Friday, June 5, 2015

Steven Soderbergh & Singani 63 (Part 3 of a 3-part series)

By Antonia Fattizzi, Founder/President, Cork and Tin

You may know Steven Soderbergh as an Academy Award-winning producer, director and filmmaker.  Add to that: spirit importer.  Singani, produced solely in the Bolivian Andes since 1530, is a pomace brandy based in white Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Considered to be the national liquor of Bolivia, it is twice distilled and its water is sourced from the highlands of Tarija. First introduced to Singani while filming in Bolivia, Steven was so taken with the spirit that he selected a premium version, Singani 63 (www.Singani63.com) and imported it into the U.S. mainly for his own enjoyment and that of his friends.  Seven years after taking his first sip of Singani 63, Steven has learned quite a bit about the beverage alcohol industry in the United States. Here is the conclusion of a 3-part series, focusing on his views and experiences launching a spirit brand from a Hollywood perspective.

Parallels of Launching Films & Spirits
Perhaps not surprisingly, introducing films and spirits share a similar methodology. “Key to this is the story of the brand, having a narrative hook that people can grab. If it’s an indie film it could be a combo of subject matter, the buzz coming out of a festival or an actor or actress that people are talking about; there’s some clutter-busting aspect that separates it from all the other noise of what’s out there.  The ways in which people pay attention to the physical presentation.  It doesn’t cost money to have good ideas. Ideas don’t cost anything, but you have to have them. 

I half-jokingly say that when you’re making a movie, you’ve got 15-20 minutes to fuck around before you’ve got to settle in and show people what you’re doing or else they will just get up and leave.  Similarly, when putting something in your mouth – there’s no ‘oh maybe later I won’t gag.’  Taste is such a primal thing - you either like it or don’t.” As the old adage goes, you have only one chance to make a first impression.

When I started importing Singani 63, I met with Scott Gerber, who I know.  We talked about the industry and he said ‘it’s really hard, it’s really competitive BUT you do know people, you’ve got a good story with the brand/history about you singlehandedly getting this thing here and the product is good. That’s not always a given in this business. People have brought stuff over for a while even though it wasn’t great but that takes a lot of money.’ ”

Heeding this insight, Steven plans to expand his distribution into different markets across the U.S. slowly and thoughtfully. “We’re going to go city by city. It’s worked for us twice (NY & LA) and I think that’s the way to go. Pick a city as you would an opening for an indie film, one that is conducive to the kind of product/attitudes—go to the core and just start there.”

A Little Help from his Friends:
“It’s been interesting because some people want to know what I can get my (celebrity) friends to do for the brand.  And that’s tricky, because if I’m déclassé, then they’re not really my friends anymore.  I’m not going to jeopardize those relationships. The point being that this is something that will evolve over time. David Fincher putting Singani 63 in the movie Gone Girl was done because he’s a friend of mine.  He approached me about it. That was a great thing, but I didn’t pay them and because of that, I can’t use a shot of Ben Affleck sitting at a table with Singani 63.  Yes, it’s in there forever, but it could be a copyright issue.  There’s no deal. He just did it to do it. I like that he’s a total renegade. David said ‘I’m just gonna do it’.

Here’s a huge growth opportunity: as a filmmaker I’m constantly bumping up against this issue with real product. Every filmmaker wants to use real products to make it look like their movie is taking place in the real world and it’s not a bunch of made up brands, but a lot of companies, especially spirit companies, are very sensitive about how it’s being used (which characters, etc. that are using it). Because people don’t want to see a character do something and be drinking their product. I’m not. I’m starting to spread the word around my filmmaker friends that I don’t care how awful the character is and I don’t care what they do with that bottle. If you want a real brand in your movie, come to me. Because I don’t care. “

Which of your characters would have Singani in their home bar?
“Any of the Ocean’s guys; it would be up their alley because they like the hard stuff but they’re not the kind of characters that follow what everyone else is doing. They want to find their own thing that they like and stick with that. The ethos of those characters is right in line with this product.”

Standing Out From The Pack
With so many celebrity-owned spirit brands on the market, how does Steven plan to stand apart? “I think the question you have to ask yourself is, how and why did I get involved? If you’re positioning yourself as someone authentic, I think it’s relevant for people to know how and why you’ve become attached to this product. I don’t know all the stories as to how various celebrities have gotten involved with their spirits. I think it probably runs the gamut between people who are just being paid to do this - be the face of this, drink it, go out and get it for your friends and that’s that.  And that’s clearly worked in a lot of cases. It would never work in my case. That’s not what I’m known for.  Even if someone came to me and asked me to be the face of something and I said, “yes,” it would never work.  It would be a disaster. People would be like, ‘you’re not that guy. You’re not that guy who gets paid to say shit. You’re the opposite of that.’”

What To Expect From Steven
As a filmmaker, Steven is inherently known for being deeply involved in every part of the creative process. As a spirit importer, he is engaged in the same fashion. “From a trade standpoint, I’ll argue that I’m more involved than anybody else who’s attached themselves to a brand. I don’t think that there’s anybody else who’s creating all of the content for their brand. Currently, I generate all the ideas, the copy. I don’t know if that’s always going to be the case, but the volume of content I want to create will exceed my ability to create it.

And from a consumer side, I sort of say this jokingly but there are 2 things: 1) I’m a professional drinker 2) my day job all day, every day, is to be able to separate the ordinary from the exceptional.  All I do every day is filter out what’s average and identify what’s above average, or distinctive.  That’s it. That’s my job. In every direction. I found my desert island spirit totally by accident – if I wasn’t making that movie and my Bolivian casting director hadn’t given me a bottle as a gift at a party, none of this ever would have happened. Again, my name recognition is very narrow and very specific. There’s a certain kind of person who will recognize me. It’s a very specialized, disturbed niche of people who have any sort of – the point being that’s where the narrative of how this all happened becomes critical because I have built my whole career out of always going out of my way doing things the way I want to do them. If I suddenly throw that out, chasing money to promote a spirit, then that’s like 25 years of stuff - that’s like none of that mattered, I was kidding.”

Steven Soderbergh: The Anti-Brand
As a longtime producer/director, Steven is fully aware of moviegoer’s fickle tastes and therefore chooses to stay in the background when a film or show he’s associated with is released. “I’m very wary of the director as a story apart from the film, the director as a brand, because people do change brands and tastes and even though I’m a filmmaker who tends to jump from one type of movie to another, the idea of becoming part of the story always felt like a mistake. That’s why I don’t do any TV here. I talk to Charlie Rose because I grandfathered him in. I don’t do any TV here because I don’t want people knowing me by my face. I don’t want to be to stopped on the street. I don’t want to lose the ability to eavesdrop and be in the world. I think that again, conversely, that attitude in a weird sort of way helps with Singani 63 because while I’ve done a couple of pieces of artwork where I appear but I’ll never be in a situation like Sean Combs – you won’t see me in a commercial.”

Booze Buddies
Given his close relationships with some celebrities, one wonders whether Steven has reached out to other famous spirit brand owners for guidance. “I talked to George (Clooney) about Casamigos, and I think part of the reason it’s working as well as it’s working is the story.  Nobody came to them and said, ‘be the face of this.’ They don’t need to be any richer so they didn’t look around the landscape and ask ‘what other business can we make a lot of money in?’ It started out of a sense of ‘wow, we haven’t found the “thing’’ – why haven’t we found the tequila that’s just what WE want?’  Now, they had the resources to answer that question, which is, ‘can we make the ultimate tequila that we would like and what would that involve?’ And they just started down that road to see if they could make something that they think is great. So I think that, perceptually, that kind of narrative is stickier than, ‘we have a brand that’s been around for a long time and this year, we’re paying so-and-so to be that person.’ The bottom line is that it can work and it has worked, but boy you’ve got to find the right person and you’ve got to pay them a lot of money.

I haven’t had an opportunity to find out how George sees his continual and ultimate involvement in that brand. I’d be curious to talk to him and ask, ‘so what do you feel you owe the brand? What do you feel like you have to do? What ARE you doing? How is it all working?’ I’ve seen their trade ads and George did some funny spots for them, but I’d be curious to talk about the business model.

When we were making Behind the Candelabra, I had lunch with Dan Akroyd, and said, ‘Tell me about Crystal Head. Give me the whole narrative.’ And he did, and what he said, was ‘I’ll help you in any way I can’.  He offered to put me in touch all the people he works with, and that’s a huge brand.  But he said, ‘look, if you’re not willing to do the work, if you’re not willing to travel, if you’re not willing to go to stuff and go meet people one on one or meet the people who are going to be out there representing your brand, if you’re not willing to put the time in then DON’T DO IT. DON’T DO IT. That’s all I can tell you.’ He WORKS that.  Because he’s invested, he believes in it, he liked it, he drinks it, and he said that’s the main thing. If you’re not going to put your feet where your mouth is, then don’t do it.  Because nobody will care. It’s a big business, but in the beginning it’s NOT a big business, it’s a grass-roots business.  And you’ve got to WORK it. So just ask yourself, am I willing to do that?

So, the good news is that I’ve not reached the point where I feel like I’m in a sort of sunk-cost fallacy, where I’ve got so much money invested that I’ve gotta keep going just to see if I can get my money out. That’s not how I feel.  I’m very excited about what’s happened and what’s happening, and just for my own edification, I want to see where it’s going to go. What’s the move? We zig when other people zag, because we don’t have a corporate “thing” hanging over us. We can do whatever we want to do.”

Someone once said: "At the edge of reality...at the beginning of your dreams...it's never too late to forget all you know." OR, if you live on EARTH, you can go to singani63.com to enter Steven Soderbergh's Singani 63 video contest and have an adventure instead of living the life of a bad movie tagline. IT'S TOTALLY UP TO YOU. And, by the way, that "someone" was Steven Soderbergh, so what else is there to think about?

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Since 2003, Antonia Fattizzi has managed, marketed and sold boutique wines and spirits in the US market. Her passion for artisinal products propelled her to found Cork and Tin, which serves as a voice and a strategic partner for small and emerging brands.

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