Think of it as mortgage lending meets art-house cinema.
Some of the industry's top regionals are working with independent filmmakers to develop video marketing campaigns.
Regions Financial hired an Academy Award-winning filmmaker to direct a video series about financial planning, while U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis is sponsoring a video about affordable housing that's being produced by a prominent Los Angeles creative firm.
The projects show that banks are willing to make splashy and artistically ambitious investments in digital branding as they search of the elusive marketing power that comes with a viral video. In doing so, they are aiming to take the industry's viral videos well beyond spoofs of bankers dancing to "Gangnam Style."
But in a world where videos of llamas on the loose generate hype, cinematography may only go so far. Banks face an uphill battle when it comes to attracting customer attention with online videos, given the slew of content already shared through social media, industry experts said.
"The larger goal is to generate new business," said Bret Pippen, senior vice president of corporate marketing at Regions, adding that the effort "is not about creating art that we're going to take to Sundance."
The online video projects come amid an industry-wide push to invest in digital marketing, as banks look for ways to boost social media scores and compete for customer clicks.
TD Bank made headlines last year for a feel-good video campaign that attracted more than 18 million customer views. Fifth Third Bancorp also took a recent crack at online videos, with a series that looks at the struggles millennials face finding a job after college.
Community banks have also searched for YouTube fame, including the team at Central National Bank in Waco, Texas, which has made a series of cheeky videos poking fun at everything from President's Day to the potential use of drones for making deposits.
"The basic idea is that you spend money on the production of the message," instead of buying advertising spots, said Kenneth Wilbur, an advertising professor at the University of California in San Diego.
Banks, however, are keen to up the ante when it comes to video production.
Regions, in Birmingham, Ala., hired Ross Kauffman to direct its Next Step Project advertising campaign. Kauffman, who won an Oscar in 2005 for best documentary feature, created a series of videos that profiles bank customers as they try to create long-term financial goals.
In one of the documentary-style videos released on YouTube, Ciara Corley, a Regions customer in Centreville, Ill., discusses her goal of saving enough funds to attend graduate school.
The three-minute video includes shots of Corley at her mother's house, discussing how her parents inspired her get a good education. It also shows her creating a long-term financial plan with a Regions associate.
"It gives more of an authentic feel than a slick commercial," Pippen said, describing a broader effort at Regions to boost its brand through testimonials.
To create the videos, Regions sent out a casting call looking for customers who had experience on camera. One of the clients featured in the campaign previously worked in advertising; another played Sleeping Beauty at Disney World, Pippen said.
The videos were a "collaborative" editorial effort between Kauffman, Regions, and Luckie & Co., the advertising agency in charge of production, Pippen said. There were no scripts, which represented a shift from Regions' previous focus on spokesperson-driven advertising.
"You have to have that balance between documentary filmmaking, and with the fact that we're trying to do business," Pippen said.
Regions declined to disclose how much it is paying for the videos, and attempts to contact Kauffman were unsuccessful.
Regions' partnership illustrates the rise of an unlikely alliance between the buttoned-up world of finance and the edgier world of film production. Companies are looking to hire video talent, and filmmakers are eager to make added income while practicing their craft.
"It's not like the sellouts of old," said Chris White, an independent filmmaker in Greenville, S.C., who described filmmaker participation today as a "creative collaborations" with big companies.
Still, captivating consumer attention could prove challenging. Though big companies in other industries, such as BMW and Budweiser, have worked with filmmakers, few have seen a significant spike in their online views.
"Brands tend to be very good at producing their own products, but they're not very good at producing entertainment," Wilbur said, adding that most consumers aren't online "looking for ads to watch."
But that isn't deterring regional banks from trying.
U.S. Bancorp said last week that it was working with Wondros, the production company run by filmmaker Jesse Dylan, a son of folk legend Bob Dylan. The production firm is famous for developing Will.i.am's viral "Yes We Can" video during Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. That video has more than 25 million views on YouTube.
U.S. Bancorp provided $75,000 to produce the video for Home Matters, an advocacy group that focuses on affordable housing. The investment is part of a broader effort to highlight the importance of safe, stable housing, said Melissa Borino, U.S. Bancorp's managing director for community development.
The film is still in the production phase, said Dave Brown, chief executive at Home Matters, adding that it is designed to be a "video anthem," detailing the difficulties consumers face in keeping up with the rising costs of housing.
"If we're successful, it will be provocative," Brown said.