June 7, 2012 at 2:36 PM ET
Look, up in the sky! It’s an ad, it’s a movie, it’s ... “Departure Date,” the latest quirky marketing effort from the airlines that brought you reality-show flight attendants, a signature brand of lipstick and ice cubes shaped like founder Sir Richard Branson.
Yes, we’re talking the Virgin Group airlines — Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia — which have joined forces to create a short film that’s said to be the first commercial movie to be filmed at 35,000 feet.
“The big misconception is that it’s a giant ad,” said Jason Felts, CEO of the Branson-owned production company, Virgin Produced. “It’s a narrative film that uses the interior of the planes as an organic backdrop. It’s like ‘Lost in Translation,’ where the Park Hyatt in Tokyo was really a character in the film.”
That said, the film is also the centerpiece of “Virgin Skies,” a new joint ad campaign launched last month. “We wanted to do something that would position Virgin as a global airline and build affinity for the brand,” said Dimitrios Papadogonas, marketing director at Virgin America.
The result is a half-hour movie in which a young couple meet and fall in love under the purple glow of Virgin cabins. Shot over the course of nine days during regularly scheduled flights between Los Angeles, London, Dallas and Sydney, Australia, it stars Ben Feldman and Nicky Whelan as the couple and familiar character actors, including Janeane Garofalo, Philip Baker Hall and Luis Guzman.
Dozens of films, of course, have chronicled the in-flight experience — “Airplane,” “Snakes on a Plane,” the soon-to-be released “7500” — but most are shot on manufactured sets and soundstages.
“Departure Date,” on the other hand, required the crew of 20 to haul a full complement of film gear onboard and shoot their scenes between the chimes that signal it’s OK to remove seatbelts and move about the cabin.
The challenges of doing so ranged from the script — “We couldn’t do an action movie; no one could die,” said Felts — to onboard logistics of lighting, sound and the oft-invisible details that go into making movie magic.
“We couldn’t carry aerosols or plug in hair driers,” said Felts, “and we had to bring very small quantities of hair gel and makeup.”
Ultimately, whether the film is seen as a stand-alone movie or as a promotional piece will be up to audiences. It’s clearly a work of fiction — the readily available first class seat, the empathetic and encouraging fellow travelers, the lack of screaming children — but it looks to be a heartwarming tale that may give hope to others that they, too, might find that their next seatmate is also their soul mate.
As to how the romance plays out — no Mile High Club jokes, please — you’ll have to wait a bit longer. The movie is set to debut next week at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is expected to show on Virgin flights in the coming months.
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.