Park Pictures' Emmy Weekend Reflects Parallel Between Progressive Brands, Production Companies
Colin Kaepernick in Nike's "Dream Crazy," winner of this year's primetime commercial Emmy Award.
A genuine commitment & connection to social causes is becoming essential in the ad and filmmaking communities
  • LOS ANGELES
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Much has been written about brands needing to stand for something in order to meaningfully connect with consumers at large. This was recently underscored in SHOOT’s coverage earlier this month of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) NewFronts West in Los Angeles, which took that premise a step further, imploring advertisers to not just stand but “stand up,” proactively taking tangible action in order to advance social causes, thus contributing to the betterment of the world. Examples such as Johnson & Johnson’s 5B documentary about the opening in 1983 of the first full-fledged hospital unit dedicated to treating people with AIDS, and Levi’s “I Shape My World” program, a prominent installment of which featured Delaney Tarr, founder of the March For Our Lives movement advocating gun control and safety, were discussed in detail at NewFronts.

In each case, the brand had in its DNA a real connection to the social issue. Johnson & Johnson has long championed and rewarded the positive power of nursing, with 5B dovetailing perfectly into that theme. Meanwhile Levi’s has been active in the gun safety space for many years, dating back to when a consumer walked into one of its stores with a gun that accidentally discharged. Levi’s donated $1.2 million to gun safety organizations and received pushback when it asked the public not to bring firearms into its stores, even in states with open carry laws. “Gen Z cares what you stand for,” related Levi’s SVP/CMO Jen Sey, noting that consumers know when a connection to a cause isn’t legit. Thus it’s paramount that Levi’s content addresses issues and causes it has demonstrated care and concern for over the years.

But just as brands need a genuine stake in a social cause, so too arguably do the production companies that often help those advertisers realize their vision. That was reflected a couple of weeks ago during the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony spread over two nights (9/15-16) at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

On the first evening of the Creative Arts proceedings, Park Pictures Features--sister company to commercial production house Park Pictures--won the Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking for The Sentence (HBO), tying with RBG (CNN), a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the honor. The Sentence over a 10-year span follows the unjustly harsh sentencing and incarceration of Cindy Shank (due to drug violations by her late boyfriend), showing us the toll on her family--particularly her three daughters--and then her eventual release when granted clemency in 2016 by President Obama. The Sentence was a passion project of Shank’s brother, director/producer Rudy Valdez. The Washington Post reported that The Sentence distilled the criminal justice issue down to a touching, personal story which became more relatable, helping move a number of legislators to rethink their hard-line stance, making punishment more proportional to the nature of the crime. This in turn helped to yield passage of The First Step Act which reduces mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons and allows some people to be incarcerated closer to their homes to allow families to more easily their visit loved ones.

Moving to the second and concluding night of the Creative Arts ceremony, Park Pictures and Wieden+Kennedy took home the primetime commercial Emmy Award for Nike’s “Dream Crazy,” directed by Lance Acord, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and Christian Weber.

“Dream Crazy” features star and not so prominent athletes striving to excel. Narrated by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the spot also touches on the controversy of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and instances of police brutality. Kaepernick was the first player to protest in this manner during NFL games, leading to his, some contend, being banished from playing professional football.

Kaepernick first appears on camera midway through the commercial. As his face is revealed, a reflection of an American flag is visible on a building facade behind him. At the start of the ad, Kaepernick says, “If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you think you can do, good. Stay that way because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment.”

He later declares, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

For Park Pictures executive producer/co-founder Jackie Kelman Bisbee, also a founder of Park Pictures Features and an EP on The Sentence, the two Creative Arts Emmy-winning projects are joined at the hip. “Both projects and the issues they involve mean so much to me, Sam (Bisbee, her husband, a veteran movie producer and a founding father of Park Picture Features), and Lance (director Acord, a co-founder of Park Pictures and Park Pictures Features),” shared Kelman Bisbee. “Both told stories that needed to be heard. They received the awards because the stories resonated with people. People wanted and needed those stories to be told--one sponsored by a brand, the other by Park Pictures. At the end of the day, they are both very much connected in terms of social justice reform.”

Kelman Bisbee continued, “We have a production company with resources and talent. You have to do something with that. If you don’t have a voice--or give voice to others on the environment, social justice and other issues, you’re really part of the problem. That’s why Nike has been so successful. They are looking for voices. They aren’t jumping on a bandwagon. They are standing up and committing to something. Nike took the risk and other brands have seen how successful it was.”

Sam Bisbee noted that The Sentence, the first documentary out of Park Pictures Features, has triggered a company commitment to turn out more docu fare. “The experience of doing something that felt so meaningful, seeing the impact The Sentence has had, makes us want to do more of that,” said Bisbee who noted that a small fund has been put together to help bring social impact documentaries to fruition. “We’re supporting some filmmakers. Though nothing has been announced yet, we are working on a number of projects.”

Park Pictures Features is also similarly active on the narrative film front. In development are two films dealing with issues such as race relations and immigration. Prior to The Sentence, Park Pictures Features’ track record was in narrative fare, with multiple features over the years making the cut for the Sundance Film Festival, including Hearts Beat Loud, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Robot & Frank, Infinitely Polar Bear, God’s Pocket, Cop Car and The Hero. (The Sentence also debuted at Sundance last year, winning the U.S. Documentary Audience Award.)

Family ties
Kelman Bisbee couldn’t attend the Creative Arts Emmys. Instead she was in Paris with her sister, Wendy Neu, who was undergoing brain surgery, and is now in recovery. Neu served as an EP on The Sentence and her involvement marks a steadfast family commitment to social causes. Neu, for example, started her professional career as a social worker for Trenton State Prison and the Yardville Correctional Facility, where she developed and implemented inmate work programs.

Hence The Sentence tackles subject matter that is near and dear to the hearts of Neu and her sister. “It all stems from the family I was raised in, the things we were taught,” said Kelman Bisbee, who recalled being a youngster at the family dinner table with discussion delving into social justice for the disadvantaged and voiceless. It left her with a dedication, which she’s embraced professionally, to help tell people’s stories. Her family has a history of connecting with social justice grassroots organizations.

Neu also has a long track record as an environmental activist, involved in all aspects of Hugo Neu, a metal recycling company. She saw that the business met and exceeded state and federal regulatory standards and served as an advocate for raising those standards. She is credited with creating an economically sustainable curbside recycling program for NYC, and has been a leader in electronic recycling.

Kelman Bisbee quipped that her husband found himself married into a family deeply connected to social issues and activism--and it’s naturally become part of the Park Pictures DNA. 

That in turn helps Park’s feature and ad endeavors ring true when social causes of choice are involved. It’s akin to brands needing to have roots in a cause to be genuine and effectively connect with the public. Consumers can sniff out those companies or products that are doing little more than dabbling or trying to piggyback on something topical to score points.

While gratified over The Sentence and its role in helping to advance The First Step Act, Kelman Bisbee noted that a second step and beyond still need to come to pass. Getting someone like Shank her freedom is just the beginning, Kelman Bisbee observed, affirming that next is striving to attain opportunities for her and others, giving them a second chance in the job market, helping them to overcome stigmas and to pursue education that can better the lives of them and their families.  Perhaps there’s a film-related passion project towards that end in the offing.

She’s hopeful that Park’s success on the festival circuit and most recently at the Emmy Awards will help bring more production companies into the social cause movement. It’s also a dynamic that has become valuable in career development, she observed, citing Valdez who is now separately working on a narrative feature. Kelman Bisbee also believes that the Emmy can only help Valdez as he delves more deeply into the commercialmaking/branded content space via Park Pictures.

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