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Behind Virgin’s Mile-High Brand Entertainment Experiment

The team behind Virgin’s “Departure Date” explains how–and why — they shot the soon-to-debut 30-minute film on sold-out flights at 30,000 feet.

“Once you fly Virgin, you see why it’s so great,” says Mike McKay, chief creative officer of San Francisco-based ad agency Eleven, of his client. The tricky part of McKay’s job is getting potential customers to experience Virgin America’s unique style before flying. So he and his team had an idea: Shoot a movie aboard an actual flight.

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It turns out there’s a reason movies set on airplanes are shot on soundstages: Shooting in the air is an expensive hassle. Undaunted, they decided it would be worth the press and social media attention it would attract. “Wouldn’t you be more likely to share a link of the first film made at 30,000 feet [than one shot on the ground]?” asks McKay.

Departure Date, which will debut June 11 as a precursor to the Los Angeles Film Festival, honors the film industry at the heart of L.A., the hub that Virgin is working to promote for all three of its airlines, Virgin America, V Australia, and Virgin Atlantic (the airlines have newly integrated its frequent flyer programs and share the new site flyvirgin.com).

Here, McKay and his team take Co.Create through the process of going up in the air for brand entertainment.

Get Passengers’ Buy-In

Departure Date was shot on three flights across three continents–regular flights filled with paying customers. “People were given notice when booking,” explains McKay. “And then they were offered a no-fee change if they didn’t want to be on it.” But he says everyone seemed amused by it and many were tickled by the opportunity to rub elbows–sometimes literally–with actors Ben Feldman (Mad Men), Janeane Garofalo (24) and Philip Baker Hall (Modern Family).

On each flight the pilot would go out in the aisle and make an announcement that Virgin is a special brand and everyone present is going to be part of something unique that day. “He really engaged everybody,” says Anastacia Maggioncalda, Eleven’s head of integrated production. It’s an engagement that went beyond mere sentiment. “On the Dallas flight we did a scene with Luis Guzman further back [on the plane] and we were worried that people wouldn’t want to be seen, but people were raising their hands and begging to be extras. We even got several tweets about it while we were in flight. The actors were posing for photographs with the customers and everybody seemed happy.”

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No Dead Bodies, Please

Virgin Produced, the company’s in-house film production arm, which had a hand in the Bradley Cooper thriller Limitless, took pitches for Departure Datefrom writers and directors, narrowing it to four treatments presented to the client.

“It was actually a pretty easy decision,” reports McKay. “One of those was an obvious no because of some death and other things that happened in their treatment on the plane. Thrilling as it may be, we can’t find dead bodies in the bathroom.”

While it would have been dicey to present something terrible happening in-flight, McKay says the agency worked hard to avoid making Departure Date into a commercial. “It was an ad agency that came up with the idea, but really we pushed the clients to let this thing be a film, to not force it to subscribe to the convention of a commercial, to not force the amenities story.” So there’s no brand content in the dialogue. “It’s a film that happens to take place on an airplane and it happens to be about travel.”

For Virgin’s first real foray into branded content, “We wanted to make this a real film, not some video that you throw up on YouTube and make into a promotion,” says Dimitrios Papadogonas, director of marketing for Virgin America.

Don’t Take No for an Answer

They went with a script, written and directed by Kat Coiro, about a young man (Feldman) who meets the woman of his dreams on a flight.

“The Virgin brands are about exploring and pushing boundaries,” says Ted Bluey, associate creative director at Eleven. “[Richard] Branson himself is all about that, and so the story is really about taking control of your destiny and not accepting no for an answer; or, in this case, ‘already engaged with someone else’ as an answer. It’s sort of a love chase, if you will, around the globe.”

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Make it a Round Trip

For now Departure Date is a social marketing tool. The company is holding contests for the next six weeks in which customers can win trips into and out of Los Angeles as promotion for the film festival and the movie. Naturally, the contests capture people’s information and, they hope, build a new clientele.

After the festival, the film will be shown in-flight and possibly on TV. “We’re talking to IFC about possibly running it on one of their shorts programs,” says Maggioncalda.

“Long-term, it sets us up for even more interesting involvement in the entertainment industry,” says McKay. “I heard from the British client, Virgin Atlantic, that he was already teasing the idea of a sequel.”

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About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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