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Films — with local energy — for Madison millennials

August 4, 2018

When Madison Gas and Electric wanted to connect with millennials, MGE residential services manager Charles Warner had an unusual marketing idea: Film.

Warner enlisted the help of Madison creative agency Backflip to come up with a series of short movies aimed at the local 20- and 30-something generation — to get them thinking about the role of energy in their lives in a subtle, and very local way.

How the movies were made (plot, style, storytelling) was pretty much left up to Backflip.

It was like having “a dream client,” said Backflip co-owner and creative director Ryan Freng.

Backflip produced the approximately six- and seven-minute films in the series, now posted online at www.genre2030.com. Each is an ode to energy, sometimes crafted to allude to a classic film genre. (Two in the series are “micro-documentaries” directed by Carrie Highman of Dream Lens Media; three others were directed by Freng and fellow Backflip owner John Shoemaker.)

The casts feature actual Madison millennials – locals plucked from the street or Madison entertainment scene — who each have a unique presence, unusual style and big local following. Like the one-of-a-kind barber Lue Lueck. Or the engaging blogger Bria “Bea” Brown. And the multi-talented DJ, composer and graphic artist Radish.

This weekend the Backflip team is filming “EV Land,” the sixth piece for Genre 2030, with planned stops outside the Overture Center for the Arts Downtown along Henry Street on Saturday, Aug. 4, and a filming Sunday, Aug. 5, on Woodward Drive by Warner Park on Madison’s North Side.

Inspired by movies like “La La Land,” “Baby Driver,” “Singing in the Rain” and “West Side Story,” “EV Land” has its own original story line, with a cast that includes a ballet dancer, a hip hop dancer — and dozens of electric vehicles.

Tailor-made for millennials

Genre 2030 is a product of Energy 2030 Together, MGE’s efforts to meet sustainable energy goals with the help of the community over the next 12 years.

“MGE has a history of community engagement and energy engagement with all of our customers,” Warner explained. “But a couple of years ago, I think, as a company and certainly in my area, we realized that we really didn’t have anything that was tailor-made, if you will, for millennials.”

Warner was tasked with coming up with a marketing and energy education campaign to “reintroduce” MGE to that segment of the community. He began to think of the 2030 campaign not as a deadline for sustainable energy goals, but how it relates to those aged 20-30.

The first push was through social media.

“We did a lot of fun energy education campaigns that were geared more toward millennials. That was sort of a training ground for me for Genre 2030,” he said, “and gave me the confidence that we could succeed in reaching this audience with something that was a little more unorthodox, certainly for us, and the utility industry in general.”

Film seemed like the logical next step.

“I’m a big cinephile – I went to school originally for film,” he said. “I’m a film geek through and through.” Genre 2030 “presents energy in a light that, in my opinion, has never been presented before in such a way.”

‘Slices of life’

The Genre 2030 films are designed to be “slices of life” “focused on the Madison millennial experience.” That means gearing them to engage MGE customers, especially those born between 1980 and 2000, whether they be college students or homeowners.

But they are not like standard commercials, and don’t overtly refer to energy at all. For example, “Run the Joules,” directed by Highman, is a profile of runner and farmer Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins. Backflip’s “Fresh Cuts,” a mini-doc inspired by the style of “Mo’ Better Blues,” is about style, not kilowatts.

“Electric City,” inspired by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was filmed after dark, where the glow of electronics and lights at a nightclub and on Capitol Square create an almost hypnotic backdrop. In “EV Land,” of course, it will be hard to miss the electric vehicles.

Steve Schultz, corporate communications manager for MGE, declined to state the cost of the Genre 2030 campaign.

Collaboration since college

Backflip founders Freng and Shoemaker have worked with many actors, spokespeople and even puppets in film. But this is their first project with a Tesla in the spotlight.

The two men began collaborating as student filmmakers at UW-Madison. Working first out of their apartments, then a basement, and later a business incubator space, they have now landed in a stylish office and studio space on Madison’s Far East Side with a staff of nine. Backflip now works in print, digital and social media along with the firm’s first love, film.

“We’re run by creatives. Ryan and I both studied film,” said Shoemaker, 32, who now concentrates mostly on writing, and authored the script for “EV Land.”

“We do have a third partner now for business management, but we started from an angle of creative first. I think that helps us push our clients to stand out a little more.”

Backflip has done work for Travel Wisconsin, UW-Madison, Karben4 brewery and the Diocese of Madison, among others. They make their studio available to like-minded creative types, “because (we don’t) want to forget our roots,” Shoemaker said. “We try to make a lot of connections with younger filmmakers and try to get them to use our studio, and make it cost-effective or even free.”

Freng, 33 and the father of five, and Shoemaker, who has four children, credit their wives and families – and long workdays – for making their business successful.

“We’re still actively in every single project. But it is nice to have crew and staff to do other things and focus on other things,” Shoemaker said.

“It’s the whole gamut being a small business owner, an entrepreneur,” Freng said. “Sometimes you wear the janitor hat; sometimes you actually get to go to a swanky party and celebrate all the hard work.

“We’re kind of different in that we often look a lot like production houses,” he said. “But what we really do is kind of a hybrid between production house and agency. We’re also making films. ... I think that is something unique.”

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