BLUE LIGHT SPECIAL A Na'vi prepares to attack in Avatar
Credit: Joseph C. Pepe

Last week, it was announced that The Institute — a media company founded by Michael Bay and Scott Gardenhour that has been using its motto, “Where Brand Science Meets Great Storytelling,” in commercials until now — was set to produce its first feature film, the live-action Hansel and Gretel in 3D.

What exactly does that mean, and how is it different from product placement? “One of things that we say a lot of times here is, ‘You’ve almost got to be a marketer as well as a filmmaker these days,” Gardenhour tells EW. “A lot of times, brands will come to the table with hard dollars to help with the negative cost. But what’s almost become more valuable is brands being able to extend an entertainment project beyond the project itself, the extension that they provide through the promotion that they may develop specifically for a movie or TV show brings a tremendous amount of awareness to what we’re doing…. How we think about it is an extension of the content, as opposed to something that’s product placement. Granted, there may be things that will encompass that, but for the most part, what we really look to do is make them seamless so that part of the story could actually be worked in, say, a brand campaign that helps to create awareness for story elements and for social media games. It’s creating something that has a revenue stream like a FarmVille, where brands could participate in that game, which also helps to promote what the content’s going to be, which is obviously the most important for us — the more eyeballs the better.”

Image Credit: Joseph C. PepeGardenhour knows the motto is one that can put some movie fans (or savvy “consumers”) on alert. “Brands have gotten really savvy, and there’s been some push back from consumers where things are too obvious, where it seems like you’re trying to cram a product down someone’s throat for the sake of entertainment,” he says. “But if you’re open with them early, and you engage them early, you can get a sense of what is palatable to them and what isn’t. We get to learn what’s going to resonate early so we can avoid something or use it to our benefit.”

Will the motto be a hard sell to directors? They haven’t announced one yet, but expect to look for someone with both animation and live-action experience who can bring the Grimm Brothers’ fairytale — complete with legendary creatures of German mythology designed by Joseph C. Pepe, the lead character designer from Avatar (his work, pictured) to life when cameras roll next spring in Germany. “I think it used to be a bit taboo in the creative world. But when you come from the commercial world, and you’ve spent a lot of time with brands, there are real opportunities and ways to make really creative pieces of film that may be for a specific purpose but people don’t mind. When you look at the Super Bowl, for instance, there are an awful lot of people who will watch the Super Bowl just to see the commercials, because they’re really entertaining. And I think that’s become more acceptable because the world has become much more niche, and you have to be really relevant with the entertainment consumer. I think filmmakers are becoming more accepting of the help and the seamless relationship that brands and entertainment product can have. One can really benefit from the other. I remember Roger Ebert a couple of years ago answered a question someone asked him about whether Sundance was becoming too commercial, and he said, ‘I don’t know one director or producer here who wouldn’t hope their movie would be seen by a bunch of people.’ I think it’s kind of along those same lines. Everybody wants their movies seen, and I think now in the world that we live in where there’s such a disparate media climate, it really helps to have these things that can promote an entertainment product. Hopefully, the ultimate result is we’re entertaining the people that go see it, and we’re being honest with them.”

As for the script, Gardenhour says it will be family-friendly, and expects the mythological creatures to “add some real depth to the movie and allow for the moments while the kids are in the forest to have some real intensity. When you think about it, any kid ages 8 to 15 being out in the forest alone by themselves — that’s just a scary proposition by itself. But then you add what’s around the corner, what’s behind the tree, that’s a whole other thing. But, ultimately, the relationship we end up highlighting is the love that the father has for the kids, and obviously how glad he is when they return.”

The Institute also has another project, titled Viking Vampire, in the works. It takes place in the late 14th century and tells the story of how vampires came to be, Gardenhour says. They’re close to signing a director for that film as well. It makes us think of Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) from True Blood, we tell him. “If that helps to make the comparison, I’m happy for you to do it,” Gardenhour says.