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The future of storytelling – from Soderbergh to YouTube

Editor’s note: this is a new weekly editorial column from filmmakers Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson that will primarily focus on the evolution of film storytelling in this age of inexpensive, ubiquitous digital cameras and computer-based media. Watch for it every Wednesday.

Welcome to our column!

We are two filmmakers toiling away in the trenches, fighting the good fight in trying to make feature-length films. We also both teach filmmaking to undergrad and grad students, and co-create a web series that will appear on SundanceChannel.com beginning this summer. This column will take on the question, “What’s gonna happen to story?” Okay, we don’t know the answer, but we are both interested in the question. In this time of internet dominance, of viral video and short attention spans, where we live with both YouTube and the three hour release of Soderbergh’s CHE … where are we? And where is visual storytelling going?

Because of our backgrounds and interests, we want to examine these questions from the aesthetic, filmmaker-based point of view, less from the industry standpoint. We hope to share interesting links, pose questions about current films, web series, and web videos, and think in general about the way story functions. We hope you’ll read more, and contribute when you can.

Story as Contest

At least for the past ten years, marketing execs have realized the value of letting the public essentially create an advertisement for them, for free. My first encounter with this was in film school, when the Coca Cola company came to NYU, trolling for student filmmakers who would be willing to compete in their “Coca Cola Filmmaker Challenge” — win a “huge” budget to create a three minute film involving the love of movies and drinking Coke, to play theatrically nation-wide before major motion picture releases. I submitted. I lost.

I remember seeing the winning film play before some big romantic comedy, and feeling crushed that my ticket to the big time had been absconded by some squirrelly undergrad. Since then, of course, hundreds of organizations, both non-profit and for-profit, have posed filmmaking challenges to willing ‘contestants.’ I used to roll my eyes … how could this serious life pursuit be reduced to a contest? Why would makers play directly in to the hands of needy promotional types? But years later, I’m starting to see the opportunities, and how it’s grown far beyond simple commercialization. In posing story as game, isn’t there value in simply inviting broader creativity? Aren’t there new types of opportunities for collaboration?

A group of former students, a collective known as Profluence Productions, have participated for three years now in the week-long speed-doc-making International Documentary Challenge (affiliated with Hot Docs), and they cite the experiences here. I watched their filmmaking just get better and better; they made three wonderful shorts that continue to screen at festivals. My friend Brian Mooney has created this board game, The Storymatic, wherein players draw cards that help to initiate dramatic scenarios for fiction and screenplays. (Hmmm…good assignment for my screenwriting class.) Here’s the sample on how it works, on their site:

1. Think of this sentence: “X is in a conflict with Y about Z.”

2. Draw two ivory cards. Suppose you draw “plastic surgeon,” and “person with the hiccups.” This is your main character (X).

3. Draw one ivory card. Suppose you draw “child star.” This is your secondary character (Y).

4. Draw one silver card. Suppose you draw “overdue apology.” This is the source of the conflict (Z).

There is a good story in those cards: A plastic surgeon with the hiccups is in conflict with a child star about an overdue apology. There is just one thing missing: a person to tell that story.

5. Tell the story.

And, I just found the following docu-comic series contest through the very compelling smithmag.net: Next Door Neighbor. Readers submit stories around this theme, and the winner’s entry will be illustrated in to a comic strip. Clearly, this site utilizes well the notion of reader-contributed stories via theme (check it out, “My Pregnancy Story,” “My Ex,” etc). What’s not to like?
-AH