Notes from SXSW: Day 1
Joshua Sikora | On Mar 13, 2016
It’s spring break, so while my students rest up or catch up, I’m off to Austin for the South by Southwest Festival & Conference — the largest annual gathering of filmmakers, musicians, and innovators in Texas. Here are my notes from the various sessions, keynotes, and films I’ve had the opportunity to attend…
LEGO Group and Cartoon Network:
Building Future Fans
My day began with a panel of executives from LEGO and Cartoon Network who shared some of their strategies for building long-term fans.
Mike Moynihan, a Vice President of Marketing from LEGO talked about how LEGO had to return to its fundamental values after nearly going bankrupt 12 years ago. The company had become too insular and too disconnected from its origins. Instrumental to their turnaround strategy was asking a simple question: How do we help kids? LEGO decided they couldn’t just be another toy company — they had to identify how their product benefits children and improves their lives.
LEGO’s revitalized mission is to develop the builders of tomorrow, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Moynihan explained that LEGO is working to instill creativity, a quality that is being lost or “crowded out” in today’s young people. According to LEGO’s research, kids have changed over the last decade, finding it much more difficult to innovate and experiment. A decade ago, Moynihan pointed out, kids could pick up a blank sheet of paper and a crayon and feel free to simply create. Today, they’re “freaked out” by that — today’s kids don’t know where to begin and are afraid of taking the wrong steps. LEGO is having to adapt and find new ways to inspire creativity that can challenge kids to rediscover a sense of freedom and play.
This actually became central to LEGO’s content-driven approach to marketing. Rather than advertising their products through traditional TV spots, LEGO decided to partner with storytellers in order to create compelling character-driven TV shows, websites, and apps. This strategy was designed to enrich the creative potential and value of the LEGO toys. It models a richer sense of play and a deeper connection to the toys than could be accomplished through traditional product advertising.
This has led to a flourishing relationship with Cartoon Network, which strives to bring a similar sensibility to its shows. Tram Wigzell, a Vice President of Development for the network explained how he and his team work to encourage creativity and passion in their artists’ work. He wants Cartoon Network’s shows to have a strong point-of-view stemming from the show creators, rather than being built for a specific demographic.
One of the biggest challenges facing Cartoon Network is the proliferation of media platforms available to kids today. The network has had to work hard to engage wherever kids are seeking out content, rather than expecting audiences to tune in to shows on a traditional schedule. Kids today are not distinguishing between digital and physical experiences, so Cartoon Network and LEGO are working to adapt the LEGO model of creativity into interactive digital experiences, as well — always with the hope that the virtual experience drives kids back to playing with real toys.
I was most encouraged when Moynihan was asked what kind of people LEGO looks for when hiring. His answer echoes much of the philosophy that guides our Cinema & New Media Arts program here at HBU:
“People who can make sense of what’s going on, who can make sense of the world. People with a liberal arts education who have more than technical skills, who can take information from many data points and synthesize that. Learn marketing and a lot of it will be obsolete in a few years. Instead, learn how to think, be agile. We place a high premium on people who can think outside of their own context.”
A Filmmaker’s Exploration of Outer Space
The second session was a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming IMAX space documentary, A Beautiful Planet, featuring director Toni Myers and former astronaut (and space photographer) Marsha Ivins.
The new film features the first digital IMAX footage from space, which allowed the filmmakers to “capture views we had never been able to see before.” The digital cameras provided a wider latitude of exposure and incredible low-light capabilities, resulting in breathtaking images of the Earth, even in shadow.
The digital IMAX cameras also allowed the astronauts to capture far more footage from space than has ever before been possible. When using film, the very hefty 65mm rolls could only capture 3 minutes of footage and then had to be carried back-and-forth to Earth on the space shuttle. For A Beautiful Planet, the astronauts shot more than 11 TBs of digital footage, all stored on small CF cards.
Marsha Ivins revealed that while she will always love the analog nature of film, her job with NASA has always been to push the technology forward. Years ago, she helped NASA build the first digital SLR cameras, before commercial companies followed suit with the now ubiquitous DSLR-style of camera. That spirit of innovation has been at the center of everything NASA has done over the last fifty years, but Ivins fears that without a clear new mission, the organization is stagnating. “We have a lot of ‘gonnas’ — like ‘we’re gonna go to Mars’ — but we don’t have plans. We don’t have a mission.”
She summed up her concerns:
“When we stop exploring, we stop growing and we cease being interesting.”
Breaking into TV in the Digital Age
An inspiring panel of women filmmakers and executives talked about the challenges and opportunities available in television in this rapidly evolving digital landscape. The panel had trouble even defining what the term “television” even means today, given the wide variety of content delivery methods now available. Alex Cirillo, founder of Big Vision Creative, suggested that the term now applies to virtually any kind of serialized media, regardless of platform or viewing device. Kesila Childers, an executive from reality TV producer Bunim / Murray Productions, was more hesitant to accept this broad of a definition — but the point was, call it whatever you want, episodic content now comes in many, many forms.
Laura Turner Garrison, a development executive for the video hosting site Vimeo, explained that today independent filmmakers can gain traction with her company and other distributors with as few as 100,000 viewers. While that’s still a lot of people, the threshold for success and legitimacy is much more approachable today, with so many avenues available for content. Conversely though, while there are more opportunities, they remain considerably smaller in reach than traditional television.
Childers and Turner Garrison also offered some tips on what they look for in pitches from filmmakers. Childers biggest question is, Why You? Why are you the one pitching the project and what gives you the authority to tell this story? Is it your passion? Research? Personal experience? Turner Garrison wants to know, What can you bring that’s different than anyone else? They both constantly hear the same ideas from filmmakers (“M.O.P.” — most often pitched concepts). They’re looking for authentic voices and unique takes.
Proofs of concept are becoming more and more essential. Everyone has ideas, so the ability to produce and deliver actual content is now becoming the lowest threshold companies are looking for from many filmmakers. Cirillo felt this also strengthens the project by establishing a stronger proprietary ownership over your idea and your take on that idea.
Race in America with Ken Burns and Henry Louis Gates
Ken Burns is one of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers in the world, known for his penetrating historical documentaries about America’s complicated past. He was joined by filmmaker Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University and Dr. Todd Boyd of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in a thoughtful and sometimes painful discussion of race in America today and historically.
Ken Burns began the session saying, “Race is the most important sub-theme in American history.” He’s been criticized for “tarnishing” American legends by discussing the messier parts of our history, but he feels that he has a responsibility to the truth first, even if it contradicts our preferred point-of-view. “Exposing the truth isn’t revisionist. It fleshes out our heroes and makes them more real.”
The trio discussed how modern media and reality television is damaging our perspective on history, culture, and society. Referencing Les Moonves recent comments about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”), Boyd suggested that the landscape has been distorted so that our news reflects our less than noble passions, rather than serving the common interest. We’ve chosen to be entertained at the expense of the truth.
“I think the delegitimization of people’s emotions has been a long and frustrating trope that we have endured,” Burns pointed out. Anger is brewing in many pockets of America today, whether it’s anger towards immigrants, anger towards Washington, anger about racism or police brutality. Burns fears that modern media is fueling this anger, “rather than appealing to our better angels.”
I also had the chance to attend two films during the first day. The first, From Nowhere, is an emotionally-charged look at three undocumented teenagers who find themselves caught between the poor choices their parents have made and a system that is blind to their potential. It’s a well-acted film, driven by really compelling performances — especially from the young actors playing the high school students. The filmmaking is standard indie fare — mostly uninspiring handheld camera work and lighting, clearly with the priority being to deliver a raw and natural experience, although this ultimately ends up feeling one-noted and contrived.
The second film, The Other Half, was a depressing tale of grief and loss in the midst of a complicated love story. The filmmaker began the Q&A afterwards by noting that he had no idea what he was doing when he made the film… and that definitely showed through, as the film is dominated by arbitrary, seemingly random creative choices that often work against the larger narrative. The film’s saving grace is the richly nuanced performance from Tatiana Maslany (from Canada’s Orphan Black TV series). Maslany plays the film’s bipolar love interest and brings depth and charm to an otherwise cold and often lifeless film.