Focus Forward: Helping documentary moviemakers share their visions
by Kyle Rupprecht

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focusforward300With its impressive pedigree and thought-provoking line-up, Focus Forward is quickly emerging as one of the best online documentary showcases around. Presented by GE and strategic media company Cinelan, Focus Forward—Short Films, Big Ideas is a series of 30 three-minute nonfiction films that explore the incredible power of ideas and invention. Made by today’s leading documentary moviemakers, the shorts revolve around innovative visionaries—in some cases, everyday folks—whose cutting-edge advancements in medicine, computer science, robotics, engineering and green energy have made a significant impact on humanity, and have reshaped our world in the process. The Focus Forward films will be featured at prestigious film festivals globally, followed by online distribution and via cable TV services (including Video On Demand) across the world.

In addition to showcasing these important works, Focus Forward also features an impressive $200,000 Filmmaker Competition (the largest cash prize for a short film competition to date). This year’s Sundance Film Festival hosted a special awards ceremony for the competition (judges included notable documentarians like Barbara Kopple and Joe Berlinger), during which the five runner-ups were given their cash prizes, and the grand jury prize of $100,000 was awarded to Barcelona-based moviemaker Rafel Duran Torrent for his short film, Cyborg Foundation. Two new shorts by renowned moviemakers Albert Maysles (The Secret of Trees) and Morgan Spurlock (You Don’t Know Jack), created specifically for the Focus Forward series, also made their world premiere as part of Sundance’s Shorts Competition.

Just days before the Sundance ceremony, MM caught up with Cinelan partner Jack Myers to discuss the future of Focus Forward, and its impact on the world.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Could you talk about how the Focus Forward competition got started? What was the initial concept behind it? Do you hope to make it an annual event?

Jack Myers (JM): I had a relationship with both the Cinelan team and the senior marketing executives at GE. At GE, they are always looking for innovative ways to communicate their brand message to different constituencies, and were very engaged by and open to the opportunity to connect with the global documentary film community. We developed a vision for GE built around empowering filmmakers to tell their stories of innovation and inventions that are contributing to humanity and the improvement of life.

Through Cinelan, we reached out to filmmakers and the response has been extraordinary. Their films are truly powerful and have been impacting audiences around the world. Based on this success, we plan to expand the Focus Forward initiative and expect it is now a permanent part of the documentary and independent film world.

MM: Ultimately, what do you hope the impact of the Focus Forward project will be?

JM: Related to the GE Focus Forward campaign, we know it has positively influenced perceptions of GE among several constituencies and our goal is to broaden distribution of the films. We also know that as a result of Focus Forward and Cinelan’s understanding of the film community, the opportunity for corporations, filmmakers and film festivals to collaborate and cooperate has been significantly advanced. Traditional walls have collapsed and greater mutual understanding has been fostered. This newly designed relationship model is still in its infancy and the goal at Cinelan is to develop new relationships and continue to advance the opportunity for the passion projects of filmmakers to be produced with corporate underwriting.

MM: What are some of the unique opportunities or benefits offered by Focus Forward that participating moviemakers could not find elsewhere?

JM: Funding, funding and more funding for the passion projects of filmmakers. Distribution expertise, with unique relationships with both legacy media companies and digital media. Plus the opportunity to retain creative control and to retain all or a significant share of their IP. We have unique and in-depth relationships with the marketing and advertising community and are trusted by them. Morgan Spurlock, of course, is unique in his connections as a filmmaker to the advertising community.

Because Cinelan is headed by filmmakers such as Morgan and Karol Martesko-Fenster, we have a unique relationship with and understanding of the unique realities and needs of filmmakers. Douglas Dicconson is one of the industry’s most experienced and digital talented distribution and relationship experts. Damon Smith knows the film and festival community inside and out. Although I’m involved as a key connection to media, marketers and underwriters, I am an Oscar and Emmy award nominee for best documentary, and am a Peabody Award winning documentary producer. Everyone involved in Cinelan is engaged in the film community and has relationships developed over years in the marketing community.

MM: You were able to nab some very successful, award-winning documentary moviemakers for the project—including Alex Gibney, Steve James, Albert Maysles and Liz Garbus. How did you get them to come aboard? What, in particular, do you think appealed to them about the project?

JM: The Focus Forward program truly touched a responsive chord in the documentary film community. The process was very simple and offered a truly valuable opportunity for filmmakers to raise funding for their passion projects related to innovation and invention. Several of the filmmakers had been seeking funding for full length features about the subjects, and our funding enabled them to produce 3-minute fully evolved films that they are now using to gain additional support. Others were involved personally in supporting important causes and Focus Forward enabled them to share these issues with the world, and with the imprimatur of GE underwriting.

A few filmmakers used the Focus Forward opportunity to explore stories of innovation and invention that they had heard about and were fascinated by, such as the DisplAir, Invisible Bike Helmet and Heart Stop Beating. When you combine creative freedom, retention of intellectual property rights, interesting story-telling and full funding, it’s not too difficult to generate interest and enthusiasm.

MM: How did the Sundance Film Festival enter into the picture?

JM: Because our priority at Cinelan is to empower established and emerging independent and documentary filmmakers to produce quality films, it was important to build a traditional distribution relationship with major festivals. We want to assure our partners that their films will gain appropriate visibility and recognition. We have premiered Focus Forward films at major festivals globally, and have been active proponents of the short film format. Sundance, of course, has been a leader in advancing their shorts program. Many of our filmmakers are Sundance alums; Morgan and Karol have well-established relationships with the team at Sundance. Our competition jury is a who’s who of Sundance veterans and legends.

For our GE Focus Forward Filmmaker Competition, it was a natural fit to announce it last year at Sundance and to present the five winners with $200,000 in prize money this year. It’s especially gratifying that Focus Forward films by Morgan and by Albert Maysles are included in this year’s Sundance Shorts Competition. We’re looking forward to expanding our relationship with Sundance and to continuing to develop innovative new opportunities to bring underwriting support to both the films and to festivals. We’re very proud of what we’ve created in partnership with Sundance and other festivals, and are truly appreciative of the tremendous support Cinelan and GE have received from Sundance and the documentary film community. We believe the GE Focus Forward program represents a watershed event in the marriage of film production and corporate underwriting, and the Sundance Film Festival of 2013 represents our coming out party.

MM: Could you talk a little about the importance of short films in the digital age? How have video-sharing sites, like Vimeo and YouTube, changed the landscape for short form moviemakers? How do you see things changing in the future?

JM: Research has proved that the average length of a video view online is less than three minutes. Young people especially are increasingly accustomed to watching short films, and are less and less willing to engage in 30 and 60-minute commitments. We seem to be in an age of three minute films and 90-180 minute films, with less and less in between. Vimeo, You Tube and other sites like Vevo, Funny or Die and FocusForwardFilms are naturally expanding in value to audiences as their resource for video – and connecting them to the stories that interest them. Whether it’s comedy, documentaries, engaging fiction, animation, or real life moments, short videos are the wave of the future.

MM: Anything else to add?

JM: Because of the success of the Focus Forward initiative and the enthusiasm of the film community, the Cinelan team is now reaching out to other marketers to explore how our model can contribute to their marketing goals and objectives. There is absolutely NO doubt that marketers and content creators will increasingly engage in new and meaningful collaboration. In the past, the focus of content creation for marketers has been on following their creative guidance and direction. Cinelan is empowering independent and documentary filmmakers to be guided by their own unique creative vision and talents and to tell their own stories, underwritten by corporate funding. In many ways, it’s the PBS model translated into short-form films and distributed in new and innovative ways.

For more information, please go to www.focusforwardfilms.com.