By David Owen

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I don't know if they played a part in Athens's winning submission for the 1896 Games, but moving images have long been fundamental to the business of bidding to host the Olympics and other major sports events.

It's easy to see why: with their matchless capacity to open a window on reality – or more usually hyper-reality – motion pictures have an unrivalled ability to transport decision-makers away from the stuffy conference centre they happen to be cooped up in and tap into whatever residue of Olympic emotion they still harbour.

"I think the films have a visceral, vivid and emotional impact on the voters," says Rupert Wainwright, who as founder and executive creative director of Los Angeles-based Adore Creative, is one of the foremost contemporary exponents of this highly specialised niche genre.

"The films are the most immediate thing, and the most recent thing, in the voters' minds when they go to vote."

The first Olympic-related film most people will be aware of is not a bidding vehicle, but Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl's dramatic representation of the notorious Berlin Olympics of 1936.

But then, until very recently, bidding films were essentially a technically-accomplished but otherwise unremarkable branch of the tourism promotion industry.

A 1965 film about Detroit, once a perennial Olympic contender, called City on the Move and available here seems to me to give a flavour of what early bidding films were probably like.

Though the website says the film was "created as part of a bring the 1968 Olympics to Detroit", I am not sure this was an actual bidding film.

However, it includes a clip of an address to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by former US President John F Kennedy. "May all of you have the wisdom ascribed to the Olympian gods in arriving at your very difficult decision," Kennedy concluded. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. In any case, they chose to award the Games to Mexico City.

David Magliano, director of marketing for the bid that eventually broke this mould - London 2012 - told me that, as part of their preparation, his team had watched about a dozen past presentations by bidding cities.

In every single case, "the opening video was about the city making the presentation. In other words, they were saying, 'Let's talk about us'".

The film that concluded London 2012's campaign in Singapore in 2005 - and sent IOC members scurrying away to continue their deliberations with the sound of a starting-pistol ringing in their ears – was ground-breaking in so many ways. It is worth dwelling at some length both on it and the context in which it was made.

First, this was the Olympic bidding contest to end all bidding contests: London, Paris, New York, Moscow and Madrid locked in a battle as fierce as any Olympic final - a clash of the titans where there could be only one winner.

Plus a change of the rules meant IOC members were no longer free to travel around bidding cities to inspect their plans at first hand, placing added responsibility on Olympic film-makers to freshen the image of their particular city in the electorate's minds.

It is also highly relevant to note that, right up until the final days of the campaign, London was believed to be trailing Paris. They needed to take risks if they were to catch up. As Magliano told me, Keith Mills, London 2012's chief executive, "was very motivational in saying this was Paris's to lose...He kept saying he would rather go down in flames than play safe."

Finally, it was known that Paris and New York were wheeling in the big guns, Luc Besson and Steven Spielberg, to work on their films for the final presentation. London, meanwhile, were sticking with a company called New Moon.

David Beckham_doing_crossword_for_London_2012
New Moon were not entirely an unknown quantity. A film they had made earlier in the bidding process, called Sport at Heart – which featured David Beckham doing a crossword – had been well received and proved the company could deliver quality work under pressure. "We got David Beckham with minutes to spare," Caroline Rowland, New Moon's founder and executive creative director, told me. "We had to write the scene overnight."

Nonetheless, it was a brave move to stick with New Moon for the bid's Big Finish.

It was braver still to conceive of a keynote film that showed not a shot of London and whose only British figure, as I recall, was an imaginary athlete getting beaten.

"We were locked in a room on a very hot Friday before a bank holiday," Rowland recalled. "I think we were in there for five hours. We just thrashed it out." Highlighting a mindset that I think is important for strong bids to cultivate though I suspect it is difficult to achieve in practice, she added: "London allowed us to ask the questions that delivered uncomfortable answers."

While the message of the film - known as Inspiration, shot in South Africa and featuring four children around the world inspired by the London Games to take up Olympic sport – was calibrated specifically for London's campaign, some of the basic techniques and tactical devices have since become commonplace.

Since 2005, the choice of flags, national colours and sporting opponents in bidding films is rarely random. Instead they are carefully calculated to seduce certain targeted voters, perhaps subconsciously, either to vote for City/Country X, or at least to make it their second or third preference should their favourite prospective host be eliminated.

Since 2005, children seem to be taking ever more prominent roles in bidding films, never more effectively than in Adore Creative's Sasha's Big Day, which formed part of Russia's successful bid for the 2018 World Cup.

Sashas Big_Day_shooting
And since 2005, a gentle brand of playful humour, never mocking, has become a regular feature of bid films, providing considerable relief from the stolid pomposity that can mar other elements of concluding presentations.

No moment in the past six years of bidding campaigns has compared with the immediate aftermath of that London 2012 film, simply because it is the one occasion when I felt that a film might actually have changed the result of a contest. No matter how brilliantly conceived and executed, that is generally too much to expect of a film unless, as it was then, the overall result is on a knife-edge.

I don't know of anyone who thinks that a passage of film had a decisive bearing on the outcome of the simultaneous campaigns for the right to host the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups, but the defining filmic moment of that whole mammoth exercise was probably the Zinedine Zidane film made as part of Qatar 2022's well-resourced campaign.

Qatar, a small country with little record of achievement in world football, successfully drew on figures like Zidane to attract attention and enhance its football credentials.

This film was classy: it would have been of interest to many football fans irrespective of the context and only mentioned the World Cup campaign in its closing moments.

It's a good illustration of a point made by Rupert Wainwright, who told me that the trick is "to make [the audience] think they are watching a documentary...If it feels too artificial," he added, "it backfires on you."

In the campaign, Qatar maximised the film's impact by having Zidane on hand when it was shown.

I wasn't there to personally gauge the effect of this coup de theatre, but the journalist Sid Lowe sounded impressed when he wrote on that "as a piece of PR it was a masterstroke".

Another recent trend has seen bidding contests for lesser competitions acquiring similar levels of sophistication to those on display in the highest-profile races for the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.

Adore Creative's impressive suite of films for the Russian city of Kazan's successful bid for the 2013 Universiade is a case in point.

Celebration film_by_Adore
One of the films, Celebration, achieved an ethereal effect by using, as Wainwright explained, the same Scotchlite material used to create the lightsabers in the first generation of Star Wars movies.

With the 2020 Summer Olympic Games contest - between Baku, Doha, Istanbul, Madrid, Rome and Tokyo – in its early stages, the way in which moving images are pressed into the service of bids looks ready to take its next step forward.

Over the past few years, advances in computer graphics and digital technology have been seized on to lower the cost of achieving certain effects and further reduce the already staggeringly short turnaround times associated with bid films.

This, plus the wildfire spread of social networking, looks likely to trigger a more sophisticated integration of the film-making and communications functions than we have witnessed hitherto.

"Technology is facilitating the need to make things very quickly and in response to tactical points," New Moon's Rowland told me, explaining that a "tipping-point" had been reached a couple of years ago when it became cheaper to create a background environment – say 16th-century London – in a computer than to build it in real life.

Adore Creative's Wainwright described the methods likely to be needed to exploit the dual phenomena of digitisation and social networking to best effect as an "always on" approach.

"It is not like in September 2013 we all go to Buenos Aires [where IOC members will gather to choose the host of the 2020 Games] and watch Lawrence of Arabia," he said.

According to Rowland, New Moon made 19 films in 14 months for the Qatar 2022 campaign.

Those companies who win contracts to work with the six 2020 Summer Olympic candidates may well find they are required to be even more productive.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.