Pharma is harnessing the power of fictional films to raise disease awareness and tell patient stories

Getting your messages heard in our noisy world can be tough as organisations of every type clamour for the public's eyes and ears. Health messages are no exception, which is why some companies are increasingly looking to innovative approaches to capture the customer's attention. 

One increasingly affordable option is film, as attested by the quality of the documentary films submitted for the Global Health Film Initiative's inaugural Film Festival last October. Film occupies a unique position in a media-saturated world, as the festival's charitable organisers point out: "Film has the power to communicate stories, to stir emotions, to inspire, to encourage action and to redress inequities in health." 

It is no surprise, therefore, that pharma companies are starting to take notice, with some going even further and venturing into the uncharted waters of fictional short films. 

"Film drives attention," says David Youds, chief executive of Bedrock Healthcare Communications and head of its multimedia division. "Before pharmaceutical brands compete with one another, they compete for their audiences' attention against the backdrop of many different and engaging channels. The idea of doing something new is in itself interesting and attention-grabbing." 

As an industry, we have not always fully considered that different people take in information and learn in different ways, he says. "Edutainment brings together education and entertainment and is common in consumer sectors because it engages emotionally. It is emotion that drives the buying decision and binds associations with brands." 

Youds points to John Lewis' Christmas adverts. "They have become something of a national institution over the last five or six years. In them, John Lewis is saying, 'here is something that's going to entertain you' and because you like the story you'll like us as a brand. What they're not saying is that they have 50 percent off everything from New Year's day. You're driving an association in an intelligent way. We have to accept that people are intelligent and they can understand a message in quite an abstract way. We remember film, we remember music, we often don't remember brand messages." 

The messages that film can convey can also be very complex, he says. "It is the art of storytelling; you can tell a love story and everyone understands it but you can also layer in other messages and meanings. We can use film to communicate complex science to the bloke in the pub because the bloke in the pub watches film and TV. He gets it." 

Last year, Bedrock premiered a fictional short film, Millefeuille, that used well-known actors and a professional film crew to tell the fictional story of a patient with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. 

"Celgene is never afraid to try new things," says Lee Heeson, vice-president of inflammation and immunology, EMEA. "We really try to do things differently so when we had the idea of a film that uses key patient and expert insights to shine a light on these diseases, we embraced it." 

In preparation for the launch of Celgene's Otezla (apremilast), Heeson and his team took a very patient-centric approach. "Our research revealed an incredible amount of unmet need, particularly in patients with psoriasis, in spite of the availability of treatment options," he says. "Physicians call people with psoriasis 'heart sink' patients because 40 to 50 percent have pretty much given up ever finding a treatment. Our research not only identified patient need but a real frustration among physicians, so we started asking questions about how we could reach those unreachable patients." 

The Bedrock and Celgene team used extensive ethnographic work to better understand the experience of living with these conditions. "We wanted to understand patients in a real-life setting, to know what they are feeling and what they are going through," says Heeson. "That's where Millefeuille was conceived; as a pretty disruptive idea." 

Quality was a vital part of the process, says Youds. "Celgene is a very forward-thinking and patient-focused company and their ethnographic research outcomes were compelling, so we put forward a number of treatments – one-page synopses of the storyline – and then we narrowed it down to one. We then went into the production phase, writing the script, selecting a director and casting actors. The actual shoot was done on location with a professional crew of around 30, so it's not just a couple of guys with a camera. The sound mix for Millefeuille was done by the same team that won an Oscar for the movie Gravity." 

Heeson and the team at Celgene were very happy with the results. "I was lucky enough to watch the film with other people here and it was very touching, a real story of triumph over adversity. What struck me was the ability of film to show the things that affect patients' lives the most, whether it is the isolation or the itch, which I felt came through very strongly. This short movie shows the challenge of living with these diseases and if we can share this with an online community, digitally, virally, to raise awareness and deepen a shared understanding of what these patients go through, I think it will be a tremendous achievement." 