UM Studios' Global Head Of Production Reflects On "5B," What’s Next In Breakthrough Content
Brett Henenberg
Brett Henenberg hopes to build on the momentum created by the Johnson & Johnson-backed documentary that made a double-pronged Cannes impact in 2019
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While the coronavirus pandemic caused the recent postponement of the Cannes Film Festival and the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, another healthcare crisis story--in the form of a branded content documentary--made its mark at both those Cannes events nearly a year ago. The breakthrough film was 5B which debuted at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival as part of its Special Screenings lineup in May only a month later to win the Entertainment Lions Grand Prix, among other honors, at the Festival of Creativity.

Brett Henenberg, SVP, global head of production at UM Studios (the content creation arm of marketing and media agency UM Worldwide), served as a producer on 5B, named after the San Francisco General ward which opened in 1983 as the first full-fledged hospital unit dedicated to treating people with AIDS. Produced for UM Worldwide’s client Johnson & Johnson, the documentary showed the positive power of nursing, continuing a theme which the brand has championed over the years.

SHOOT caught up with Henenberg who reflected on the success of 5B and efforts by UM Studios to continue to build momentum with branded content that resonates across the marketing and entertainment sectors, finding a place in popular culture.

Directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss via Saville Productions, 5B told the stories of caretakers, patients and others impacted by the pioneering hospital ward, introducing us to the likes of Mary Magee, a nurse who came out from New York with the hope of landing a job at 5B so that she could care for, comfort and protect AIDS patients who at that time were given a death sentence. Then there was Dr. Paul Volberding, an oncologist who committed to patient care at 5B even though he acknowledged fear for his health and that of his family since the extent of AIDS’ contagious nature wasn’t known at the time. He related that he and his wife had a hard time talking about the potential perils.

5B went on to gain prominent exposure beyond the Cannes fests as it was acquired by Verizon Media for distribution, including a theatrical run.

Henenberg said that coming off of 5B’s success, “so many UM clients have raised their hands,” wanting to get involved in that kind of groundbreaking content. “We are building a team internally to help those brands as well as Johnson & Johnson who wants to do more.”

Lessons learned from 5B, said Henenberg, include the importance of trust among collaborators--not only in Johnson & Johnson teaming with UM to build an entertainment strategy but also believing in a filmmaker enough to give him or her the final cut on a piece of content. “You need to stay hands-off enough to let filmmakers tell the story,” affirmed Henenberg, citing in the case of 5B the acumen of Haggis, a two-time Oscar winner (Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for Crash), and Krauss, a two-time Best Short Subject Documentary Oscar nominee (for The Death of Kevin Carter, and Extremis). 

The focus was on the story, making 5B deserving of a wider audience. The documentary was also done sans any heavy-handed brand mention. In an earlier SHOOT interview, Bay Area-based documentarian and journalist Krauss noted that the approach to 5B was key to its success. “I don’t think of the film as branded content,” he said. “We were allowed to make the film we wanted to make. We had the final cut. When it came to making this film, we used the same process I would with any other independent film. I was proud to have Johnson & Johnson as a supporter. To have a giant corporation willing to put real muscle behind storytelling is something I had never experienced before. To see this film gain a legitimate theatrical release in over 100 markets and now live on streaming platforms has been gratifying.”

5B was picked by SHOOT as the Best Work of 2019 in its rundown of the year’s weekly Top Spots and other marquee projects.

What’s next?
In light of much production being canceled or put in a holding pattern due to the coronavirus outbreak, Henenberg feels fortunate that UM managed to wrap prior to the health crisis the shooting of another piece of ambitious branded content--this time for a client that he wasn’t at liberty to disclose publicly at press time. Editing is well underway and Henenberg hopes that the project will debut in November provided that the pandemic is safely behind us at that point.

The film is based on a “Dear Santa” concept focusing on children who write letters to Santa Claus and the people who adopt their wishes and make them come true. The letters are traced back to their origin as audiences get to know the family stories and the motivation behind children’s wishes, making for what Henenberg believes will be “heartfelt viewing.” 

Henenberg said that essential to the project, as it was to the success of 5B, is the selection of the filmmaker. UM Studios gravitated to Dana Nachman whose 2018 feature documentary Pick of the Litter (which she and Don Hardy directed) was sold within 48 hours of its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival and soon after was released theatrically by IFC Films. Now streaming on Hulu, the film follows a litter of puppies from the moment they’re born, taking us on their journey to becoming guide dogs for the blind. The Walt Disney Company later sought out Nachman to remake Pick of the Litter as a limited original series for Disney+ which debuted earlier this year. She served as a showrunner on the series and directed three of its episodes.

Nachman’s filmography also includes the 2015 release Batkid Begins (Warner Bros./New Line Cinema) which centers on 5-year-old Miles Scott who’s recovering from leukemia. Scott’s dream is to become Batkid and save Gotham City. His wish comes true as 25,000 people in San Francisco share the experience in a rarely seen display of public emotion. Another 2 million join online. Nachman delves into how Batkid became an international phenomenon.

Connecting with Nachman is in line, said Henenberg, with the UM Studios’ model which is centered on “finding the right storyteller, an authentic voice. We are not the media agency that knows how to make movies. We are not the filmmaking experts. It’s important for us to partner with the right filmmaker.”

Content pedigree
Henenberg has been with UM (which is part of the IPG Mediabrands family of shops) for the past 10 years, coming up the ranks, starting as its very first producer and taking on such capacities as EP and head of production in North America before settling into his current global head of production role in 2018. 

He earlier served as a producer and EP at the former Public Interest Productions, the pro bono unit of RadicalMedia, where he had a track record of having a hand in social consciousness-raising projects, primarily character-driven, longer form storytelling for the likes of Think.MTV, the Mac AIDS Fund, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

Now Henenberg feels UM is well positioned, as evidenced by 5B, to partner with clients, creatives and filmmakers to make sure “the brand message is amplified through the proper content,” striking the right emotional chord with an audience through storytelling.

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