American Film Market Shares A Mix of Choir Lessons and Insights Into The Power of Storytelling
AFM session panelists Elizabeth Haggard of Participant Media (l) and Jonathan Prince of PhilmCo Media (Dan Steinberg Photography/courtesy of AFM)
Panelists from VICE Studios, Participant Media, PhilmCo Media, Lion Forge Animation, SIE Society discuss "When Films Change the World"
  • SANTA MONICA, Calif.
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Is it better to avoid preaching to the choir or to listen to its members sing? That’s one of the figurative queries to emerge from a session titled “When Films Change the World,” which kicked off Thursday (11/3) proceedings at the American Film Market (AFM), a confab which got underway on November 1 and runs through November 6 in Santa Monica.

Moderating the “When Films Change the World” panel discussion was Robert Rippberger, founder and co-executive director of the Social Impact Entertainment (SIE) Society, a global alliance formed to educate, connect and empower professionals in entertainment, non-profit and business to harness storytelling for greater social good and measurable impact. Panelists were Danny Gabai, chief content officer, VICE Studios U.S.; Elizabeth Haggard, SVP of narrative film, Participant Media, Jonathan Prince, co-founder and president, PhilmCo Media; and David Steward II, CEO of Lion Forge Animation.

Gabai noted the importance of telling entertaining character-driven stories that have a better chance to reach a broader base. He affirmed you don’t want to just be preaching to the choir. VICE, he said, tries to reach out to as many people as possible to affect social change. Gabai cited the lauded Flee as an example, bringing a unique entertainment value to a major issue that many people often tune out--immigration and the plight of migrants seeking a better life.

Flee director Jonas Poher Rasmussen deployed layers of animation as a young man talks about his family fleeing war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 1980s. This marks the first time that the man--a childhood friend of Rasmussen who is speaking anonymously under the name Amin--has ever shared this story with others. The tale spans five years and stretches from Afghanistan to the Soviet Union to Scandinavia.

Flee went on to earn assorted honors, including three Oscar nominations earlier this year--for Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature Film and Best International Feature Film.

Among the companies behind Flee were VICE, Participant and Neon.

AFM session panelist Haggard said that Flee underscores Participant’s “entertainment first” and “filmmaker forward” approach which prioritizes the entertainment value of a project as well as its ability to engage. She said there’s little to gain from being didactic and “preaching to the choir.”

PhilmCo Media’s Prince agreed about the entertainment and engagement factors being essential. But at the same time he noted that there are times when it makes sense to preach to the choir. Sometimes those in the proverbial choir are more passionate and inclined to take tangible action to right a wrong or directly address an injustice. Prince observed that while it’s great to raise awareness of a problem and generate empathy, more needs to be done. “Empathy is not enough,” he affirmed, adding, “We want the choir to watch our film and then take action.” Prince concluded, “I want the choir to stand up and sing.”

Hair Love
While Flee earned three Oscar nominations, Hair Love won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short a couple of years earlier. Lion Forge Animation lent its support to the film, which was directed by Matthew A. Cherry. Hair Love introduces us to an African American father who learns how to style his daughter’s hair for the first time. Cherry created the six-minute film--using animation--to showcase a Black family while providing a positive depiction for Black kids and normalizing Black hair.

Panelist Steward noted that Hair Love was Lion Forge Animation’s first project, one he’s particularly proud of in that it brought Black fatherhood to the fore and elements of Black culture to a broader audience.

Prince conjectured that kind of like brands--whether it be a car or Crest toothpaste--try to weave their way into content, so too can social issues and concerns be integrated into a film or TV show. And for those productions, nonprofits can be brought together with for-profit sponsors that want their brands to stand for something more.

As for upcoming content, PhilmCo was at press time getting set to roll out 1660 Vine, a movie based on a stage musical that carries important messages about mental health. Prince quipped it’s akin to what his wife equates to "putting kale in a Quarter Pounder" to make people more willing to eat it. 1660 Vine refers to an apartment complex which a group of influencers move into so they can help one another attain social media stardom. In the process, related Prince, mental health and emotional honesty--or the lack thereof--are addressed as we see in some cases that the influencer is becoming a person much further from the honest core of who he, she or they actually are. PhilmCo brought in Patricia McGregor, a first-time director, to helm 1660 Vine.

Meanwhile discussion moderator Rippberger recently came out with a book, “The Power of Storytelling,” in which he lists a number of commercially successful marquee feature films that had a greater purpose and social conscience behind them such as Avatar which had its premise rooted in an environmental message, and Jurassic World which touched upon how animals are kept in captivity for our amusement--sort of a narrative precursor to the documentary Blackfish chronicling the inhumane treatment of whales at SeaWorld.


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