STORY / A PRODUCTION CASE STUDY

In attempting to create great stories, you have to know where to start.

For me, a great starting place is one you can do before the project becomes an assignment: research. In the world of promotional marketing, a great starting place is taking a look at spots that really got it right. Spots that are timeless with a solid narrative backbone and exceptional execution; spots that drive you to see more, that make you wish you were the producer, and maybe, compel you to tune in or purchase whatever they’re really selling. Last year, National Geographic‘s promotional campaign for the telepic Killing Kennedy, nailed it.

2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a huge turning point not only in politics and in the history of the United States, but also in the lives of many Americans. It’s no surprise that last year also compelled the release of many Kennedy-themed projects (see the trailer for the film Parkland released in Oct 2013; PBS special American Experience: JFK in Nov 2013), making it a relative challenge not only to get eyes on a specific project , but also to ensure the message and call-to-action was clear and effective.

While this post doesn’t delve into the exhaustive scope and scale of the campaign, Deadline reported Killing Kennedy ultimately drew 3.5 million viewers and a 1.1 rating among adults 25-54, making it NG’s largest audience in history.

So, what is the process of taking a big story and scaling it down to size for viewing in the bite-sized nuggets we’re fed via television (typically, anywhere from :05 to (usual) :30 to (long) :6o+)?

To start, take a look at the trailer for Killing Kennedy (1:11):

Andy Baker, the SVP and Group Creative Director of National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild, has created a great new blog, The Client Blog, which discusses the creative/marketing/promotional strategy from the client’s (in this case, the network) perspective. It’s a great resource + read – and he delves much further into this killer project.

Typically, in dealing with a project with on and off-air assets, you have two beasts that are usually separate but do occasionally intertwine: 1) the production itself (movie, TV show, etc.) and 2) the promotional/marketing campaign. In a promotional campaign, your basic job is to make the show look awesome and reflect marketing strategy, with an ultimate goal of driving viewers to the live project. Depending on time and budget, you may not have access to all variables of the production like the cast, the completed project, the music or in some cases, even a locked title. I mention those because they’re not incredibly uncommon obstacles and force you to constantly pivot and find creative solutions.

In the case of Killing Kennedy, not only was the screenplay adapted from a best-selling book written by Bill O’Reilly, but it was also (obviously) based on an actual event. Additionally, NG had the benefit of having access to all four main actors, a decent amount of lead time with the (seemingly) biggest challenges being (as usual) time, space and deliverables.

Here’s Baker describing the concept of the promo:

“Once we had locked in an idea with Variable and The Mill after many weeks of discussion, revisions, tweaks, re-writes and collaboration, we had a very nice PDF with .mov samples of visual effects, audio files of JFK’s last speech (which we tentatively planned to use as a backbone to the creative), 8mm and time-period appropriate images of JFK and Oswald, and even some schematics for our “bullet in reverse” concept. Rama Allen, the director from The Mill, was incredibly passionate and collaborative, and discovered some incredible ideas we never thought of, such as using the haunting and foreboding final speech by JFK on the day of his death.

“There was no doubt that the idea was strong – essentially, we wanted to follow the path backwards of the fateful bullet that took JFK’s life – and go in reverse through the car, the crowd, the trees and into the muzzle of the rifle. At the same time we would be intercutting ‘real’ moments – “snapshot memories” that would be shot in 8mm or treated Red footage that would be tracing the moments before the assassination in the lives of Oswald, Jackie and JFK.”

Check out the Behind-the-Scenes piece to get a glimpse of the team working to make this story a reality.

Click ‘Continue Reading’ for a little bit more…

For me, this spot really nailed it in three ways: narrative, tone and execution. The script in the primary trailer (as read by Rob Lowe as JFK) was derived from the speech Kennedy gave at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce the morning of his death. Though very much in line with Kennedy’s rhetoric at the time, this speech takes on a haunting refrain thanks to its unexpected place in history, and especially as parsed throughout the spot, and has a dramatic effect on the overall tone of the piece, which, when laid to the sparse music bed from Fall On Your Sword, really helps reinforce the narrative.

See the voiceover script from the trailer below:

“This is a very dangerous and uncertain world.

No one expects that our life will be easy.

But I am confident, as I look to the future that our chances for security, our chances for peace, are better than they have been in the past.

And the reason is because we are stronger. And with that strength is a determination to not only maintain the peace, but also the vital interests of the United States.

Thank you very much.”

Another spot utilized both conceptual and footage from the show and focused on the other major character in the narrative, Lee Harvey Oswald. In this spot, called “Bullet” – actor Will Rothhaar (as Oswald) narrates.

:47 – “Bullet”

“The warning signs were there all along. People just weren’t paying attention.

It wasn’t until after that everyone looked back and put the pieces together.

Saw how it all connected.

No one took me seriously then.

But I’ve got your attention now. Don’t I?”

The spot is really fascinating to watch for many reasons, the most important and often neglected aspect, I think, is timing. This voiceover is fictional – (Oswald proclaimed innocence until this death only two days after Kennedy, but the main project is built on his assumed guilt) but since Oswald is a big part of this narrative, it’s great to see a spot that utilized his voice – and the timing of the conclusion of the voiceover with the bullet being fired from the shotgun was fantastic. Really great work.

1:15 – “Director’s Cut”

Definitely check out Andy’s blog for a further glimpse into this project. They had to share two days with Off-Air print marketing, so finding and utilizing a single space for all objectives was key and going through his play-by-play was inspiring and a testament to great, efficient creatives and excellent project coordinators.

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