Barry Poltermann Q&A
I learned of Barry Poltermann when I came across his company, About Face Media, the tagline of which is “Let’s tell your stories.” I’m delighted that Barry responded to the maximum number of questions he possibly could have. I ask Q&A subjects to respond to five, but they are welcome to respond to more. Barry responded to all 12 submitted to him. I’m honored to present this Q&A with Barry.
Bio: [From his company Web site] Barry Poltermann is the CEO of About Face Media, which he co-founded in 2007.
Before founding About Face, Barry was a founder of the digital production company L’Orange Studios, which produced new media marketing projects for clients such as Disney (Movies.com), Activision (the Gun videogame) and Microsoft (the X-Box 360 game console and MSN Search).
In 1999 Barry founded and was the CEO of the Internet-based film financing company Civilian Pictures (Los Angeles). Civilian Pictures financed such acclaimed independent documentaries as the Wu-Tang-Clan profile “Rock the Bells” (2006, Warner Brothers), “American Movie” (1999, Grand Jury Prize-Sundance Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics) and “The Life of Reilly”, one of the most widely praised theatrical releases of 2007.
Barry also edited “American Movie”; directed and edited “The Life of Reilly”; and edited both “The Pool” (2007 Special Jury Prize-Sundance Film Festival) and “Collapse” (2009) for director Chris Smith.
Prior to working in independent film and new media, he founded and was president of Purple Onion Productions, a commercial film and video production company, and directed television commercials for Superior Street Productions (Chicago), and Neue Sentimental Films (Los Angeles). He has directed national campaigns for advertising agencies such as DDB Needham, Leo Burnett and JWT, and for brands such as Coca Cola, Ford Motors, All-State Insurance, McDonalds and AT&T.
As the CEO of Civilian Pictures his frequent media appearances included Fortune Magazine, Newsweek, Money Magazine, Barron’s, and NPR’s On the Media, The Motley Fool Radio Show and Marketplace. He has also been a guest on film financing panels at numerous film festivals, including Cannes and SXSW.
Q: About Face Media “make[s] awesome, engaging little documentary videos for our clients, and then make it as easy as possible for your social media team to use web tools like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and YouTube to get the videos seen by the widest possible audience.” What elements make a video story work well on social media and able to become viral?
A: Notice how we didn’t say “viral!” in our description! Viral is a tricky word, and no one is seemingly able to define it. Does it mean 500 views or 500,000? That said, there are lots of things that make a video story work well on social media. For example, an incredible real event, a taught story, a big laugh? Godard said “all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun”. At the end of the day, though, what it comes down to is the video has to offer the audience something of value to them. We emphasize to our clients that point — offer something of value to your audience. What that valuable thing is, well, that’s up to you to decide, whether it’s a helpful how-to tip, a sneak peak “behind the scenes”, or, perhaps, a girl and/or a gun.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: As a kid I grew up on a farm in Genoa City, WI. Movies, television, and books really caught my imagination. It’s almost a cliché, but I knew I had to be a storyteller of some sort — although I am not sure that I would have identified it as “story telling”. I just thought it was entertainment. It really wasn’t until I started editing documentaries that I really understood and sorted out “story”. While working on AMERICAN MOVIE in 1997 and ‘98 the film really didn’t work until we focused on story…. Hero’s, villains, conflict… all of the typical storytelling elements brought the film to life. And from that point on, I’ve been Mr. “story, story, story”… I think I drive my team freaking nuts with “story.”
Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: My first love was movies. Growing up I watched anything and everything I could. Coppola, Scorsese… even John Waters. What’s interesting to me now is that we so many avenues for young people today to hear, watch, or read stories, whereas when I was a kid there weren’t many at all. Despite my voracious appetite for stories growing up, I wasn’t able to get as many movies or shows or books or magazines on one year as a kid today can get in one browser session. I think that as far as my work, my career in stories and storytelling, it was that generation of filmmaker that most influenced me, and still does today. But I’m a living, breathing, changing human being, so I’m certainly influenced by what I see on the Web, on my TiVo, and all the rest of it, too. The decision to start AboutFace was not only influenced by but predicated on the influence of the web, especially social media. You can’t put blinders on, you have to keep your eyes open and evolve with the times.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: I’m not sure the storytelling movement has ever been bigger — or smaller. I think that now, with the technology to bring so much of the world together online, and with the relative low cost of things like video cameras and laptops where you can edit a video or start your own blog, there’s more opportunity for more people to tell more stories. It’s been a sort of leveling of the playing field, taking the monopolistic power of mass storytelling out of the hands of the few and putting it into the hands of the many. That said, there are certainly more stories available out there today, but you don’t necessarily see an exponential growth in the number of great, well-told stories. Like anything else, it’s a skill, it’s a craft, and if you study and practice and work at it, you’re bound to improve. If you think about Outliers, it’s those people who have logged their 10,000 hours who are most likely to master the art of the narrative, and as more people are able to have access to the tools, we’ll be lucky enough to see more stories and better stories.
Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: At AboutFace, we very much function within the paradigm of a story with a hero, the hero’s goal, obstacles, and the hero’s journey to attain the goal. From around the world, early in storytelling, Odysseus to Gilgamesh, to the most recent Bourne movies or an episode of Top Chef, it’s about heroes, goals, and obstacles.
Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?
A: We are all over social media. All over it. First of all, these venues are incredible for storytelling in that they give you the power to distribute your story to potentially millions of people. And they have the major advantage of allowing you to not only tell your story but engage in a conversation with your audience about your story, their story, other stories, whatever. Whereas the paradigm used to be about mass communications going out one way to the intended audience, now you can micro-communicate and really, actually communicate with your audience — a two-way street — which engages your audience way more than if you’re just yelling down at them with your bullhorn from the rooftop. That two-way street of communication is beneficial to the storyteller and the audience. We love social media. We live in it. But aside from just using it to reach out to your audience, in many ways social media is HOW we tell our stories. I learned this when I worked in my last venture, under the guidance of the brilliant people at 42 Entertainment… People see the videos, but the story is also told in every tweet, in every post, in every interaction. Marshall McLuhan has never been more prescient… today, truly, the message is the medium.
Q: Are there any current uses of storytelling that repel you or that you feel are inappropriate?
A: Those emails from Nigerian princes that tell you to send them your bank account info so you can make a million bucks repel me. Seriously, the only thing that repels me is the way that the term “story” is abused. So many times a marketer says “tell our story” and they really mean “relay our message”. Nobody gives a crap about your message. Tell people a story. If you believe that your story is all about the product (which we hear over and over), then the product better have a personality, a problem to solve, and adventure to go on. A story is not “we have the best vacuum cleaners of any brand”. A story is “I worked for years to invent the perfect vacuum cleaner and struggled to get it out there… thank god Brand X saw my vision and supported it. It turned out well in the end.”
Q: If you could identify a person (such as a celebrity) or organization who desperately needs to tell a better story, who or what would it be?
A: Do people ever answer this question? Name names? [See editor’s note below.] Ha, well, I could identify plenty of people and companies and organizations who do a sub-par job of getting their story told. I think celebrities can call their publicists, but the latter two need to stop hiding and reacting and get out there and be active, be proactive, and tell the story they want heard. That’s what we do at AboutFace, actually. We help clients tell their stories. I can’t name names on who should call us to talk about telling their stories, but they know who they are. Or at least they should. Brand image problem, transitional phase, all the usual issues abound. We’ll probably be pitching them on a series of videos shortly if we haven’t already!
[Editor’s note: Barry, your instincts are correct because this question has been the least answered in the two years I’ve been conducting these Q&As. But a few people have responded, most recently Gregg Morris, who said the Catholic Church needs a better story.]
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: We made a film called “Life of Reilly”, about
Charles Nelson Reilly. The film got limited release, but I keep getting emails from people who are inspired by it. Unexpectedly. Literally “it changed my life” kinds of emails. “I quit my job and became a teacher”, and “I came out of the closet to my parents” type of emails. To be involved in a film that changed peoples lives … kind of cool.
Q: What future trends or directions to do foresee for story/storytelling/narrative? What’s next for the discipline?
A: Is it too flowery to say that stories are the essence of what binds us as human beings? It’s true, so what the hell. From the earliest oral tradition of storytelling and the stories that were crudely painted on the inside of cave walls to the newest 3D Hollywood spectacular and everything in between — stories are at the core of what we are as people. I think we’ll see bigger stories and smaller stories and less in the middle. Meaning, I think we’ll see more Avatar in 3D and more AboutFace-Media-style short videos and stories told through social experiences online; but I think we’ll also see less in the middle. Fewer scripted television shows, fewer mid-budget feature films, fewer television commercials. Bigger and smaller — but it’s just the economics of exploiting story. Great stories will always be told. We have no choice. It’s in our nature.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: If you’re interested in telling stories and getting good at it, do it all the time. Study great stories. Study the formulas. Study the masters. And tell your stories. All the time. Then, if you’re good at it, hopefully you’ll be able to do it successfully in your career. We at AboutFace are always looking for great storytellers, and I know a whole lot of other companies are, or will be soon, too.
Q: You say on the video clip on your site that your company chose to focus on video because it’s the fastest-growing segment of Web 2.0. In what ways does video lend itself to the kinds of stories you want to tell for your clients?
A: Video is an amazing medium for storytelling. It is lean, it is mean, it is efficient as all get out. Our clients need their story to be told in an authentic way. The web and its denizens are very adept at smelling out an ad. Anything that feels like hard-selling is going to be clicked off very quickly. These are people who are online. They have all the power. It’s not like the old days of TV where the audience had to sit and watch the commercials and wait until their show was back on. Web users know they don’t need you, and they watch you literally leaning forward with their hands on the keyboard, ready to chop off your head if they are not amused. So, rather than try to shove a message down their throats to no avail, we use documentary videos to tell them a story. It’s a different story from client to client, but the point is that we’re communicating each client’s message while offering the savvy web user something of value — a compelling story of interest to them. It’s not a hard-sell Super Bowl ad. It’s a story that puts a human face on the client and delivers the message in a framework that won’t get users clicking off because they smell a hard-sell ad. Why video? Video is imperative to our storytelling. It gives you the freedom and cost-effective ability to shoot, edit, and polish a lot of high-quality stories for a tiny fraction of what that would have cost only 10 years ago if you had to do it on film. And that doesn’t even get into the distribution side of video — being able to upload your video to all of the big sharing sites, your own site, the social-media communities at no extra cost would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Video also is hugely advantageous for our stories and our clients because it is growing online so rapidly. Look, we all know that the point of making these videos for our clients is to get them seen by the target audience. With that target audience growing online, and watching more and more videos online, it just makes the whole process and end result that much more of a no-brainer. And, again, it costs just as much to put the video on 10 video-sharing sites as it does on one. The growth of video consumption is a key to why we’ve been able to not only get work but flourish.