AFI alumni, volunteers, and press gathered in the Cinema Lounge at the historic Roosevelt Hotel—where the first Academy Awards were held—Sunday afternoon for a special presentation about the future of storytelling. With an all-star panel comprised of leading industry professionals Jon Avnet (co-founder WIGs network), Alan Flores (video game designer), Kathleen Grace (creative development YouTube), and Jan Pinkava (co-writer “Ratatouille”) and moderated by AFI alum John Heinsen, the group sat down for a frank discussion about where current storytelling trends are headed and how narratives are going to be told in this ever evolving digital space.
Grace started the panel off by informing the crowd that over 40% of YouTube traffic is consumed through mobile devices. With 1 billion unique visitors monthly, that’s a lot of people and reason enough to reconsider the power of your cell phone. She then went on to say that her nine-year-old niece doesn’t even watch traditional TV. To her, television is Netflix, and when she watches “Dora The Explorer,” she can do it on her phone, tablet, or laptop.
Avnet followed this jarring realization by exclaiming that “we’re not dealing with 35mm anymore.” While former film giants like Kodak have been reduced to essentially nothing in this transition from conventional storytelling to a much more digital narrative structure, not everyone is complaining. For someone like Jan Pinkava, he believes that now, more than ever before, has there been opportunities for creatives to see their vision to fruition.
His “Windy Day” short, which is broadcast specifically through Motorola’s Moto X smartphone, puts consumers in the director’s seat of their own movie. “Windy Days” tells the story of an animated mouse, no relation to Ratatouille of course, that desperately tries to catch up with his favorite sombrero. Sadly, the Mexican hat has the tendency to blow away in the wind. This seemingly linear storyline is given a burst of creativity because it uses the Moto X’s touch sensors to allow users to follow the hat’s frantic flight. For the Oscar winning filmmaker, working with Motorola was just one way he was able to reimagine himself in the digital landscape.
The idea of reimaging oneself as a filmmaker acted as a constant through line during the discussion. As a writer, Avnet told the audience that, “the last thing you ever want to do is to become complacent in a medium.” By co-founding Wigs, which is completely financed by YouTube, he was able to create multiple female driven series that revolve around episodes that are between 8 and 10 minutes long.
In the video game world, Flores told the gathering that this reinvention comes in the form of constantly producing more and more content for each game he creates. With the increased prevalence of DLC—downloadable content—and game patches, he is able to keep audiences engaged in his titles well past purchase date.
Audience interaction is more important now than ever before, as there are so many more options out there to interact with consumers. Avnet conceded that he constantly has to tell the A-list stars he works with—Jessica Biel, Anna Paquin—that without a social media presence they will never find a large following and will suffer because of it. The reason why certain celebrities are so popular—cough, Ashton Kutcher—is because their Twitter or Instagram communication is second to none. They care about their current audiences and find new ones through continued social media contact.
As the conversation came to a close, the idea of finding and maintaining an audience came full circle with Kathleen Grace’s work at YouTube. Her video service allows anyone to become over-night stars, and she told all of us that it really isn’t that hard to become one. In theory of course. She got her foot in the door by uploading a short video on YouTube in 2006, and now she is heading an entire 41,000 square foot production studio that allows anyone that has a channel with more than 10,000 subscribers to use for free.
At the end of the day, these industry professionals understand that the digital space is kind of like the Wild Wild West right about now. There are so many companies trying to do so many different things, without anyone really understanding how the marketplace is going to look a year from now. While all of the industry executives out there are sweating it out, there are so many opportunities for young filmmakers to take advantage of all of this indecisiveness. By creating a strong personal brand, and creating quality content, anything is possible.
AFI FEST presented by Audi is a celebration of global cinema and today’s Hollywood – a showcase for the best festival films of the year and an opportunity for master filmmakers and emerging artists to come together with audiences in the movie capital of the world. AFI FEST is the only festival of its stature that is free to the public.
By David Morris