Art Meets Commerce
We found Brooklyn-based M ss ng P eces CEO Ari Kuschner speaking at a conference recently, in full opine mode, discussing visual storytelling and the value of content. His eight-year-old company, a filmmaker’s shop that produces branded content for television, online, mobile and live experiences, received its initial boost in 2007 when TED Talk offered them behind-the-scenes access to create a series of mini-documentaries. By showing the creative process behind a Talk, the films articulated TED’s chief brand value—the power of ideas. The process changed how Kuschner viewed his business, the world and himself.
Content: You did the American Express “Katie’s Krops” project. At what point did your company come into the process?
Ari: That was part of an American Express/Take Part Member’s Project program where they were doing short documentaries and spots on people who were doing awesome things for their communities. I had seen the flagship Geofrey Canada spot on television and loved it, so when our friend called from Ogilvy about doing a profile on Katie from Katie’s Krops, I knew her story would be special. It was one of the first pieces our director Sam Fleischner did with the company. It was a super small crew, really intimate, which I think comes through in the final piece. So we came in at the tail end of that campaign.
Content: Has a client ever suggested an idea that made you say, “Brilliant!” What was it?
Ari: Oh yeah, it happens! The recent project we did with the Red Bull Music Academy had many pieces of content, some of these were complex short films, and I was constantly surprised by RBMA's notion that everything should feel legitimate and relevant to their core audience of music lovers and makers. All their feedback and ideas were generally awesome and made the content great.
Content: How involved is the client, generally, with storyboarding?
Ari: It really depends on the project. Sometimes we are engaged on a more traditional level, where the agency comes with spots their team sold to the client, and asks how our director would make these boards into a great piece of content or spot. Other times the process is more as a content partner where we are asked to bring ideas to the table, so there’s no storyboarding per se—in particular with the branded documentary type work. But when the right conceptual spot calls for it our directors rely on storyboards.
Content: What’s the one challenge that crops up from client to client?
Ari: There are so many challenges—budgets getting squeezed, or non-collaborative decisions being made that can affect the quality of the work and damage its shareability. What it all seems to come down to is what [executive producer] Kate Oppenheim calls “the value of content”—unlike the classic formula that helped set television spot budgets for years, nobody really knows what content is worth anymore, especially online. It's incredibly unpredictable, and so the budgets and processes are all over the place. I often think about what the production company of the future will look like and this notion of: is it enough to just make the sausage? Comes up a lot. It's something we are exploring in the same way we are exploring interactive video.
Content: How has your association with TED changed your business?
Ari: It's been huge, to the point that it's actually hard to imagine what the company—and we as people—would be if we hadn’t had that opportunity. I think about it often, and what it comes down to is we were in the right place and the right time making the right type of content and working hard...and we got this unique opportunity to go to TED and make films there early in our careers. We were put in a room with 1,000 incredible people, to interview and learn from and get inspired and challenged by. And at some point we all thought “Well what the f*ck am I doing with my life?” It made me rise to this notion of being the best version of myself and to just go and shoot for the stars with where the company could go. It didn’t happen right away and it’s still happening, but I can feel often the power of those formative years roaming the TED halls.
Content: At TED, you worked alongside visionary thinkers including Al Gore, Sir Ken Robinson, Alex Bogusky, Chris Blackwell, Chris Anderson, William Kamkwamba. Can you tell us what you learned from one of them that’s made a difference in your work or your life?
Ari: I’ve always tried to reach out to people I truly believe in and who inspire me in some way. Often times what’s happened is they become collaborators or mentors, and I love that feeling. From Bogusky I learned the power of clear communication and how to empower people with an idea. From Gore, it was his relentless persuasion and commitment to the climate issue as the issue of the century. From Blackwell I’ve learned how to be humble about success and the value of good taste. From Anderson, it's the power of a single idea presented in the right context, and what a curator really does. And from Kamkwamba, to never take anything for granted and to make something out of nothing.
Content: Do you have a favorite director?
Ari: Well I like all my directors! But as far as film directors go, I often think of Soderbergh, Kubrick, Aronofsky, Kosturica, Malick, Linklater and Cassavetes. I've also been inspired by the way commercial directors like Noam Murro, Tim Goldswall, Everynone and Tom Kuntz have pushed the medium and made incredible work in the process.
Content: What does a film need in order for it to be visually interesting to you?
Ari: I know it when I see it, it's an intangible thing and hard to talk about, usually it's an emotion or a metaphysical thing the director/dp is trying to capture, like Tree of Life or Upstream Color or UP, I really respond to that type of film visually. I appreciate their visceral quality, careful composition and use of strong color or lack of to suggest a specific emotion.