Wal-Mart's short-film ad campaign at Oscars using female directors

Posted: January 28, 2018 at 1:48 a.m.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will be back in the spotlight during the Academy Awards on March 4, and this time the company has asked three female directors to lead its advertising campaign.

The Bentonville retailer said Dee Rees, Melissa McCarthy and Nancy Meyers will create 60-second films to air during the Oscars broadcast. Each short film will be centered on one of Wal-Mart's blue shipping boxes with the directors given freedom to create a story around where the package is heading, how it arrives and what is inside.

The plan builds on last year's advertising campaign, when directors Antoine Fuqua, Marc Forster and the team of Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg made 60-second films centered on six items found on a sales receipt. The retailer was the exclusive retail sponsor of the Oscars for the first time in 2017 and is in the second year of a three-year commitment.

Kirsten Evans, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of marketing, believes last year's campaign proved to be a "big brand moment" and the retailer is eager to be part of the night once again.

"The Academy Awards is a highly watched event that celebrates storytelling," Evans said. "It provides an opportunity to engage our customers in a meaningful way and be present during a cultural moment they care about. So with these short films, we hope to continue to surprise and delight viewers with our brand."

Last year's 60-second films did draw attention to Wal-Mart, which is trying to enhance its reputation as it competes with other retailers such as Amazon.com. Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film, believes the short films were "inspired and creative and the perfect fit for the Oscars."

But Wal-Mart also received some criticism for not turning to any female directors because of the industry's inequality between men and women in behind-the-scenes television and film roles.

Evans said when Wal-Mart came up with the short film concept ahead of the Oscars the top priority was to collaborate with filmmakers with a distinct point of view, adding the retailer did speak with "both men and women."

The company again sought three directors who had a unique perspective on Wal-Mart's blue shipping box and could tell a compelling story around it.

"This year, three amazing directors rose to the top," Evans said.

Rees wrote and directed Mudbound, which received multiple Oscar nominations last week. She become the first black woman to be nominated for adapted screenplay.

Meyers was nominated for the Academy Award for best original screenplay for the 1980 movie Private Benjamin. She also has directed movies like What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give.

McCarthy is best known as an actress and comedian who has starred in movies including Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters, along with the television show Mike and Molly. She recently won an Emmy for her portrayal of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.

Martha Lauzen, head of San Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, has studied gender inequality for 20 years and believes Wal-Mart's efforts are important. She said a director's profile is elevated when organizations highlight their work and the visibility can lead to more opportunities.

In Lauzen's recent report, The Celluloid Ceiling, research showed women accounted for 11 percent of directors, 11 percent of writers and 4 percent of cinematographers on the top-grossing films of 2017.

"Because our cultural stereotypes conceive of the job of directing as male, typically the chance to participate in this type of program has gone to men," Lauzen said. "So it's great when a large company with plenty of resources like Wal-Mart offers this type of opportunity to women. It helps to highlight not only the work of the specific director, but to change our ideas of what a film director looks like."

Wal-Mart also said it is teaming with Women in Film, a gender advocacy organization, for this year's work.

As part of the partnership, three up-and-coming female directors will shadow the directors as they create their Wal-Mart films. Wal-Mart also is providing financial support for the group's emerging filmmaker program.

"The more that we do as the entertainment community to put forth female directors in high profile positions like this, the more it does for the cause," Schaffer said.

Wal-Mart's role on Oscars night does come at a cost. According to Variety, ABC has been seeking anywhere from $2 million to $2.6 million for a 30-second ad during the Oscars broadcast. But Martin Thoma, a principal at Little Rock based-brand leadership firm Thoma Thoma, said the retailer's multimillion investment should prove beneficial because of the opportunity to present the company in a different light.

He believes Wal-Mart's campaign for the Academy Awards has been "smart," not only because of the creativity and involvement of Hollywood directors, but for social aspects as well.

Last year, Wal-Mart donated $250,000 to The Academy Grants Program for FilmCraft in the name of the participating directors as a demonstration of the company's commitment to diversity in filmmaking.

"They're getting exposures for their brand and their message, a very unique message in this environment, in front of tens of millions of viewers and really injecting their brand and their story into what's become a very important social conversation," Thoma said. "What's bigger than Oscar night -- at least in Hollywood and the movie business?"

Hiring three female directors also comes at a time when the #MeToo movement has taken center stage in Hollywood as women speak out about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment.

Wal-Mart said selecting three women to direct short films for the Oscars is not an attempt to capitalize on the movement. But Evans said the company does recognize the timing.

"We are aware of the conversation going on, but with our campaign, we are looking to integrate authentically into the Oscars show," Evans said. "We want to be relevant and entertaining on a really big night."

SundayMonday Business on 01/28/2018