The thin line between advertising and entertainment just got thinner. 

This week, the Tribeca Film Festival announced eight finalists for a new award celebrating the best "artist-brand collaboration" in the past year. Known as the Tribeca X Award, the honor is earmarked for films that have been sponsored or underwritten by a brand, from large corporate stars like Olympus and Samsung to smaller artisanal ones, such as Balvenie whiskey and Radio Flyer Wagons.

The new category is partly a response to ad-blocking and other technologies that make it harder for traditional advertising to succeed. "The Tribeca X was conceived to celebrate brands that aspire to tell engaging stories that add value to people's lives, rather than advertising that creates pollution," Andrew Essex, CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, said in a statement.

More than 100 films applied for the award, which will be announced at the 15-year-old festival's Awards Night ceremony on April 21.

Whether the films themselves actually live up to Essex's lofty billing, you can see for yourself as a paying moviegoer or, in several cases, on YouTube. What's obvious from the inaugural list of nominees is that the brands hardly want for star power. The celebrated filmmakers and performers include Anthony Bourdain, Abbey Lee, and Michael Rappaport. 

Here's a peek at three finalists: 

American Giant X Wild Card Boxing. Directed by Rappaport, whose filmmaking credits include an acclaimed documentary about the rap group A Tribe Called Quest, American Giant X Wildcard Boxing is a five-minute documentary about legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach and his renowned gym, the Wildcard Boxing Gym in Hollywood, Calif. (American Giant, in case you didn't know, is a San Francisco hoodie maker.) 

Entrepreneurs will appreciate several traits of this movie. For one thing, Roach says that he had $10,000 in savings when he initially opened the gym. When he was done buying everything he needed, he had $50 left--and spent most of it on fliers advertising the gym's opening. Six months after he opened the gym, a raw prospect named Manny Pacquiao walked in. Under Roach's tutelage, he became a champion. Despite the fame that Pacquiao and other champions have brought to Roach and his gym, it remains a place open to the public, where anyone can train for $5 a day. All this is captured efficiently in Rappaport's five-minute movie.



Hearing Colors. This short film profiles Neil Harbisson (depicted in the photo atop this article), who was born with a rare condition called achromatopsia, rendering him colorblind. The thing is, Harbisson is something of a cyborg. A doctor implanted an antenna in the back of his head, and it allows him to hear colors. For example, the honking horn of a New York City taxi sounds to Harbisson just like a lime. This film is part of Samsung's Connected Series of original stories. Yet at no point does the film mention the Samsung brand, until the closing seconds of the credits. 



Raw Craft with Anthony Bourdain. In this online film series, decorated chef, author, and TV host Bourdain guides viewers through tales of authentic craftsmanship. The brand behind the films is The Balvenie, a distillery that makes single malt scotch whiskey. The Balvenie has a vested interest in honoring all things craft, owing to its devotion to the craft of whiskey making. The Balvenie's sponsorship and branding of the entire series is out front and obvious. Refreshingly, the episodes themselves are deep dives into whatever particular craft Bourdain is exploring, even if it's Balvenie's own process



Though branded documentaries are a newly coined category for TFF, smart brands have for years now devoted themselves to the art of documentary filmmaking. For example, Patagonia has excelled at making nature documentaries. In Patagonia's films, the brand itself is often quietly lurking in the background. The co-stars of its documentaries are typically nature itself and a protagonist going on an adventure in that natural setting. 

Even then, viewers can be be understandably skeptical once they know a big brand is funding the movie. For one of Patagonia's films, called DamNation, the independent filmmakers--Ben Knight and Travis Rummel --received assurances from the company that the final cut would be theirs. It was, in other words, an independent film backed but not creatively controlled by Patagonia.

But one day, while making the film, both Knight and Rummel--shooting from a kayak--happened to wear Patagonia hoodies. The filmmakers said they bought the hoodies on their own, according to the Los Angeles Times. They were just wearing their own outdoor clothes, which happened to be Patagonia clothes. But the damage was done. The skeptics had their fuel.  

Whether such skepticism will assail this latest batch of branded documentaries, only time will tell. Regardless, the Tribeca X Awards augur an era in which brand-based filmmaking can be award-winning art as well. 

Published on: Apr 12, 2016