WE’RE all used to a bit of product placement in today’s movie industry.
The latest mobile phone is pinned to the ear of an international spy. A popular brand of beer is gulped by an anti-hero. The latest sports car roars through a street chase.
This embedded marketing is as much a part of a trip to the cinema these days as overpriced sugary drinks and stale popcorn (also overpriced).
But a new feel-good movie from Australia, set in a small mining outpost, has eyebrows raised due to its substantial in-kind and financial support from the same said mining industry.
Red Dog, starring American Josh Lucas, is set in the 1970s in tiny Dampier in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region. The film is based on real life exploits of a stray dog which roamed the area, hitch-hiking between settlements and bringing people together as it traveled.
The characters, who work for Hamersley Iron (an actual company and wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto), are roguish and likeable. The cinematography sweeping across the red Pilbara landscape is momentous. Already the largest grossing Aussie-made film for 2011, Red Dog managed to take more than Hollywood blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens (Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig) in its opening weeks. Now a UK and US release are in the offing.
The film itself is well and truly focused on the exploits of the dog and is based on Louis de Bernières's depiction of the legend in his short novel Red Dog.
So who gave what to the film?
The movie’s budget has been widely reported as standing at about $8 million – small fry in the world of big screen cinema.
About $3m came from the Australian Government-funded film development organisation Screen Australia, according to its annual report [pdf].
International mining giant Rio Tinto gave the filmmakers free accommodation, food and access to mining sites and the use of a freight train. The company even got to see the script, although there’s no suggestion they changed it.
Director Kriv Stenders told industry magazine Encore about the importance of the support.
Major gas company Woodside, currently awaiting Australian Government approval for a $30 billion gas hub in Western Australia, also provided “funding, logistical support and a handful of acting extras”, according to the company's Trunkline newsletter.
Mining equipment company Westrac, which sells the world-famous yellow and black CAT earth movers, was also a supporter. Somewhere along the line, one of the companies even loaned out the use of their helicopter for aerial shots. The film’s producer, Nelson Woss, told The Australian
An online Q&A by the Australian Film Institute asked Stenders to respond to claims the film was “a massive public relations exercise” for mining in Australia.
But there is plenty of product placement in the film. The name “Hamersley Iron” is on the front of the seemingly endless iron ore train and on the side of the staff bus. The Hamersley logos are on the hard-hats of the workers who hang around sheds, drink in the bar and stand next to the CAT-branded heavy earth movers. Hamersley developed the mining outpost of Dampier where the story is set, but you don't see the workers doing any actual mining.
There’s also the sporadic appearance of a tussle-haired lady in a Woodside company uniform. She drives a Woodside company vehicle.
During the closing scenes, there’s a large billboard with the Woodside and Rio Tinto logos in clear view.
There’s been no deliberate attempt to hide the fact that mining companies were behind the film, although casual movie-goers would be unaware.
The company logos do appear in the small print of the movie poster and if you hang around long enough (as I did), the film acknowledges their support at the end of the closing credits. Some company executives even get a mention.
The film wasn’t instigated by the mining industry but from early on, there's evidence the industry knew it was getting behind something which would show it in a positive light.
When the industry backing was made public early last year, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh said it was “an exciting opportunity to showcase our industry”.