How To Not 'Sell Out' When Working With Big Brands

This is a weekly column behind the scenes of Alex LeMay’s latest project, DARK JOEY. DARK JOEY is a collaboration between LeMay and writer Jim Uhls, who wrote the major motion picture, FIGHT CLUB, as well as his writing partner Ric Krause. Follow along here: #Film-School:lemay-makes-a-series

In selling my own content like the Jim Uhls project and in my work helping filmmakers build legit web series businesses, I hear a lot of people say, “I don’t want to take brand money because then I’ll be selling out.” Now sometimes this is true, but in my experience of making original content, often with brand money, there are a few key tricks to make sure that doesn’t happen. I completely understand where that fear comes from; there are a number of real horror stories of brands not understanding the creative world. I once had a major book publisher ask me to have almost every single character in a web series we created for them carrying their slate of books they were trying to peddle at that time. It came complete with the suggestion of including long, lingering close-ups of their merch. Granted, this was 2005 and no one knew what a web series was back then so they looked at it as a giant commercial; brands are much savvier now and typically don’t ask for such ham-fisted approaches. But I digress. Back to those lessons.


  1. No one at the brand is a filmmaker: At some point, someone in the brand marketing department saw your work and liked it. You’re in their office because of your work and your point of view. For that reason, there is little benefit for them to try to change what you do.

  2. You have more say in the way the project is produced than you think: Before you ever enter the room, the brand would have sent you a creative brief. These documents are typically and intentionally very high level. This is so that the person who ends up directing and/or showrunning the project can infuse their pitch with their own style and approach (a showrunner on a web series tends to be a combo between director and producer). They actually want you to bring in ideas.

  3. What to say if they do ask you to put their product in every single shot: VERY rarely someone in the office will think they’re Martin Scorsese and start telling you how to shoot things. When this happens, and again, it rarely does, simply say, “That’s a great idea, [insert name here], but what if we incorporate your product organically into the scene and have the characters use it in the way the average person would use it in their own home.” It’s a nice way of saying, “I’m the director here.”

  4. Most brand marketers are terrified of losing their job: Therefore, they are more than happy to let you take the fall for an idea gone wrong and since you’re super confident in your work and know that it was your work that made them hire you, you’re happy to make those decisions. Now who’s in control? They literally just handed the keys of the project to you.

  5. Just because you got your project money from a studio doesn’t mean you’re not working for a brand. Studios have the same agenda as companies like Target or Kellogg’s.

In the end, I rarely get told how to direct or shoot brand projects because everything is and should be agreed upon before you ever start shooting. So if they start excessively chiming in, you have an agreement to point to that quickly ends that conversation. Also, someone with deep pockets has to pay for our work, otherwise we’re just hobbyists.


I’ve always wondered about this kind of stuff- now I know! I feel [marginally] less anxiety about the whole thing! As always, thanks Alex :slight_smile:

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Fantastic advice! ALWAYS get agreements in writing! Another great article Alex!


Thanks so much, Justin. Glad you dig it!

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