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Underplayed examines the obstacles facing female DJs in the electronic music scene – such as Brooklyn-based artist Tygapaw (Dion McKenzie), seen here – and efforts at changing that gender disparity. The film was funded by Labatt Breweries of Canada, a division of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Maria J Hackett/The Globe and Mail

Audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival are accustomed to seeing tributes to sponsors who help make the annual event a reality. But it is much rarer for marketers to actually make the movie.

This year, however, among the scaled-back selection of 50 films airing at TIFF is a documentary quite literally brought to you by a beer company.

Underplayed examines the obstacles facing female DJs in the electronic music scene, and efforts at changing that gender disparity. The film was funded by Labatt Breweries of Canada, a division of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

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It’s not the first time the company has gotten into filmmaking. Last year, for example, Budweiser released a documentary in the U.S. about its brewmasters, called Kings of Beer. And as far back as 2013, Labatt’s Kokanee brand made a feature-length buddy comedy that secured a theatrical release in Western Canada.

Unlike both of those examples, however, there is no overt brand presence in Underplayed; aside from some Bud Light signage appearing in the background at music festivals it sponsors, the brand is barely visible.

“From the very beginning, we knew that in order for this film to be seen as credible, to be taken seriously – for people to not be like, ’this is another Bud Light commercial’ – we needed to make sure the brand is more removed,” said Natalie Lucas, director of marketing for Bud Light in Canada.

The film was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival this year – which was called off during the COVID-19 pandemic – and will have its TIFF debut online and at an outdoor screening on Sept. 19. But the question remains: Why is the investment worthwhile for a company whose business is selling beer, not making movies?

Part of the rationale is that people dislike and resent the interruption of ads, but they do not resent being entertained. It’s why brands have long pursued associations with entertainment such as sports or music through sponsorships, and it’s why for years now, many have been trying to create their own content that feels worth watching.

Outdoor brand Patagonia, for example, has been releasing documentaries on environmental issues for a number of years. Last year, the Airbnb-produced documentary Gay Chorus Deep South, which followed a gay men’s chorus on a tour through the Southern U.S., had its debut at Tribeca.

Even if the brand isn’t represented, a marketer can draw value from such a project if it has a broader marketing plan that includes such elements as social-media content and live events related to the film and its subject matter, said Angus Tucker, co-executive creative director of Toronto ad agency John St.

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“That’s always the trick: How do you sell without seeming like you’re selling?” Mr. Tucker said. “They’re trying to talk to young people who are all about music, and to tell an interesting and authentic story.”

Labatt plans to actively promote the film during TIFF, and hopes to do the same for further releases – talks with distributors are continuing. The Bud Light brand also has sponsored live music events for years.

The idea for the documentary came about two summers ago while filming interviews with musicians during its Bud Light House Party tour; the team regularly heard from female DJs about challenges they faced in the industry. Bud Light’s advertising agency, Anomaly, suggested exploring the issue in a documentary.

Director Stacey Lee, who had previously made a short film on the subject, said that the longer format allowed her not just to explore the problem, but also tell stories of artists coming up with solutions – including creating their own club nights and releasing music independently, as well as creating collectives to swap gear and teach each other skills. Financing for a project of this scale could have taken five to 10 years to pull together without a big company’s backing, she said.

“The ability to move fast is great. The story is relevant now. It’s urgent now,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s definitely an unusual path. … Brands are getting involved in authentic ways, and hopefully in filmmaking, this is a new avenue moving forward.”

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