Why Disney is betting on spooky short films — sponsored by brands

Filmmakers Michelle Steffes, left, Alexis Jacknow, Alexandria Collins, Robin Cloud and Matt Bieler.
Michelle Steffes, left, Alexis Jacknow, Alexandria Collins, Robin Cloud and Matt Bieler are filmmakers collaborating with Disney-owned 20th Century Digital Studios.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

A young woman sits on her living room floor in front of a bowl of steaming water and holding a lighted candle. Around her are a plate of M&M cookies she just baked and a box of mementos she is offering in hopes of summoning the ghost of her true love. Instead, she conjures the image of an annoying guy from her childhood.

With its high production value and comic undertones, the short film could easily stand in for a Super Bowl commercial. In fact, the two-minute video created by an L.A.-based filmmaker will begin running next week between Halloween-related programs on the Disney-owned cable channels FX and Freeform and will stream on Hulu.

Disney hopes the collaboration — among five commercials sponsored by Mars Wrigley — will bring in more ad dollars at a time when brands are searching for new ways to attract consumers.

While product placement in TV shows and movies is nothing new, Disney’s effort takes the idea of sponsored content to a new level, bringing cinematic storytelling to something TikTok and YouTube influencers are already doing — entertaining fans while also promoting products.

The approach is being closely watched at a time when cable channels are grappling with the loss of subscribers as more consumers cut the cord and migrate to Netflix and other commercial-free streaming services.


“There’s a unique way of telling stories in that medium where they can be funny or heart-wrenching or scary, all in this very short period of time,” said Michelle Steffes, who directed the M&M’s short. “I would want to watch a two-minute short film rather than watching four 30-second commercials. So hopefully, other people will feel the same way.”

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A woman attempts to summon a deceased loved one in this short film called “Summoned” by Michelle Steffes.

Her short film, “Summoned,” is part of Disney’s larger collaboration with 30 filmmakers under the initiative “Bite Size Halloween.”

The effort is led by 20th Digital Studio, which was acquired by Disney when it bought 20th Century Fox last year. Filmmakers were invited to send story pitches, and those selected were given five-figure budgets, said David Worthen Brooks, executive vice president at 20th Digital Studio.

Brooks is a former consultant to Fox who helped with digital campaigns for such movies as the coming-of-age comedy “Juno.”

Fox employees hatched the idea of short, ad-supported videos around Halloween as a way to help brands reach consumers outside traditional commercials. The first set of shorts, called “Bite Size Horror,” ran in 2017 on FX and Fox Sports and proved highly popular. Now, Disney is expanding the program.

“Right now, we’re interrupting the audience while they’re being entertained,” Brooks said. “How do we entertain them while they’re being entertained?”

The number of filmmakers has tripled since 2017. Brooks said he hopes to fund even more next year.

Five of this year’s 30 films are sponsored by Mars Wrigley, whose candy brands include Twix, M&M’s, Snickers and Skittles. Disney is considering whether to produce similar videos with other brands throughout the year.


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Working directly with young filmmakers also allows Disney to potentially develop the shorts into movies. For advertisers, sponsored films allow them to put their brands next to premium content that will help them better target consumers.

“We were excited, because this was one of the first opportunities we had to work with content that was not derivative of our current IP or our shows — it was truly standalone,” said Jerry Daniello, senior vice president of entertainment brand solutions at Disney Advertising Sales. “It just offered something new for our advertisers to attach to during a month in which we do have a lot of Halloween-themed programming.”

Brands can buy ad spots on video platforms like YouTube, but they don’t have as much control over where those commercials appear. Consumers may also choose to skip over the ads, bypassing advertisers’ efforts to sell them products and services, which makes options like 20th Digital Studio’s short films appealing.

“The more that you can make your content feel and look like it’s not advertising, but it’s actually entertaining, the better connection you are going to have with your audience,” said Larry Adams, chief executive of LVA, a New York-based agency that works with brands to better understand Black audiences.

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“Visible” by Los Angeles director Matt Bieler is one of the “Bite Size Halloween” short films and is sponsored by Mars Wrigley.

Corporate sponsorships aren’t cheap. The cost can range from, say, $100,000 for an infographic on a digital media site to multimillions for a product featured during a live event such as the Emmy awards show, Adams said.

Daniello declined to say how much Disney makes from these types of sponsorships.

Candy companies typically ramp up their marketing in October; last year, they spent an average of $22.5 million a week on ads, according to MediaRadar, a New York-based firm that tracks ad spending.

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Costume Change

“Costume Change” by Alexis Jacknow is one of five videos that are sponsored by Mars Wrigley as part of “Bite Size Halloween.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting trick-or-treating this year, getting in front of consumers has become even more important.

“Halloween is always a huge moment for us here at Mars Wrigley, but we know things are going to look a bit different this year,” media director Ray Amati said in a statement. “While we have television spots running ... we are sponsoring Bite Size Halloween short films to further connect with our fans.”

For many aspiring filmmakers, having their work shown on Disney platforms is an opportunity to advance their careers. All 30 films will be available on Hulu in its Halloween-themed hub, “Huluween.”

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This Old House

Robin Cloud’s short film about a home is part of 20th Digital Studio’s “Bite Size Halloween.”

L.A. filmmaker Robin Cloud said that before “Bite Size Halloween,” audiences could see her work only at film festivals. Her three-minute video, filmed inside a Monterey Park home, delves into issues of gentrification and an owner’s fear when their home is up for sale.

“I haven’t been on any streaming platforms as of yet,” Cloud said. “This is like a next step up for me, which is really exciting.”