by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & uke Barats is complaining about car insurance. Having graduated from Gonzaga in May, now the filmmaker is lacking both good student discounts and the protective umbrella of parental oversight. Plus he's dealing, perhaps for the first time, with the downside of being a dude. "Because of all these things that I can't do anything about," he says, "I'm paying $303 a month."
"It's the penis tax," chimes his partner, Gonzaga alumnus Joe Bereta. "It's the story you never hear."
The duo, best known in Spokane as members of the team that won North by Northwest's 48-Hour Film Festival, is working on making insurance rates the subject of their next short film. That's for playtime, though. In their jobs at Spokane's Cornerbooth Productions, they have a different topic on their minds: selling out.
The two have taken their relative success as digital film hobbyists and turned it into a real job making movies. Both say they'd planned to pursue a career in filmmaking, they just didn't expect to do it like this. For about a month now, Barats and Bereta have found themselves being pursued by advertising companies and marketing firms that want the underground filmmakers to help them sell products to a vital youth demographic. "They want us to make their boring product funny to 18-to-26-year-olds," says Bereta.
The interest comes as companies are increasing their reliance on viral marketing to move product. Loosely defined, viral marketing is the attempt by advertisers to communicate with consumers through their social circles rather than through traditional media sources. They want you to get interested in their product and tell your friends about it, and they want to do it without buying tons of TV ads. It's kinda like good old-fashioned word of mouth, but slicker and more subliminal. Anytime you've e-mailed an article from The New York Times, you've engaged in viral marketing, promoting the site by telling your friends to go there. Absolutely anything that gets passed from friend to friend -- e-mails, Web sites, blogs and even gossip -- is a potential carrier of viral marketing. Streaming video, which has seen logistical impediments give way to widespread use among young people, is the newest viral frontier.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s you might expect, then, winning the 48-Hour Film Festival isn't the reason people are suddenly interested in Barats and Bereta's potential marketing virulence. Their fame is the result of a short they made entitled "Mother's Day." In most ways, it's like their other films: right around two minutes, with quick, jerky cuts and a mix of scripted dialogue and improv. There's a single, stationary shot, meant to be a digital camera's-eye view of two brothers, Tucker and Brad, attempting to take a nice photo for their mom -- an attempt that inevitably devolves into pushing and cursing. Like many of their films, it's really funny and stands up to repeated viewings.
When it was finished, Barats and Bereta put it on their Web site (www.baratsandbereta.com) and posted it to YouTube.com, a Web site that has, in around six months, become the Web's most trafficked streaming-video site, attracting between 50 million and 70 million video views a day. What makes "Mother's Day" different is that YouTube made it a featured video, putting it on the site's home page. That magical placement gave way to a deluge of hits that still haven't let up.
The film is especially popular with people who have annoying siblings, and most of the 1,200 comments the film has received express that kind of solidarity. (A feeling of solidarity is important to all marketing, but especially so in viral campaigns.) One user said she's taken the line, "F, Tucker" and begun using it on her family members. Another, named BluEyedDaizy, said, "if you guys were on Saturday Nite [sic] Live, that show would have a good shot at actally [sic] being funny again." People from as far away as Germany, Poland and the Netherlands found it funny enough to blog about, generating 17,000 hits in Central Europe alone. That's not bad for a region that doesn't really speak English. Close to a million people have viewed the film, propelled by the feature placement on YouTube but fueled by word of mouth, word of Web and compulsive e-mailing. (The film has landed in my inbox three times.) "Mother's Day" is, in short, a viral marketer's wet dream.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & & amp;B are being courted, then, to make another "Mother's Day," but one with a heavily branded message. If they were to make a video for Charmin that people liked enough to pass on to their million closest friends, that would be a marketing windfall, sinking a product into the minds of young people while spending only a fraction of the cost of writing, producing, directing and then paying for a national TV ad.
The filmmakers, who've recently signed on as a "creative team" at Spokane's Cornerbooth Productions, say they aren't allowed to say exactly for whom they're working. "I'm pretty sure we signed an agreement, I think," says Barats, noting details with precision. They add, however, that their potential clients are looking for unconventional humor to sell the most mundane things -- which is good, because the mundane is exactly what Barats and Bereta base their comedy on.
"We draw from our white suburban middle-class lives," says Barats, who grew up in Eagle, Idaho. (Bereta is from Columbia Falls, Mont.)
There's friction, though, in being asked to sell things you've mocked to a demographic of which you're only reluctantly a part of. Can you successfully market a product by making fun of it? Maybe, but not in as direct a way as Barats and Bereta usually do.
The duo prefers short punchy films, Barats says. "Two, two-and-a-half minutes is the right length. It's all the stuff that music videos have taught us -- or trained us. You also need something edgy. You have to hit someone or curse."
It's worrisome for the filmmakers, then, that working for corporate interests is already forcing them to change the way they make films. Advertisers don't have a problem with length, say the duo, but they definitely have an aversion to edginess. "Advertising dilutes everything, it takes the edge off," says Barats. It's a common tension, taking a subversive idea and trying to make it appeal broadly. "In the past," Barats says, "we could make the video we want. Now we have a client nudging us in certain directions and, more often than not, wrecking what we feel is a good thing."
For now, they're committed to the high wire they're walking. "Someday we hope to find a cause worth selling out for," Barats muses. Less than a month into their fledgling careers as viral marketers, though, the same niggling artistic integrity that won them so many e-fans has already left them cynical about business. They're wondering about things they'd never thought of before, like their place as intellectual property holders.
"The question that we want to figure out is if we get to keep any rights," says Bereta.
But then, if the advertisers they're courting force them to water-down their vision too much, they might not even want rights. Having "baratsandbereta.com" tacked to the end of some puerile, violence-free, corporate-looking video with G-rated jokes and a prominently placed bottle of Mr. Clean would be a cred killer.