Hanging above Matthew A. Cherry’s shoulder during a recent Zoom panel is a poster of Zuri—the lovable little girl from Cherry’s short film Hair Love—hugging the Oscar that film won for Best Animated Short in 2020.
It’s a flex, sure, but the poster is also a potent reminder of the democratization of storytelling, a prominent theme that arose during the panel, ‘Lights, Camera, Action! Behind the Scenes with the Most Innovative Storytellers’, part of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Summit.
As he discussed during the panel, Cherry’s road to the Academy Awards began at the same place the director’s previous films did: Kickstarter. By raising $284,058 from the crowdfunding platform, a record for an animated short, Cherry was able to circumvent the traditional barriers that keep storytellers from bringing their ideas to fruition.
“I knew what would happened if I went straight to studios and asked for money for a short animated film about a dad doing his daughter’s hair,” Cherry says. “The idea was always to prove this has an audience and people would want to support this idea, and in [the Kickstarter campaign’s] virality, it really proved that point and people ended up coming to us, when if we had come to them straight before doing the campaign, I don’t think they would have. Something to think about these days is how to prove there’s an audience. Sometimes it’s a Kickstarter, sometimes it’s a web series, sometimes it’s an indie film. You have to figure out your way.”
By now, a successfully kickstarted short is a rather common occurrence, but an Oscar-winning one is rare indeed. Crowdfunding is, of course, not the only way that storytelling on a mass scale has become more democratized in recent years. Terence Carter, co-president and head of TV at Westbrook Studios, the production company founded by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, relayed a recent success story from a creator who similarly gamed the system.
In 2019, filmmaker Morgan Cooper independently executed his vision of a gritty reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The four-minute short, Bel-Air, immediately went viral and spread so far that it hit exactly the best audience Cooper could hope for.
“Our media team saw it and flagged it for Will [Smith],” Carter recalled, “And the next day, they flew Morgan Cooper out to meet Will on the set of Bad Boys for Life, and they shot something together, which also went viral. At that point, I went to Universal and we went out to the marketplace and just having this calling card and a demonstration of support from fans gave them concrete data to hold up.”
The result? After a bidding war involving five platforms, Cooper’s idea for a dramatic new take on the Fresh Prince series ended up with a two-season order at Peacock.
Another way that storytelling is being democratized, as Hooked founder and CEO Prerna Gupta pointed out, is with audiences having more of a direct way to weigh in on the content getting made. The reason Gupta knows what she’s talking about on this matter is because her mobile entertainment app relies on its audience to help determine the movies and shows that populate the platform.
“We have this audience of 100 million people that we test little snippets of stories on, in text format audio and video, and it’s less about process and more about the content itself,” Gupta says. “The culture is evolving so quickly, and we’re able to see what are the types of stories that young people want to see today, and what are the topics and characters they want to see today.”
Not only is technology revolutionizing the pipeline for storytellers to distribute their projects, though, but as Cherry points out, it’s making it so just about anyone has access to the equipment to make those projects in the first place.
“We shot my second movie on two iPhones,” he says. “Every year, these cameras get better and better and smaller and smaller and I won’t be surprised if eventually you see a high schooler who wins an Oscar because they’re able to get a pure raw unfiltered story out to the masses.”
It may be hard to imagine a high schooler winning an Oscar at the moment, but not too long ago, it would have been just as difficult to imagine a Kickstarter project winning one.
That’s the democratization of storytelling in action for you.