe, Sonos, Sundance, Vulcan Productions and Zero Point Zero. Brian is the producer of Love & Taxes, The Outside Story, and The Ground Between Us, and executive producer of Shored Up. Brian has served as CEO of the Tribeca Film Institute, and is on the advisory board of the Camden International Film Festival.

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