With last night's opening premiere of The Union, director Cameron Crowe's doc about Elton John and Leon Russell, the 10th Tribeca Film Festival kicks off. Though this 12-day event has enjoyed mixed reviews after its noble start as a response to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack's devastating effects on downtown Manhattan life, it has become an annual event in the city's spring calendar.
Initially created to regenerate interest in and bring people to Tribeca and lower Manhattan, the festival evolved into a sprawling set of contradictory ideas and goals -- was it meant to be a high-profile red-carpet, celebrity-driven media circus or a celebration of international cinema was just one question raised. In any case, one thing has been certain, that with the support of its founding sponsor American Express, the festival had the secure financial bedrock from which it could be nurtured into a yearly event sustained by more than its original rationale for existence.
And one of its key supporters among the senior executives at AmEx has been Chief Marketing Officer John D. Hayes, who, for the past 16 years has overseen the unusual and unique ways in which the company's marketing dollars have been directed. From its clever commercials occasionally starring famous film directors such as Martin Scorsese to sponsoring a live stream of cool concert events such as the recent NYC appearance of Arcade Fire, Hayes and his office has lent the financial services company's support to many things more interesting than the obvious mainstream mettle.
Now, with this year's fest, Hayes and company have gone one step further in becoming both a short film producer and distributor -- sort of. Tucked into the short film program of the fest is the first film made on the basis of a contest conceived and spurred on by AmEx/TFF partnership -- My Movie Pitch.
In mid-2010, TFF and American Express announced that they would take a pitch from anyone entering and, if picked, would see it made into a short film for the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. The contest allowed aspirants to upload 60-second pitches and five finalists were chosen by viewers and a panel of Tribeca directorial alums Brian Hill, Dev Benegal, Julien Kemp, Måns Herngren, Tarik Saleh, Jacob Tierney, David Russo, Jac Schaeffer, Julien Nitzberg, Mat Whitecross and Josh Appignanesi. The grand prize winner got the pitch made into a short directed by one of the directors plus a trip for two to NYC and VIP access to the film's TFF screening.
So, on Saturday, April 23 at 5:30 p.m., John Nash of Chestnut Ridge, New York -- whose pitch told an unexpected story of a man and his mustache -- will see his idea, Mr. Stache, as a film premiering on the big screen made by director Jac Schaeffer. Starring Rich Sommer and Amy Smart, Mr. Stache also screens as part of the Mix Tape Short Film Program, as well as at this mustache-themed premiere where the stars will join Schaeffer for an in-depth conversation.
Throughout the Festival, Mr. Stache can be viewed at www.amexfilm.com as well as within The Festival Streaming Room as part of the Tribeca Online Film Festival at www.tribecafilm.com/tribecaonline.
Q: Most people wouldn't think that someone from a credit card company -- if you want to call American Express that -- had said, "I've got a wacky idea. Let's produce some films as part of our mission." That's incredible.
JH: That's why I do this job. I live in the belief that there are always going to be great ideas. Obviously, you have to sort through many to get to the great ones. But it's great ideas and great partnerships that we believe are the future, and this represents both of those.
We think there are great ideas that have come out of this, [and]... it's a great partnership. I love the fact that you totally get what I do, because not everybody does.
Q: Hey you don't have to worry about product placement -- if you're actually putting your money where your mouth is as you're the producer of the film in a sense. Then having the logo there doesn't seem artificial.
JH: [That's] the reason why all of these programs we've created have done so much good with the people in the film industry. If you talk to folks in the film industry and listen to how they talk about American Express, they will say what you just said, which is the organic nature of what we've done.
This is not a group of people just trying to stick their name on my existing film and trying to stick their product in a scene. This is a group of people who organically really appreciate film.
Q: Did you ever thinking about having a cameo for yourself in this film?
JH: That's not my aspiration [chuckles]. I like to inspire creativity as opposed to put myself in the midst of it.
I've been doing [this job] for 16 years. I'm told that the average life expectancy of a CMO nowadays is about 22 months, so I'm bucking the trend here.
Q: Do you have a favorite movie -- maybe one you saw at Tribeca? Did it make you think, "Why don't we get involved earlier on than just waiting for what we get?"
JH: We were always looking for imaginative ways that haven't been done before, to get more engaged, whether it be with our card members or our merchants, or with the independent film industry.
My Movie Pitch was really all about giving aspiring movie makers -- people who wanted to create a film, who had a story to tell -- a chance to put together a 60-second pitch and submit it.
We got thousands of these pitches, and they were able to get it in front of a lot of people. The directors last year at the Tribeca festival were the ones who judged this. Then we also had regular people vote on these pitches, too.
Q: Did this idea come out of you guys, out of Tribeca, or some third party?
JH: It came from us, actually. Over the last few years, we've been talking about the things that have been of greatest value in this relationship with Tribeca.
From that discussion on a strategic level, someone said "Well, there are a lot of people who want to create a film who frankly don't have the wherewithal to do it.
And with social media being what it is today, with digital media being what it is today, we could let those people pitch their film to directors and to the public at large, and we could help them because we understand how social media works.
We could give them the platform to do that, let them make that pitch, and then follow up by supporting whoever made the best pitch with the ability to create the short film and tell the story."
Executing it, we worked very closely with Tribeca. As I said, Tribeca was able to get us Jac Schaeffer to direct it. We probably couldn't have done that on our own, but we certainly could do that with the power of this partnership with Tribeca. And so it was really that partnership that brought about the outcome.
Q: Did somebody say to you, "How are we going to wade through all this? Are you crazy?"
JH: There's always a naysayer saying, "Oh gosh, the logistics seem really complex," but you know what? In the end it wasn't that complicated. And frankly, it did a lot of good. It helps us with the industry, because the industry says "Look at this. These guys are helping aspiring filmmakers do something."
There are always those logistical questions. People will say, "How are we going to deal with this if we get thousands of submissions?" But we've always managed. We try new things all the time.
Q: It's one thing to support a festival several steps removed, but there's a real payback in seeing somebody's getting a chance to generate a film.
JH: I think you're exactly right. This partnership was not just about getting the payback on a per-constituent basis. This is about giving voice to something that didn't exist before.
Having the ability to be able to create a film -- for example, with My Movie Pitch -- has changed the way people see this brand and see us as a company. That's important to us.
Q: What got you involved with Tribeca in 2001? Obviously we had 9/11 and there were a lot of unusual circumstances, but what was the thinking at the time?
JH: Certainly all of this was originally spurred by the horrific events of 9/11, and the impact that 9/11 had on lower Manhattan was profound.
Lower Manhattan has been home to American Express for over 160 years. This company [has] always been headquartered downtown, so we could feel it immediately. It was a time when this area had been really deeply affected.
We got the call from Jane [Rosenthal] and Bob [De Niro] a couple months before the first event was put on. It was just an idea at the time. They called us and said, "Have you got any interest in working with us on creating this film festival?" And we said, "Yeah, it sounds like the right kind of catalyst that will help to rebuild the entire neighborhood."
We were looking to create a revitalization for our employees, for our merchants, and we have a large group of card members who are passionate about film.
Right from the beginning, we were seeing effects. We saw more spending in lower Manhattan from our card members, we saw our small businesses, merchant businesses, starting to pick up.
We were getting emails and correspondence from some of our merchant partners telling us "This is making a difference for our business. This is starting to activate things here in lower Manhattan."
So it really was out of a sheer belief that lower Manhattan needed something to turn it around. And it did.
Q: How did you know Tribeca's co-founders?
JH: Bob and Jane called us because of what this company stands for. We recognized it as something that would make a difference, so we went for it. It really comes back to our reputation.
We have a history of doing things that make a difference -- cause-related marketing. Some people actually credit us with inventing cause-related marketing with stuff we did back in the '80s -- with the Statue of Liberty and whatnot. We have a reputation for getting behind movements that can make a difference.
Q: Had you worked with them before?
JH: We've been associated with the film industry, but we had not done anything specifically with Tribeca before that.
We have a history of doing a number of things with the film industry. If you look at our advertising going back a number of decades, you'll see that we've had high profile, prominent people from the movie industry as part of our advertising.
We did a series with directors -- M. Night Shyamalan, and Wes Anderson among them -- in our advertising. We've had Martin Scorsese in a few of our ads; he's shot a few commercials for us. We've been an advertiser on the Academy Awards for a number of years.
[Tribeca] was a way of building a new relationship within that industry, and it's turned out to be a lucrative partnership for both of us.
We sell 60 to 70% of the tickets for the Tribeca Film Festival early to our card members; that's how much they really enjoy this festival. In fact, 2011 so far in ticket sales is up 20-plus percent versus a year ago.
And we've got eight special events this year for our card members only, and those have sold out already.
Q: You've been doing this a long time and been in all kinds of different worlds, but was there anybody that you were excited about?
JH: I'm enamored with people who tell stories. People who travel a lot are usually people who tell great stories; that's what their journeys materialize into.
If you look at independent film, it is about great storytellers and great stories. It's about great stories that are interesting, that need to be told, and for me that's what this opportunity represented.
This festival is about a celebration of people who tell stories. These are not films that get enormous support from marketing.
It gave American Express a chance to give voice to stories that should be told. This company has been about great storytelling for years.
Q: You're a guy that has the broadest overview, who can see across the landscape -- not just the cards, but also the magazine, the sponsorships, the products. the larger product concepts.
JH: Yes, I think that is accurate. My scope is global, so I cover all the markets that we do business in. I get involved with our product development, and certainly our products are not just material products, they're service.
Q: Would you say that you're a global company which has a role in the travel experience?
JH: If you think about how we have been a brand for travel, it's not just about offering people the opportunity to transact. It's also been, more importantly, about the service of American Express: the idea that we are an advocate, we are someone who's always got the customer's back.
We do a lot from a lifestyle standpoint because we're serving our customers' lifestyles, and travel is part of that lifestyle; so is entertainment, and film is part of that entertainment.
People trust us to curate for them on a travel basis. If we say "This resort's worth going to," and if we say "This film is something you might want to see," we get the same reaction, because this brand has helped people curate their lives for many years.
It's one of the reasons why we have a publishing group, for example. Departures magazine is an important part of our Platinum card. It's all part of that lifestyle curation.
Q: There's an interesting hook between festivals, film, and travel. You go see a movie set in Africa, and you want to go to Africa.
JH: There's no doubt -- particularly when you see a really well done documentary on something and you say, "Wow, I want to experience that." It's about places and people's lives that both spur travel. The idea of great storytelling and travel go together in so many ways.
Q: It makes sense that there's a fit between Tribeca -- or any film festival -- and AmEx, but you don't think about it until you think about it.
JH: You're exactly right. As you think about it more deeply, you go "Wow." That's why I don't talk about us as a "sponsor" of Tribeca. I say we're "partners."
Since the beginning, we've spent time talking about what their aspirations are for the festival, for their company, and what our aspirations are, and how we can make this work for both of us. We've built this together, and that is why it's really been a partnership.
But how do we take this to a place that has more scale, so we can serve more card members as it relates to film?
We're working through new distribution channels, whether it be Comcast, VOD [video on demand], Netflix, or Amazon -- all these new distribution channels for film -- and giving our card members access to independent film, which is becoming harder and harder to access these days.
Q: It's a pretty strange concept to see a credit card company become an entertainment company.
JH: It's because it is a company that isn't just in the transaction business. People who analyze this company and think that we're just in the transaction business are missing what it is that makes this company so special.
We're in a relationship business that's based on service, and our customers look to us as a service entity, not just a transaction entity. And you see it with the cards that we offer.
The difference between a green card and a gold and a platinum card and a centurion card is they all transact in the same places, but the level of service changes. That service is what really creates a level of engagement with our customers, and service is everything from answering the phone to getting them access to things they want to experience.
We help create experiences for our customers -- whether it be in the music field, where we do a lot of work, or if it's in film, which they love. We do a number of things related to fashion and Fashion Week and creating experiences around that.
Q: And you're doing it also with other festivals.
JH: We've been involved with other festivals.
Q: As well as working with the NBA, Unstaged, Fashion Week -- when do you sleep?
JH: I have a great team, first of all, who share the same vision that I have, that creating quality experiences for our customers -- and even some of our prospects -- is really important, and they've done it in very inventive ways.
Unstaged is a pretty amazing program, working with Vevo and YouTube and scaling out music on the web from a streaming standpoint. We've done about five or six shows now, and we're at a point where we've had just under 15 million people live stream those shows.
Q: You guys did the Arcade Fire, right?
JH: Yes, we did. We did The National. We just did Duran Duran and the director was David Lynch.
Q: You're also sponsoring the Tribeca partnership with the Doha Film Festival, right? You're able to get involved with this emerging world where there's lots of money, and have an influence culturally in a very interesting way.
JH: There are a lot of stories to be told everywhere around the world, and the film industry is a core part of those cultures and their evolution. And you're right, as markets mature, there's no question being part of that is exciting.
Q: It's unusual to see a company perform this kind of payback. You're really generating something here.
JH: Yes, because we've very clearly generated business for our merchants with the festival. Let's face it, [for] somebody who goes out on a Friday night to go see a film, it's usually dinner as well. As we move now into the film distribution business in partnership with Tribeca Film, many of these distributing channels are partners of ours as merchants.
Comcast is a very important company to us. Amazon is, as well as Netflix. These are all merchant companies for us that are very important, in addition to allow[ing] us to serve card members who have a passion for films.
Q: The idea that a sponsor is actually playing the role of seeing a film get produced and then get further distribution, is a pretty exciting thing for filmmakers and hopefully, creativity.
JH: I agree with you. We're partnered with Tribeca in the sponsorship of creativity.
For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com