Emmy Rossum’s hair is up in a bun. She turns from furiously typing on her laptop to desperately eyeing the darkened door to her right. And ... cut!
At this downtown Los Angeles studio, it seems like business as usual. A young Hollywood actress (Rossum is one of the leads of Showtime’s Shameless and starred in The Day After Tomorrow) is being directed by D.J. Caruso (best known for Disturbia and the recent sci-fi thriller I Am Number Four), whose cinematographer, Mauro Fiore, is among the best in the world (he shot Avatar for James Cameron). But instead of the usual clutch of studio executives huddled around a bank of monitors, whispering about the latest take, the group of suits on this set is slightly different: They’re ad agency reps with their clients. No doubt, the folks from Toshiba, Intel, and their agency, Pereira & O’Dell, were wringing their hands, as they're the co-architects of this interactive film experiment.
"You have Intel and Toshiba, or you have Toshiba and Intel, depending on who you talk to," says Caruso jokingly. But the director, who was hired for the gig through his commercial agents, who usually set him up with the standard 30- to 60-second spot, says he was granted admirable freedom on the set of Inside, which is being called a "social film." "I didn’t have anybody coming to the monitor and saying on the product shot, 'Do you think there’s too much backlight?' They hired a filmmaker because they wanted a film."
Inside launches today with the release of a trailer and an online-only casting call for a supporting role (actors aspiring to work on the very small screen can submit video auditions via YouTube). The film portion will debut at the end of July, with one four-to-five-minute episode released on various social media platforms every few days, linked in between by tweets, Facebook posts, and videologs, all to help viewers get in on figuring out the "film’s" big mystery: Why and where is Christina (Rossum) trapped in a room with a Toshiba laptop (with Intel inside!) and an untraceable Internet connection. Her only hope: Connecting to "friends" on Facebook and Twitter who will aid her quest to free herself. The scenario—not terribly unlike last year’s little-seen feature film Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds played a man trapped in a coffin underground with only a cellphone’s spotty service to determine his captors and whereabouts—culminates in an early August episode that wraps up the mystery, which can be solved along the way by devoted watchers.
The co-branding effort is aimed squarely at the young adult audience that does not reflexively go for PCs. In fact, the director admits that Toshiba products were not necessarily the tools of choice in the production offices of Inside, manned as they were by Hollywood creative types who tend to be loyal to a certain Cupertino, California-produced rival. "For the product itself, they’re trying to get younger and hipper and compete with another system that I won’t mention, that’s sort of the artistic way we all make movies," says Caruso. "Their wish is the young hip aspect of this campaign will reach a new market."
As the project’s players like to say, the Toshiba laptop becomes a character in the film, aiding Christina’s search for a way out. Or perhaps a way in. "Ultimately, the brilliance of Intel, the design of their chip, which makes the computer work super fast and super cool, is a lot harder for a filmmaker to feature," Caruso says with no trace of irony. "I thought it was brave to use this film to advertise."
"You’ll see our brand at times," says Baker, "hopefully done very appropriately, in the film." Intel intends to connect to young people while driving home a deeper message that’s hinted at by its well-known slogan, "Intel Inside" and echoed by the name of the social media film, "Inside." Ryan Baker, OEM Partner Marketing Director of Intel, explains that through this hardship, Christina does some serious soul searching, eventually finding an inner strength. "And that is on brand strategy as well," he says. "It’s what’s inside your computer that counts, but as human beings it’s what’s inside us that counts. She’s a smart young woman who uses this time in captivity to find herself, to learn who her true friends are and ultimately to outfox her captor."
Though the film has the style of a Hollywood thriller, there is no chance of any Saw-like violence, or even a tragic end. "It’s not as extreme as will Christina live or die," says Caruso. "We agreed on a PG-13 approach," says Baker of working with Caruso. "Fingers crossed there haven’t been too many surprises." Fingers will remain crossed until the whole thing airs, since it won’t really be complete until it interacts with an audience that can watch Christina’s videologs in between episodes and, to a limited degree, determine the direction of the story. "We shot a lot of blank computer screens for compositing," reports Caruso, who hopes that a regular follower will figure out Christina’s whereabouts through various clues in the film and through her social media posts. "If it’s one of our regular followers, we can composite their post onto Christina’s computer screen [in the film before it streams]."
It hasn’t been determined yet whether Intel’s well-known bong will be featured in the campaign in some way. The company has been so successful at branding itself that last year neuromarketing expert Martin Lindstrom determined Intel’s signature chime to be "the second most addictive sound in the world," after a giggling baby. "In a way we have become almost so omnipresent that it’s hard to continue being relevant," says Baker. "So we’ve been on a brand-building strategy to try to emotionalize performance, give the brand a higher purpose. We think this project in particular brings something fresh and surprising to the young adult audience."
After its initial airing, the whole thing will be available as a stand-alone movie online, not unlike the BMW Films of years ago that inspired Caruso. "They promoted BMW, but they were great filmmaking," says the director, who had a hand in bringing it to the next level. "You have to get all these ancillary everyday social media kings to cooperate, too," he explains. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube came on as hard-won partners. "If Christina was on Facepage, everyone would call 'bullshit' right away." All of the players know they’re going after a smaller audience than they would be with a 60-second TV commercial, but this project was created as much to generate press (witness: this story) as to sell product. But most important is hooking even a relatively small audience of social media die-hards.
Although the subtext of "Inside" is that the computer is the most essential tool in our lives, the burning question is: How effectively will Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley work together? Just as Toshiba and Intel have a greater mission combined than apart, the movie, tech, and ad worlds know they have to band together to determine their future relevance. By blurring the lines among gaming, social media, and Hollywood-style filmmaking, all these realms are as desperate as Christina to figure out what’s holding them back, who their true friends are, and whether they will be released from the bounds of their respective media and be able to play in a new world of untethered social movie gaming. Says Baker optimistically: "It’s a big space. There’s a lot of room to play."