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Where’s It All Going? The Future of Cinema, Branded Content, and Journalism from Northside

Written by on June 17, 2016 


Citing no shortage of innovation in the film festival space in the New York City area — with the Brooklyn Film Festival and Art of Brooklyn Film Festival also occurring during the same week — Williamsburg’s annual Northside Festival, the music and innovation conference phased out its film section in favor of “content.” Content, though, seems to be a rather loaded proposition and Northside’s Content Festival offered a glimpse inside how indie filmmakers can make a living.

The content side of the festival, making its debut in advance of the festival’s music and innovation portions, seemed more like a direct offshoot of innovation rather than the evolution of what had been the film section. Innovation in the content space seems to be defined by virtual reality and branded content. One thing the talks were short on were independent content makers, apart from Lex Dreitser, an independent VR maker who enthusiastically touted the open source power of the Unity engine, offering two workshops showcasing Unity’s digital cinematic tools.

Tools for 360 and VR do exist for independent content creators, including low-end 360-degree cameras; technology firms are already staking the future with a vested interest in furthering the art and science of the medium. Jessica Brillhart, a filmmaker and computer scientist working at Google to develop VR and 360-degree experiences for Google’s YouTube, spoke in conversation with Jeffrey Abramson of Broad Green Pictures, a multimedia company with investments in VR and traditional film production that sees synergies between single channel film and 360-degree experiences. They are currently in production on a sequel to the Buena Vista Social Club and a complimentary 360-degree experience. Brillhart’s work at Google perhaps paves the way for the media’s future, allowing immersive experiences to develop in a way they might have had if IMAX continued to make films exclusively for their domed OmniMax venues.

With non-profit and institutional funding in the US on a heavy decline, brands eager to associate themselves with “authenticity” (I too, almost threw up in my mouth thinking about that) are becoming a patron of indie filmmakers. These companies are collaborating either with agencies and filmmakers directly or seeking the assistance of a brand studio. Panelists at Northside included Andrea Allen, head of production for Vimeo’s Brand Studio, and Harry Bradford of the New York Times’ T Brand Studio.

While Vimeo connects filmmakers with brands who fund projects around vague themes like connectivity in exchange for a “presented by” credit, the New York Times’ T Brand Studio blurs the lines between journalism and a commercial. The materials range from virtual reality apps for GE to transmedia experiences for MilkPep. The work produced by the T Brand Studio echoes a sentiment expressed by The Associated Press’ Francesco Marconi in an innovation chat on VR and augmented reality in journalism: journalists have been forced to become more entrepreneurial, working across multiple forms of media in an ever-changing interactive landscape. What remains murky is the extent to which access that has been provided as part of our constitutional right to a free press are used to create branded inquiries and the moral implications of such.

Vimeo presented a talk with Allen and filmmakers Greg Brunkalla (Hearing Colors, embedded below) and Paul Trillo (The Irrational Fear of Nothing) who found the program to essentially work as patronage. It allows the filmmakers to work with crew sizes and scale up ideas beyond the level of a shoe-string indie shoot with a small crew of friends on the weekend.

Hiring filmmakers to create branded content is nothing new, harkening back to BMW’s 2001 series The Hire, which featured shorts at the dawn of streaming video directed by luminaries like John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Wong Kar-wai, Guy Ritchie, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, John Woo, Joe Carnahan, and Tony Scott. However, what seems to be new is the extent to which content may shape and evolve in the media landscape as documentary filmmaking, narrative storytelling, virtual reality, transmedia, and journalism converge at the will of brands wishing to tie themselves to an authentic voice. Surely it has evolved from the good ole days of sports sponsorship deals and underwriting public broadcasting.

It was quite easy to be cynical about the future of content and patronage from brands leveraging YouTube stars to sell products to commissioning documentary filmmakers to create social impact documentaries funded by beer companies. Filmmakers using their skills and equipment to making a living in commercial work is certainly nothing new — after all, the Maysles brothers made pudding commercials — however this new era of branded content should be treated with a little skepticism.

One panel, aptly titled “Proof over Posturing in Storytelling: No More Bullshit,” featuring Elizabeth Valleau of ad agency Grey and filmmaker Crystal Moselle, director of last year’s hit documentary The Wolfpack, attempted to set some ground rules. Approached by Stella Artois to create Water Front (see below), a series of short subject documentaries about the global water crisis as told through the eyes of women in Haiti, Kenya and Peru, Moselle approached the project with skepticism. Intended for release on the web, along with the picture, the global beer brand is launching a social impact and awareness campaign around the project. Stella may be doing, on a small scale, what media companies like Participant are doing surrounding their documentary work.

So what does the brand get out of it? Many of the content creators seemed to punt when asked that question. What remains to be seen is the extent to which branded content finds its way into the short and feature sphere offline: will we be confronted ahead of a feature film in a title sequence by a brand or various brands underwriting a certain film? (This is actually nothing new for Bollywood moviegoers.) Its implications for journalism are a tad more troubling than they are at this junction for filmmaking. Although one way to looking at an issue is that a documentary, even the most well-meaning, can be viewed as an advert for a specific prospective or organization. Branded content produced by these studios oddly seems less aggressive than feature film content produced as a sales pitch, like Meet the Mormons. I still cannot believe I paid $10 for the privilege of seeing that one on a big screen at Regal.

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