60 Second Docs COO Jake Avnet explains the secrets of high-impact online storytelling.
May 24, 2019 9 min read
If you’re over 30, there’s a chance you missed out on Sickhouse, a “made for mobile movie” that was shot and released in real time on Snapchat over the course of five days.
But listen up because Sickhouse is an important lesson in your digital education if you’re a storytelling entrepreneur who loves today’s multi-platform golden age of television and movies and wants to get in on the action making money telling stories.
In fact, Sickhouse signaled one of the routes into that brave new media world: Specifically, this Blair Witch Project-like horror movie met Gen-Xers and millennials where they live — on their phones.
To that end, the makers of Sickhouse sent out teaser clips via millennial influencer Andrea Russett who shared them via her Snapchat account, with little explanation. That’s how Sickhouse came to be the first film ever to run on Snapchat, and in the process garnered 110 million views. True to Snapchat’s core premise, each segment disappeared from followers’ phones after just 24 hours.
Hmm, you’re thinking. Impressive, but not much money there. And you’re right. But hold on: Russett’s followers, who’d been primed to see the film, were then invited to view the entire 68-minute film in full (itself shot on an iPhone) on Amazon or iTunes. Cost: $5.99.
And plenty of those young viewers bit. Though a studio exec wouldn’t reveal the exact numbers, he hinted at the strategy’s success, noting, “I can say we were happy with the numbers,”
That exec belongs to the new media world being pioneered by Indigenous Media, a studio that’s creating content for new platforms. Sharing that mission is 60 Second Docs, an Indigenous offspring brand which produces what its name describes: short mobile films about odd characters of the world, like a guy who likes to disguise himself as an authentic-looking tree; a daddy-daughter hair-styling school; a “professional cuddler”; a woman who spins yarn from dog fur; and more. Relevant for entrepreneurs is the fact that Sixty Second Docs profiles not just “characters,” but companies using storytelling to promote their products.
Short commercial docs of this ilk have accordingly been produced for Chipotle, BlackRock and the film Black KlansKKKman, to name just a few 60 Second Docs clients. Wanting to know more, Entrepreneur sought out the documentary brand’s COO, Jake Avnet. Below is our interview, edited for length and clarity.
What is an overview of Indigenous Media in general and your property 60 Second Docs, specifically?
Indigenous launched nearly five years ago and is a studio all about creating native premium content. So, what does that mean? There are a lot of new and emerging platforms: Facebook, YouTube Snapchat, Tic Tok, even. Lots of platforms that ten years ago people didn’t take seriously as places where audiences would watch original content. Now there’s a massive audience on these platforms and they’re making original shows.
So, five years ago, we saw the opportunity. Co-founder/CEOs Jon Avnet, my father [Risky Business, The History Boys], and Rodrigo Garcia [In Treatment, The Sopranos] and I had worked together previously on a big original content channel for Youtube, and that was a great learning experience on the opportunities in digital media; and we really wanted to do that for everybody, not just YouTube.
So, we created Indigenous Media … You can’t just make shows for Facebook the way you may have made shows for HBO; it’s a different kind of audience, it’s a different platform; audiences watch it in different kinds of ways, and you have to be sensitive to that.
Five Points, one of your Indigenous Media offerings for Facebook Watch, is a drama series [just renewed for a second season] about the urban high school experience, and it’s co-produced by Kerry Washington of Scandal fame. Like Sickhouse, Five Points is delivered in short, 12-to-17-minute, mobile-friendly spurts. It reminded me of Degrassi High, the Canadian TV show my daughter watched in the early 2000s, and of the many teen dramas that show spawned: Dawson’s Creek, 90210, et.
That’s sort of what I mean by being thoughtful about where a show is. Degrassi was the version that was made 30 years ago, and [Five Points] is the version that is made now for Facebook for a different kind of audience. Same age group, different era.
Tell me about 60 Second Docs and your strategy of online storytelling …
It’s a brand that is easy to understand because it’s exactly what it sounds like: short, one-minute documentaries where we explore the most interesting and unusual people on the planet, period. It’s all about finding great stories that have an emotional hook. We try to hit all those different types of beats that ultimately make up life.
We’ve done about 500 episodes and grown really, really big [the platform claims 7.2 million followers, with an average of 8.1 million views per episode]. The strategy with 60 Second Doc is all about interacting with audiences where they are, to distribute [our content] across social platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat Discover. And the reason is that that’s where the audience is.
How do you find and film the stories you cover?
It’s basically a self-contained unit within a digital site. Virtually every resource we have is in-house; we have a research team that is developing stories, finding stories; we have a production team, post-production, so we are making these. We work with filmmakers all over the globe, most of whom we’ve done a lot of work with, who cover key areas for us, but we’re always working with new, young filmmakers.
Where does the money for these films come from?
We raised some capital about five years ago, launched and used our money to invest in projects that are going to go out. 60 Second Docs is a big entity in itself; it makes money in different ways: a lot of brand partnerships, licensing. We just announced our first television series with Howie Mandel, which is a big part of where we’re going next — expanding into larger film and television projects.
The entertainment trade press has written about your brand partnerships with Viacom, General Motors, Focus Features, Fox, Mike’s Hard Lemonade — even Chipotle, where you interviewed the chain’s executive chief Chad Brauze. Tell me about these brand deals.
Brands these days broadly are interested in being storytellers. They want to develop authentic connections, relationships, with the audiences they’re trying to speak to, and the smart ones know that what they’ve been doing for a long time in terms of commercials and that way of communicating with consumers is not as effective as it used to be …
[The doc about the Spike Lee film] BlackkKlansman was an interesting example. It’s based on a true story about a guy named Ron Stallworth [a black Colorado police officer who went undercover as a Klansman to expose plans for a bombing]. He wrote a book about it, and then that book turned into the movie. We connected with him in Colorado. And the 60 Second Doc tells the story in his own words, cut together with footage from the film.
60 Second Docs’ Wealth, in collaboration with [investment company] BlackRock, is an entirely new vertical exploring personal narratives on the intersection of wealth and well-being. We worked with OnStar to introduce their “Be Safe Out There” campaign to an entirely new audience, told through different formats [like all-emojis], where we explore the true stories of individuals that found themselves in great risk.
Can you extrapolate from all these things how the media landscape has changed in general?
The way we look at it is, there are still opportunities in traditional media. There’s more TV than ever before; the film business is booming for a certain type of film. But the world is very much controlled by a handful of massive companies, right? And the opportunities for entrepreneurship within traditional film and television are fairly limited because there are only so many buyers. And again they’re sort of controlled by big entities. Whereas, with digital media, we have these channels available to us. Whether they’re Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, these are social platforms that allow us to reach audiences in ways that you couldn’t do 15 or 20 years ago.
We managed to build 60 Second Docs into the top-performing documentary series that just won the Webby — and as a fully independent documentary brand without an affiliation with a major media company. And that’s very unusual, right? And that speaks to the opportunities within digital to build your own business from scratch, to reach giant audiences, to be highly entrepreneurial in terms of thinking about how you can connect with those audiences and build interesting, unusual businesses — and that’s what’s exciting for us.
People are very receptive to newer media. You look at someone like Issa Rae; she had a web series on YouTube she made herself, which was cool and authentic, and she created a really impressive career. There are countless opportunities for entrepreneur storytellers — we’re doing our first experiential activation in the next five or six weeks. So, if you have a story to tell, a fresh brand, a fresh voice, people are paying attention in ways they never have before.