On November 12, Casey Neistat got an email from an advertising agency. They wanted him to create a short film promoting The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a feel-good movie about a guy who abandons the office life and pursues his dreams. The budget, in Neistat’s words, was “shitty.”
The initial offer was for $20,000, which Neistat was prepared to turn down. Instead, he pitched an idea he figured the agency would reject: Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever recorded, had made landfall in the Philippines just days before. Why not spend the entire budget on helping people in need?
After an unofficial thumbs-up from a single person at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind Mitty, Neistat started working. “I got the vibe that [20th Century Fox would approve the proposal], and said ‘Fuck it, let’s do it,'” he tells ANIMAL. “I can live with going into serious personal debt if it’s because I gave all my money away.”
Neistat flew to the Philippines with his producer Oscar Boyson shortly thereafter, spending $22,000 on his personal credit card for food and medical supplies before the studio officially approved his plan (the budget was upped to $25,000). With the money and Fox’s blessing, he bought 13,000 meals, medical supplies, and tools for 35 villages. Along the way, he made the film you see above.
But is a good deed still a good deed if it’s done in the name of marketing a big-ticket movie, especially one released by the same parent company that signs paychecks for Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly? Watching Neistat’s film, it’s hard not to feel a little uneasy: you’re seeing children in dirty clothes and entire towns in shambles, knowing all the while that what you’re watching is on some level intended to persuade you to spend money at the box office.
It’s a conflict Neistat is eager to talk about. “The ends don’t always justify the means, but in this case, it’s like, ‘so what,'” he says. “If it weren’t this, the money would have been spent on a marketing buy for a commercial that you and I probably wouldn’t even notice. But 13,000 people got to eat. These families all got tools, they all got medicine. Whatever it took for me to get there is something that I’m happy to do.”
Neistat claims personal ownership of the project, drawing a distinction between it and other corporate marketing schemes based on charitable acts. “It makes me want to smash my TV when BP plays those commercials about how much money they’ve donated to restore reefs and shit,” he says. “Fucking BP, spending marketing dollars to market the fact that they spent money to restore the reefs that they destroyed.”
“The important delineating here is that this is not something Fox did. This is not something Fox would ever do. This is not something that Fox’s advertising agency is capable of coming up with…This is something that I thought was a good idea, that I was willing to do for nothing, and was able to rally the right people to get the go-ahead for,” Neistat adds.
He published the video on YouTube yesterday, where it’s racked up hundreds of thousands of views so far. The only editorial change Fox recommended was to make it feel less like marketing, removing a title card that encouraged viewers to go and see Mitty. But how did it fare as an advertisement? That, after all, is what the company was paying for.
“I don’t know,” says Neistat. “It will make people think of this movie in a more flattering way, and maybe even Fox, though I don’t know if that’s possible.”
“This movie will hopefully make money, and Fox, a big, scary, company, will benefit from this. Rich people will get richer from this, and I walk away with nothing,” he adds. “If all I get from this is the opportunity to better these people and make a movie, that’s okay. If the contract hadn’t gone through, I would have spent my own money and made the same fucking movie, and given things to all of the same people. ”
(Photos: Casey Neistat)