Outlook: Eyes stray further from the wide screen
Jordan Beck
Issue: November/December 2021

Outlook: Eyes stray further from the wide screen

Quick, take out your phone. Now snap a picture of this screen. What direction was your phone pointing? 

Yeah, that’s what I thought.
I recently stepped into my role as head of development for animation studio Hero4Hire Creative. Coming from a feature film and live entertainment background, I’ve had a front-row seat for the shift in audience behaviors of the last decade. There are thousands of other think pieces heralding and/or lamenting the downfall of 20th century modes of exhibition at the hands – or rather, within the handheld devices – of smartphone-wielding audiences who are increasingly unwilling to sit in dark rooms for hours without talking. Regardless of whether you see this shift as a threat or an advantage, the fact remains that content is being consumed at a previously-unimaginable rate on gadgets that never existed in George Jetson’s wildest dreams (much to the chagrin of creators who hate hearing their art being referred to as “content”).
Entering the world of television production and brand creative with Hero4Hire, it hasn’t taken long to see the same hurdles facing television-native brands navigating a digital media landscape. Fortunately, the studios we have the pleasure of working with – including PBS, Sesame Workshop, CBS and other entertainment behemoths – understand the need to expand beyond television...or even beyond the 16:9 aspect ratio.

2021 proved an interesting year for creative media, sitting at the intersection of lessons learned during the thick of the pandemic in 2020 and the gradual reintroduction of pre-pandemic film/TV production, distribution and advertising. After a year when pajama-bottomed Zoom calls replaced the office and every legacy Hollywood studio added “Plus” or “Max” to their online persona, brands would be wrong to think they could revert to an old-hat communication style for mobile-first customers who claimed 5.1 surround sound in their living rooms as a “home office expense” on their taxes. The key to success in 2022 and beyond will be to embrace the long-lead trends and prepare for history to repeat itself.

1 - “Straying” into digital becomes the well-worn path

“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!” - Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd.

Broadcast entertainment and advertising aren’t going anywhere now, but savvy creators need look no further than their own pockets (or your own hands, if you are a creator reading this on your phone right now) to find a full suite of the world’s most effective communications tools. Brands that adopt digital platforms early and incorporate their specific requirements into their marketing strategies are in a better spot to succeed in 2022. Avenues like Instagram and TikTok let companies harness unique creative styles to reach brand-new audiences on a global scale, where that kind of reach was once reserved for only top players.
Beyond marketing, digital-exclusive shorts and series will become increasingly de rigueur, especially for established IP looking to expand. At Hero4Hire, we have produced hours of digital content for broadcast brands like Arthur and Sesame Street, helping millions of young viewers engage with those characters and lessons outside of the traditional episodic narrative.

2 - The king is dead, long live the king

“There’s always someone cooler than you.” - Ben Folds

A widely-viewed YouTube account or phone number-length Instagram fanbase is great, but assuming those numbers are permanently meaningful would not be wise — at least, not in isolation. We exist in a world where Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are considered “legacy” social networks with fluid demographics in their active user bases. I joined Facebook in 2004 when you had to have a .edu email address to sign up. 

Just as TV didn’t kill the movies and video didn’t kill the radio star, social media has become a permanent cornerstone of the global media landscape without replacing older technologies. That doesn’t mean, however, that the specific channels currently dominating the App Store should necessarily be the cornerstone of a brand’s media plan going forward.

In 2020, Hero4Hire created a 2D animated short called Carol Never Yells, originally released as our company holiday card via newsletter email. Clocking in at just over one minute, the “microshort” (more on that term later) features an original soundtrack, full character animation, a dozen sets, and 40-plus character designs. While the majority of our studio’s reputation has been earned through brand creative and production services, we have always maintained an original content pipeline. And with one of our 2022 goals being the expansion of our own intellectual property slate, we took another look at Carol Never Yells as something more than just a holiday card; when viewed through a different lens (or app), Carol and her crazy family are the stars of their own short film!

After selection for the Like It Film Fest, hosted entirely on the India-based TikTok equivalent app Rizzle, we also saw an exponentially higher view count for the video after reformatting it for 9:16 vertical presentation. For social media platforms, particularly in the microshort space, hosting film festivals for content shorter that three minutes provides a throughline gateway for incredible talent hitherto unknown through traditional channels.

3 - What’s a “microshort”?

“We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth. We weren’t meant to spend it this way!" - Peter Gibbons, Office Space

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deems anything under 40 minutes a “short film,” a “microshort” is a relatively new term to describe predominantly digital videos that fall between one and three minutes. If a traditional short is a one-act play, a microshort is more like a skit. Perhaps most importantly, the increasing legitimacy of the microshort format plays directly into the trend for digitally-native generations to produce and curate their own content on apps like Rizzle, TikTok and Twitch.

Brands have long seized partnerships with creative individuals finding spotlights of their own on these platforms for sponsored posts or native ads – the oft-discussed but marginally-understood power of “influencer marketing” – but there’s a world of opportunity for studios and brands to expand their organic footprint into these spaces as well. Modern consumers are keenly aware when they’re being served an ad; whenever we click that banner or watch that pre-roll video, we know exactly what we’re going to be sold for the next 30 days of our online lives (whether or not we already made the purchase). There’s obviously something to be said for native ads, but especially for entertainment brands, there’s even more to be said for producing original content that’s natively-formatted for your intended audience’s platform of choice.

4 - Thinking outside the box...and into a different box

“Is it a movie? TV show? Videogame? Yes.” - my own Letterboxed review of Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Heading into 2022, the old 20th hierarchy of filmed entertainment is increasingly outdated. Feature films, narrative videogames, episodic TV for broadcast, bingeable limited series for streaming, :30 clips of teenagers dancing to sea shanties, augmented reality, virtual reality, tokens with varying degrees of fungibility, whatever “the metaverse” means, there’s simply too much variety in our media consumption habits to take a one-size-fits-all approach to content creation. 

For marketers, the fact that Instagram alone requires two separate native formats – feed posts work best at a 1:1 aspect ratio under a minute, while stories are 9:16 and break every :15 – immediately doubles the workload of a social media manager. But within all this chaos, opportunities exist for forward-thinking brands to tell their stories in the appropriate medium to the appropriate audience. Like a renaissance patron commissioning an artist equally adept at marble sculpture and fresco painting, successful brands will seek out creators who not only are well-versed in the specific nuances of today’s hottest platforms but also leaning forward to discover new technologies. It’s not just advertising: looking forward, non-traditional formats for creative media are not just viable, but necessary for the viability of production and distribution.

Jordan Beck is an award-winning filmmaker, performer and creative executive with 15 years in the entertainment industry. He is head of development for Emmy-nominated animation studio Hero4Hire Creative, shepherding the company’s slate of original children’s film and television programming alongside its pipeline of award-winning 2D, motion design, and mixed media production services.