You’re on Facebook, perusing your friends’ newsfeeds. Nothing out of the ordinary: Jill is posting something about cats, Spencer has his daily post about an awesome video game that’s coming out and Phillip just wrote some lyrics to a Kanye West song.
But then there’s a strange post. One of your friends embedded a video of a girl who seems to be held captive in a dark, grungy room, pleading for your help to figure out how she got there. Weird, right? Before you get freaked out and call the police, know that the video is probably part of a project called Inside, sponsored by Toshiba and Intel.
Directed by DJ Caruso and starring Emily Rossum, Inside follows young twentysomething Christina Perasso as she awakes in a strange room with nothing but the clothes on her back, a Toshiba laptop and no recollection of how she got there. Over the next 11 days, Christina frantically reaches out to her friends on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, begging them to help her figure out an escape. Now, her life is in your hands, and its your job to solve clues left by her captor in order to set her free. This phenomenon, where a story interacts with its audience to help progress the action, is called social film.
“It’s sort of the first integration of how the Internet and social media can work in conjunction with a film,” Inside director DJ Caruso said in an interview with YNN Austin. “You can experience this film and watch as it unfolds in an episodic way, and participate in the outcome via social media.”
A few social films have been made before, but none with such breadth and big-brand sponsorship. The first social film, Him, Her & Them, was distributed just a few months ago, in April, by the New York-based studio Murmur. The film interweaves both fixed and interactive scenes, utilizing Facebook API to incorporate the “social” aspect of the social film. And while Murmur’s social film is certainly a wonderful example of 21st century storytelling, Inside has a few more working parts.
Using multiple social platforms and real-time audience interaction, Inside does a wonderful job at harnessing the power of the audience to influence plotlines. For instance, in episode 3, the captor leaves Christina a note that reads, “If you want food or water you need your ‘friends’ help. Post a plea and if you get enough ‘likes’… you will eat.” Christina then posts a video to YouTube asking that people ‘Like’ the video so she can get a decent meal. The result? Over 4,200 likes. And in the next episode, Christina was rewarded with a delicious-looking cheeseburger.
This experiment in storytelling in the digital age seems to signal a shift in the way we consume content. It’s become clear that the normal linear way of storytelling just doesn’t cut it any more. And with the empowering tools bestowed upon them by the Internet and social media, audiences are demonstrating that they don’t want to simply be spoken to — they want to be spoken with. By allowing the audience to not only be viewers, but actual characters in the story, Inside is a great example of the opportunities storytellers have today.
As the lines between advertising and content continually become blurred, more and more content creators are getting creative with the way they tell a story, be it for a brand or for a studio. And it’s this creativity that audiences respond to best. Really, this was a marketing campaign for Toshiba and Intel. But it was so cool and so entertaining that the audience had a legitimately good time and didn’t mind that they were being advertised to. Even still, the advertising was subtle. And that was on purpose.
“You’ll see our brand at times,” says Baker, OEM Partner Marking Director of Intel in an interview with Fast Company, “hopefully done very appropriately, in the film.”
No “hopefully” necessary. I didn’t once notice that Toshiba or Intel was in the movie. The only time I saw their logos was when I glanced at the toolbar on the webpage that read “Toshiba and Intel present.” In the videos, I barely saw anything. Now that’s pretty awesome for a brand-sponsored film.
All in all, Inside is a telling example of where Hollywood might be headed. Obviously this is an experiment, but it reveals three very important things about the future of entertainment: 1) The audience is a valuable tool in the telling of a story, 2) content doesn’t need to be restricted to a 30-minute or two-hour window, and 3) a lot can happen when Hollywood and Madison avenue team up. I hope to see more of that happening.
What do you think? Are social films the next big thing in Hollywood and in advertising? Or is this just a gimmick that will pass?