Earlier this week, Patagonia, the $575 million outdoor apparel and gear maker based in Ventura, California, released Defined by the Line, an eight-minute documentary about climber Josh Ewing, who left his corporate gig to protect public lands in southeastern Utah.

Last week, Patagonia released The Fisherman's Son, a 29-minute documentary about Chilean surfer Ramón Navarro's rise from humble beginnings to the peak of the surfing world--and Navarro's growing influence as an activist preserving a surf spot on Chile's coastline from commercial development.

Get the picture?

Patagonia has now released four documentaries over the past year. The first, DamNation, was its biggest effort: 88 minutes long, the movie debuted at the 2014 South by Southwest festival and opened theatrically last May. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard told the Los Angeles Times that the film cost $500,000 to make, not including its marketing budget--and he did not expect to turn a profit.

Though Patagonia is still relatively new to filmmaking, its experience nonetheless provides a blueprint if you're considering making films that support your company's nonprofit causes or serve as original, storytelling content for your websites and social media channels. Here are three tips. 

1. Support from the top--and from a mission-based culture--is essential. 

To hear Patagonia tell it, movies are less a new endeavor, per se, than a new medium through which Patagonia is spreading its longstanding mission of marrying outdoor sports to environmental activism. "This effort in filmmaking ties back to a couple of key pursuits for the past 30 years," says Hans Cole, environmental advocacy and campaigns manager. 

Chouinard himself is "very, very much involved" in the films, adds Cole. Which makes sense, considering it is no stretch to call Chouinard, who founded Patagonia in 1973, a pioneer in the realm of corporate social responsibility. As my longtime colleague Bo Burlingham points out, more than 1,200 companies have joined Chouinard's initiative to donate 1 percent of sales (not profits) to environmental causes.

And to judge by Chouinard's comments, the causes--and the movies supporting them--are extremely important to him. "I couldn't care less about making more money or making more clothes," he told the Los Angeles Times on the occasion of DamNation's release. "I want to use business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis." That's what you call commitment. 

2. Cement your relationships with your filmmaking and nonprofit partners. 

As a company backing a documentary with a point of view, understand that you'll face a lot of skepticism--starting with the filmmaker. Independent filmmakers will want both the final cut and assurances that they're not shilling for your brand. The makers of DamNation, Ben Knight and Travis Rummel, received those assurances, according to the Los Angeles Times

Even then, viewers will be skeptical. And you'll have to be careful about avoiding any hint of brand promotion. For example, on one day Knight and Rummel--shooting from a kayak--both wore Patagonia hoodies. The filmmakers say they bought the hoodies on their own. True or not, the point is that skeptics never want for fuel. 

It's essential, too, that your company has strong relationships with nonprofit partners in support of a film's cause. If a nonprofit is willing to bless the film and your presence through a partnership, you can be all the more assured your message is on target. Patagonia has worked with the nonprofit Save The Waves (partner in The Fisherman's Son) since 2005. And the company was referred to the nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa (partner in Defined By the Line) by its decade-long contacts at the Conservation Lands Foundation. 

These partnerships matter when an "outside" film crew arrives on a site long cherished by locals. You don't want to be the Johnny-come-lately on contentious natural terrain. At the Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah, where Defined by the Line was filmed, Native Americans have been "working for centuries in different ways" to preserve the land, says Cole. "The worst thing we could do is come in and stomp around and create a detriment. Everything we do is at the service of those local partners."

3. Find your story's hero--and protagonist. 

In The Fisherman's Son, you learn that Navarro, the legendary Chilean surfer, is indeed the son of a subsistence fisherman. He taught himself to surf on scrap board. He had never been on a plane before his initial trip to the United States. He arrived with less than $100 and sold empanadas in Hawaii's Ehukai Park, home of the famed Banzai Pipeline, to support himself. And there's a happy ending, too. Navarro became a surfing immortal when, in 2009, he flawlessly surfed a beastly 35-foot-plus wave at The Eddie, the sport's biggest tournament. "It only takes one wave to change your life," says surfer Grant "Twiggy" Baker, recounting the moment in The Fisherman's Son.

Navarro's story is one any brand would want to get behind: A winner who came from nothing and worked hard, seizing his moment. But just as important, for the sake of filmmaking, is the fact that Navarro's story is compelling. It's filled with his ultra-athletic surfing feats and deftly interweaves testimonials about his hardscrabble days. All of which makes the documentary more entertaining--and more inspiring--than a 29-minute lecture about the importance of preserving Chile's Punta de Lobos shoreline. 

Likewise, Defined by the Line focuses on Ewing's story of ditching corporate America. It doesn't dwell on long, languid footage of the Bears Ears landscape, gorgeous though that is. "It's important to have a really powerful spokesperson and story to act as a portal and bring people in," says Cole. "Someone who's devoted their life to the sport or experience and now loves a place so much, they're willing to protect it. We've been seeking out those types of stories."

Published on: May 5, 2015