By LORNE MANLY
Published: February 4, 2007
For the past 26 years, Jim Schumacker has toiled for the marketing machine that is the Anheuser-Busch Companies, doing his part to stoke Americans’ cravings for a cool Bud, or a Michelob, or a Bud Light. Eight of those years were spent overseeing the beer maker’s creation of 30-second commercials, those gently mocking vignettes whose characters and catch-phrases often burrowed their ways into the nation’s consciousness.
But lately, the man everyone calls Schu has been working on a different sort of content, programming for a new online entertainment network called Bud.TV. The network, which will make its debut on Monday at http://www.bud.tv, is the most ambitious and costly effort to date of a marketer creating Web content tailored to its own specifications. And Schumacker, a 54-year-old avuncular sort partial to earth-tone suede sandals and with a soul patch that sets off his thatch of wavy salt-and-pepper hair, is the project’s creative shepherd.
One of the first shows that will appear on Bud.TV is called “Finish Our Film,” a mash-up of reality show and making-of-a-film documentary that will be produced by LivePlanet, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s production company, best known for “Project Greenlight.” LivePlanet will shoot the first and last minutes of a short film and ask hopeful auteurs to plot out the middle. The person with the best treatment will be invited to Los Angeles, and every last moment of the moviemaking process (or ordeal) will be captured on digital tape.
The concept as concocted by the writers, who have done their time at the likes of “The Howard Stern Show,” “The Man Show” and “Da Ali G Show,” would at first glance be perfectly suited for a beer commercial. The film opens in a strip club during a raucous bachelor party, where a groom-to-be named Steve suffers through a lap dance. But the party-hearty tone swiftly changes when the flirtatious dancer turns deadly serious, urgently warning her abashed customer that if he desires to live past the night, he’d better grab the note nestled in her cleavage. Steve does as he’s told, and when the film resumes, he is seen beaten, blindfolded and bound to a chair, a firing squad taking aim.
Strippers notwithstanding, much of the pitch for “Finish Our Film” subverts the expectations of a beer company — it’s closer to the mind games of the David Fincher movie “The Game” than the bacchanal of “Bachelor Party.” And Schumacker, whose official title is vice president of digital marketing and branded entertainment, and other executives at Anheuser-Busch want the rest of Bud.TV to do the same. Yes, the site will carry the high-concept comedy of “Replaced by a Chimp,” in which a great ape tries to do the job of its evolutionary betters, including dentist, car mechanic and ad executive. But Bud.TV is striving to be more than a repository for Budweiser ads and lighthearted, slightly mocking beer-commercial humor; Schumacker and his team are aiming to redefine what an online entertainment network and marketer-created content can mean in a short-attention-span world.
Performers and writers from “Saturday Night Live” have signed on to create and star in recurring series. Kevin Spacey’s production company, Trigger Street Films, has agreed to supply short movies. Satirical shows about celebrity entitlement and the news are on the schedule. The sports announcer Joe Buck may do a talk show from the back of a New York cab. And Schumacker has acquired a slickly produced science-fiction series, made in conjunction with the leading video-game maker Electronic Arts. Most of the shows will run from one to eight minutes, but some will be as long as a half-hour.
Bud.TV may be a marketing venture at heart, but it is marketing sotto voce. The shows’ plots won’t revolve around the quest for the perfect beer and a beautiful woman to share it with. Characters won’t declaim the virtues of Budweiser’s freshness at every opportunity. The site won’t be cluttered with banner ads. Anheuser-Busch executives are banking on a more subtle connection. Attach a brand name to something cool, something entertaining, and that elusive young man (and to a lesser extent, young woman) may check out Bud.TV’s offerings again and again, send them along to friends, even take a stab at creating his own minifilm for the site. Cultivate that warm, fuzzy feeling about Budweiser, and the company may cement the loyalty of the existing customer, or better, woo the uncommitted or hard-to-reach drinker to a Bud Light or a Michelob or a Peels malt-liquor beverage.
Bud.TV represents Anheuser-Busch’s search for a toehold in a world where the traditional advertising model revolving around 30-second ads has been sideswiped by technological change and the proliferation of entertainment choices. The company, like almost every big marketer, is also trying to seize on the video-sharing democratization of YouTube, albeit on its own controlling terms.
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