The explosion of streaming video coupled with the prevalence of smartphones and tablets has created a demand and new marketplace for short films. There is no bigger example of this than the popularity of Vimeo’s Staff Picks. Staff Picks isn’t popular on the scale of a viral video of a cat playing piano or Donald Trump saying something outrageous, but rather it is a heavily curated site that delivers high quality shorts to a niche audience hungry for intelligent, creative content. It’s the cultivating of this film festival-like audience — which often results in 20,000 to 200,000 views of a short in its first week on Staff Picks — that the site has become as important to independent and documentary short filmmakers as getting into Sundance or SXSW.
The Staff Pick community has become equally important to Vimeo itself, especially as the platform continues to dip its toes in funding original, premium (pay) content. Over the past few years, the company has put a great deal of time and resources into finding ways to encourage and support these filmmakers, with the hope being that investing in their careers was also an investment in an organic way to grow their platform.
Recently that has meant experimenting with bringing brand dollars to the table as a way of funding the filmmakers’ next projects. Vimeo’s initial popularity within the indie film world is directly tied to it having been the first ad-free, high quality HD player on the internet. This is why it’s understandable that the company has shied away from the typical corporate branding model, but as Vimeo’s Head of Brand Solutions Jeff Hurlow explained to Indiewire, there’s been a shift in how brands are thinking about content.
"Many brands are now thinking about digital content from the entertainment perspective," explained Hurlow. "Before people would just generate video as an excuse to put pre-roll in front of it, or to be background for their ads and branding. For a variety of reasons that has become a less effective tool for brands. There’s some really innovative ad agencies we’ve been working with that are looking to build off authentic films that people are interested in watching and where branding doesn't interfere with story. They are drawn to our space because of the high quality filmmakers we attract and being a platform where people care about the content — just look at the commenting on Vimeo, it's much more productive than the caty comments on most sites. It’s about having a more sophisticated conversation, which these brands want to be part of."
One of Hurlow’s jobs is to help match directors, whose work has been staff picked, with the individual brands, to see if the filmmaker has any original story idea that might fit the extremely broad themes laid out by the corporations. The companies then supply a budget for the filmmakers to make a high quality short film. To highlight how this process has worked, below are examples from three brand partnerships in which Vimeo has brought together Staff Picks filmmakers and major brands.
The theme for the Charles Schwab project was "Why I Left." Filmmakers were given free range to pitch any short idea that fit under this broad subject.
"The project was part Schwab’s larger 'Own Your Tomorrow' campaign, which was non-financial based," said Hurlow. "This meant they were interested in telling very human stories that created an emotional connection with the viewer. They were extremely hands off, with the only emphasis being quality and that they wanted ten wildly different perspectives — animation, scripted, documentary, with an equally wide interpretation of their theme. Normally in branded content, you come up with a concept, hire a production company and grind out ten pieces of content. With this they wanted each piece to be unique, which everybody understood meant relying on the unique voice of the individual filmmakers."
In this short "Always Must Go," documentary filmmaker Isaac Gale profiles Andy Bothwell, lead singer of Astronautalis, who meditates on his decision to never lay down roots.
"Samsung wanted to tackle the theme of connectivity, specifically the connection between technology and our daily lives," explained Hurlow. "Now that's a super broad theme which allowed us to bring in a bunch of really interesting filmmakers looking to do something different."
This experimental short "Elemental" is by kogonda, who Indiewire readers may know as the innovative video essayist behind popular films about Wes Anderson, Robert Bresson and others. In this film, he creates a hypnotic series of images that create some thought-provoking connections.
"The goal of all of these branded projects is to create Staff Pick-worthy content, but there’s a real church and state between the Staff Picks curation team and what we do, and I don’t mind telling you those guys are tough," laughs Hurlow. "Right now a little over 20 percent of what we’ve made has been chosen to be staff picked."
The film by kogonda and "Always Must Go" are two of the lucky ones.
Lincoln Motor Company
Lincoln did a massive launch, including those Matthew McConaughey ads, for their MKC series of cars. In partnering with Vimeo, they did require the car be in the short, but there wouldn't need to be an emblem shot and they didn't ask that the car's features be highlighted or play a role in the story.
"This has been an experiment at first for us," explained Hurlow. "After three years of working with Lincoln we’ve developed a real trust and made some great films together. What was really important to them was that the shorts had a polished look and feel. We decided to approach this with the filmmakers from a cinematic angle. We put a heavy emphasis into making shorts that were visually interesting, but rather than get some hired gun with a commercial background which be the normal route to go, we relied on our visual storytellers."
In "Bloom," co-directors Diego Contreras and Khalid Mohtaseb tell the story of an Argentinian girl who arrives in the U.S. with limited English and someone else's luggage.