Between the years of 2013 and 2016, Raven Smith worked as Commissioning Director for Nowness, an online video channel promoting new global arts and culture. Previously employed as an Art Director at MTV, he now helps brands and editorial platforms such as Tate and Mario Testino devise editorial strategies and is a guest lecturer at Central Saint Martins.
At Nowness, we prided ourselves on finding the best up-and-coming filmmaking talent. The tagline of the site was “the best of every day” and to stay true to that ethos, we’d premiere a new film 365 days a year. I started there in 2010 in an Assistant Picture Editor position and after leaving for a year to work as an Art Director for MTV, returned as Commissioning Director in 2013. In the three years I spent in the role, I learnt a lot about digital storytelling – what lures people in and keeps them watching till the end. Whether working editorially or with brands, my job was to find and develop great stories that people wanted to hear and tell them in the most effective way possible online. In that way we built a real sense of trust with our audience, who’d return day after day to see what we had next.
In terms of turn-offs, I banned slow-mo. Drone shots got exceedingly dull after a while.
When considering what films to commission and feature, there were a series of questions that my team and I would ask ourselves. Things like, is this a new story? Is it told in a new way? Is the film timely – i.e. do people need to see it right now – but is it also timeless; will they still care if they watch it in six months or a year from now? If a film possessed those qualities it would often be the kind of thing we were looking for. In terms of turn-offs, I banned slow-mo. Drone shots got exceedingly dull after a while. Anything that felt like lazy storytelling was an obvious no-no – to anyone making a film now, I’d really recommend challenging every single shot that’s in it. If it’s not helping to tell the story, consider chopping it. Some directors can get too attached to beautiful scenes that slow down what the film is trying to say. Dance films are another thing that are very hard to do well.
Another thing to consider is how you’d explain, or sell, your film to people who’ve yet to see it. I think in those pitching situations, you need to be able to explain the film in two lines and with two references. If you can’t do that, it’s tough for a Commissioning Director to sell it to other people at the company – my job was as much about communicating what’s being made as it was developing the films themselves. Which isn’t to say that what we did was dumbed down. There is a sweet-spot that you can hit when you’re making something that is immediate and accessible but at the same time intelligent, not throwaway. I think there’s an expectation with the internet that content has to be served up like fast food, but that’s not nourishing. People want more quality from their internet now.
You have to drink the Kool Aid of your own project and believe it’s great otherwise don’t fucking bother.
I think everyone has to be in love with the work they make. What’s the point otherwise? You have to drink the Kool Aid of your own project and believe it’s great otherwise don’t fucking bother. I find people who’ve made stuff they feel a bit lacklustre about frustrating – I don’t think you should ever treat something as a “money job”; I think it should take the same amount of time, energy and attention. Another thing people should understand is that when you’re pitching to a platform like Nowness, the selection process is more intricate than whether or not something feels like a good fit for us – from an in-house editorial point of view, it’s an ecosystem you have to manage. Much of what we commission is based on how it fits with what else we have coming in that month. That said, I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from submitting their work – Nowness is something the whole creative industry is watching, from agents looking to sign new talent, to big brands who’ll use it as a Rolodex to commission their campaigns. It gives new filmmakers an opportunity to tell the stories they want to tell.
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