In a sport where the competition surface can look like the set of a Quentin Tarantino movie, mixed martial artist George St-Pierre has built a 25-2 record with eight knockouts and five wins by submission. No wonder he has seldom – if ever – been portrayed as vulnerable.
But that’s one of the lesser-known traits explored in Takedown: The DNA of GSP, a new branded content project developed by Jimmy Lee, an offshoot of Montreal agency Sid Lee.
Co-directed by Sid Lee’s executive creative director Kristian Manchester in partnership with Canadian filmmaker Peter Svatek, the 90-minute documentary premiered at more than 100 Cineplex Odeon theatres last week. It will also air on Canadian specialty TV services including The Movie Network and Movie Central later this year.
The project’s origins date back to 2011, when Sid Lee was tasked with developing a new brand identity for the Quebec-born mixed martial arts fighter that would elevate him to a global star.
It was no easy task. St-Pierre is easily among the most renowned MMA fighters ever, but attaining the worldwide recognition of a David Beckham would prove difficult simply because a sizable swathe of the population is turned off by the sport’s brutal nature.
Sid Lee’s research, however, indicated that fans have a genuine affinity for St-Pierre; one study deemed him the most-trustworthy public figure after action-movie star Jackie Chan, and one of the friendliest stars in the world (an honour he shared with Chan, Bruce Willis and Matt Damon).
However, Manchester knew that turning St-Pierre into a cuddly nice guy could potentially alienate his hardcore MMA fans. “We wanted to take an MMA star and turn him into a pop-culture phenomenon without offending his core fans,” said Manchester. The objective, he said, was to reflect the “duality” of St-Pierre: a genuinely nice guy in a sometimes not-so-nice sport.
The project included what Sid Lee described as a social media “offensive” that saw St-Pierre’s Facebook following triple to more than 3 million (at one point he was garnering more than 16,000 new followers each week) and his Twitter following double to nearly 500,000.
St-Pierre also inked a series of new sponsorship deals with companies including Under Armour, Affliction, Google and 888poker.
Round One, Take One
The idea for a feature-length documentary movie came when Manchester was invited to attend UFC 129 at Toronto’s Rogers Centre in April 2011 (the first MMA event in Ontario following its legalization in 2010). The event attracted an estimated 55,000 people who watched St-Pierre defeat Jake Shields via unanimous decision in the main event.
Sid Lee and Manchester had already established their sports credentials, having worked with several high-profile athletes – including soccer stars Beckham and Lionel Messi and NBA star Derek Rose – on global ad campaigns such as 2011’s “All-In.”
Manchester, though, was keen to create a more in-depth profile of one of the leading lights of MMA. “We always created these two, three, four-minute films, but they were very superficial and didn’t really go in-depth,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by the sacrifice and the back-story of what it takes to be a top-level world champion.”
Culled from more than 100 hours of footage accumulated over a 15-month period, including access to key UFC bouts and interviews with family and friends, Takedown chronicles St-Pierre’s emergence from bullied kid to global superstar.
The backdrop is his comeback from a potentially career-ending knee injury to defeat rival Nick Diaz – who taunts St-Pierre prior to the fight, making him a perfect movie villain – in March 2013.
The subtleties of branded content
While Takedown was conceived as a branded content play, Manchester said the intention was not to create a long-form commercial for St-Pierre, but to show the complexities of his character.
“There’s definitely insights that came from marketing, but when it’s time to give that to the public… it can’t be tainted by overly branded elements, where we’re forcing people to want to like something,” he said. “People like drama: they don’t like perfection. They want to see a human side which has its faults.”
How successful Manchester and Jimmy Lee have been in achieving their objective is open to interpretation. In a Feb. 18 review of the film, for example, QMI Agency reviewer Steve Tilley said that Takedown plays like a “super-slick infomercial” for St-Pierre, noting that it contains “nothing contentious” or surprising for UFC fans.
In a two-and-a-half star (out of five) review, Postmedia News reviewer Jay Stone said that Takedown is pitched somewhere between “a televised UFC match… and someone’s idea of a deep metaphorical look at man’s instincts.”
Manchester, however, said he and Svatek attempted to portray St-Pierre as he really is. “George is one of those guys that’s pretty shiny and perfect, but we dug deep and tried to show the duality there,” he told Marketing. “I think we pulled it off.”
Manchester said that the project also contains a “Sid Lee angle” that distinguishes it from typical documentaries. Asked to elaborate, he said that Takedown boasts an identifiable visual style and a pacing that is youthful and contemporary, while research conducted for the 2011 branding exercise helped inform the content.
“The insights and the access we had from doing the whole marketing campaign gave us great story threads that maybe a traditional documentarian couldn’t have had,” he said.