“The makers of these films and tellers of these stories know if this feels like overt advertising or gross product placement, people will tune out, so authenticity becomes a key metric here,” Mr. Essex said. “Traditional advertising tends to annoy people, and this makes the argument that you have to add value to people’s lives rather than bombard them with a pitch and a hard sell, especially in a world of so much noisy content.”
A former chief executive of the creative agency Droga5, Mr. Essex helped introduce the award to encourage marketing that does not interrupt television programs or internet browsing and “that can attract an audience rather than repel an audience,” he said.
He noted that it could be difficult to expose people to the films outside industry events, YouTube and Vimeo. This year, there will be a screening for the films at the festival, and they will appear on a special section of The Atlantic’s website.
“A huge part of the reason readers come to The Atlantic is to understand, more broadly, what people are thinking about and why specific issues matter,” said Hayley Romer, the publisher. “Brands have the same opportunity to provide greater perspective for consumers for dramatic changes that are happening now and shaping their world.”
Ms. Romer said companies were motivated to pursue such marketing because “the pinnacle of what you can be as a brand is a thought leader in the area in which you exist.”
The Atlantic, like The New York Times, has an in-house studio that works with brands to develop content.
The jury that will select the winner this month includes figures like Jenna Lyons, the creative director of J. Crew; Joanna Coles, the chief content officer at Hearst; and Jae Goodman, the chief creative officer of CAA Marketing, a division of Creative Artists Agency.
Mr. Goodman said the same qualities that made for any great film applied to those from brands — though they do have a different goal.
“It’s the same elements that make it a great, great story, that touches you, that sparks the right emotion, that gives you the same great response that an Oscar-winning movie would give you,” Mr. Goodman said. “However, it also needs to drive those brand and business results. If Coca-Cola makes a great feature film and doesn’t sell more Coca-Cola, then that’s a failure on Coca-Cola’s part.”
He said that the subtle nature of how brands might sway customers through storytelling and films was a fine line for marketers, and that criticism of it could be overblown.
“The idea of being misled by marketers or tricked into choosing one brand over another comes up in this conversation a lot, and for what it’s worth, I think it’s a little bit unfair as long as the brand is straightforward about its role in the creation and distribution of the content,” Mr. Goodman said.
He pointed to a children’s show developed recently for Chipotle by the creators of “Yo Gabba Gabba!” It is clear that it came from the company but is “educational entertainment to try to get kids and families to make better food choices,” he said.
For the filmmakers and celebrities involved in such projects, the level of creative freedom and opportunity to be more than a face in a commercial can be particularly appealing, Mr. Essex said.
“The old model was that you did an ad and you hoped no one would see it,” he said. “Now, the brands are to the point of asking, ‘Do something more compelling and artistic,’ and the talent is responding to that.”
Mr. Essex said he viewed the Tribeca X Award as the early part of an evolution leading to brands pursuing programming in a bigger way, similar to initiatives in the mid-1900s from General Electric and Mutual of Omaha. He likened these efforts to the high end of a spectrum, where the low end is the automated buying of millions of online ads tailored to a person’s interests and optimized for clicks and sales.
“The brand will make the thing, not the thing that interrupts the thing, with shows and films in addition to the programmatic stuff,” he said. “You’ll have that classic high and low but nothing in between.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the affiliation of Jae Goodman. He is the chief creative officer of CAA Marketing, a division of Creative Artists Agency, not the chief creative officer at the Creative Arts Agency.