A conversation with Story & Heart Co-Founders Justin DeMers and David Singer on their latest endeavor
I have a story for you.
But we’ll keep it short, because the story is still being written – and you can play a role in its writing.
More on this a little later.
So: what do you do if your production company has already won six Emmys for projects like GAME OF HONOR (a Showtime documentary about the Army/Navy game and teams) and ONE HEARTBEAT (chronicling the Chardon High school shootings and how the community healed); has clients like Showtime, CBS, Toyota, the NFL and a pile of other Fortune 100 companies; and on top of that has created a separate and profitable filmmaking education division?
You decide to reinvent the stock footage industry.
At least, that’s what you do if you’re Justin DeMers, David Singer, Patrick Moreau, and Amina Moreau, partners at Stillmotion (a Portland based film studio and education company) and co-founders of Story & Heart, their next-generation stock footage company.
What IS a next generation stock footage company, anyway?
At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s a company:
• built by filmmakers for filmmakers who have channeled everything they know into reimagining an artist-friendly and collaborative source of passive income in an industry they believe is ripe for change; and
• a platform designed for agencies, advertisers, social impact organizations, and producers to find absolutely gorgeous footage not simply by a set of archaic keywords, but by a much richer and more natural way of thinking about what they need: story.
And why would you do that?
We sat down for an hour and a half with Justin and David via FaceTime to learn the who, what, where, why and how of their latest venture, which has just launched.
And of course the video confirmed what we as filmmakers already know: a picture is worth a thousand words.
Story & Heart – How it Began
Act 1: It Began with Passion
You know the Joseph Campbell advice to “follow your bliss?”
More importantly, Justin and David remind me throughout our time together, they eat, sleep and breathe stories.
This is, in fact, their mantra: “story first.”
“We want our stories to mean something, we want them to change something,” says David.
“It’s what we lead with in everything we do,” Justin adds.
And that story-centricity – along with technical expertise, incredible drive, passion, and a critical mass of like-minded people, resulted in a very successful run at Sillmotion that eventually went beyond “just” films.
Act 2: Success Begat “The Ask”
Their work attracted attention. That’s how they got clients.
And their work attracted other filmmakers. That’s how they got questions like “how’d you do that?”
You get the feeling speaking with Justin and David that they have a multi-layered notion of family. Of course, each has his own family the way a census bureau might define it: members of a household. But it is equally clear that there is a sense of family among the members of the Stillmotion team.
And after enough “how’d you do that’s,” the Stillmotion team realized not only were they were part of an even larger family –the community of filmmakers – they had a larger role to play in it.
Their basic model evolved. In a variation on the theme of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” they augmented their production work with Stillmotion Education, which today conducts nationwide tours of their 1-2 day workshops; 5 day intensives in their home city of Portland, Oregon; and custom-tailored programs for in-house corporate training.
What else would you call it with more than 7,500 people attending their live, in person seminars – never mind the online stuff – in the last three years?
And then they did it again when they launched With Etiquette, a music-licensing platform with a different slant.
With Etiquette arose, Justin says, “because we spent so much time and effort finding and licensing the right music for our films – and because we knew we weren’t the only filmmakers frustrated with the options available to us. We saw a void in the music licensing industry. We thought we could come up with another approach to help ourselves and other filmmakers that if we did right, could also enable musicians to pursue their own music without having to work a day job.”
Not to wax poetic about personal philosophies; lament the trials and tribulations of being a creative; or delve into the cultural differences between American and Canadian capitalism (though three of the four partners of Stillmotion hail from Canada), the “why” of it all begins to come into sharper focus when you look at Justin’s summary on Linkedin, one of the shortest I’ve ever seen, reconfigured as his objective: “To leave the world a better place than it was before I was here.”
I believe him.
Fast forward just a little bit, and With Etiquette becomes Marmoset Music.
And another success.
They’ve scored soundtracks for award-winning feature length films as well as commercials produced specifically for the Super Bowl, The Academy Awards, and The Grammys — as well as global campaigns for Levi’s, Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, Honda and others.
The take-away for Justin?
“What’s good for the artist, when done with heart, is also good for the customer.”
All the while, the Stillmotion team continued to spend their free time…making films.
They made personal films; private films; beautiful films. And the ones they chose to share online, well…That’s how they got other people asking “can I buy that clip?”
But they kept saying “no” to putting any of their filmwork into stock footage.
To them, stock footage was a “remnant” model.
“The good stuff ends up in projects, the bad stuff – the remnants — end up on stock,” Justin says. “Stock footage just felt to us like a last ditch effort.”
That wasn’t what Stillmotion was about. It’s not why they filmed family and friends, for themselves on the weekends — and it certainly wasn’t what people who knew their work were asking for.
People were asking for the good stuff.
What to do?
Act 3: Getting to “Yes” by Getting to “Different”
What if, they wondered, they took a page from their own playbook?
David says, “In some ways, the basic idea for Story & Heart was to apply the mindset and lessons learned through With Etiquette and Stillmotion Education to the stock footage industry. What if we reinvented the model so that it was all about the good stuff? And what if – in the process — we could enable the kind of wonderful, storytelling filmmakers we knew to shoot one less project that they didn’t want to do because they now had a passive income stream? What if we collaborated with them to ensure these films were the best they could be?”
“It would be cool,” Justin answers. “It would be good for everyone.”
Yes, it would.
That’s when their lone American partner – David – joined the team.
David had been a director with his own production company shooting big budget 35mm commercials when he hired Stillmotion for digital cinematography.
It was a fortuitous pairing, David says: “We not only had a ton of fun but also discovered that we shared a commitment to telling authentic stories.”
So when the idea of Story & Heart moved closer to becoming a reality, David signed up.
And the rest is the future, still to be written.
And now, the part about you, helping to co-create that future.
About Story & Heart — And YOU
Story & Heart has three components that are the building blocks of this new ecosystem envisioned by the team.
1. A story-driven licensing platform: it’s what the user accesses to load — or — acquire content. But what’s novel in this platform is that every clip is part of a chapter and every chapter is part of a story; and the metadata reflect that story orientation. The intent is to allow a context – a bigger picture – and a way of finding larger truths about what one is trying to capture. “We don’t want you to type in ‘bird on a post’,” Justin says. “Although,“ David adds, “you can if you want.” Justin nods. “But we want to offer you a less literal, more metaphorical, more story-based way to search.”
2. An community of “incredibly talented” filmmakers on a platform that rewards civic actions and encourages collaboration: “As we roll out features,” David says, “ you’ll see we have some members of the community who will be able to upload a certain frequency, for example, and thus be enabled to communicate with other filmmakers. You’ll be able to seek out filmmakers based on their profile. This is what we did first, actually: we built out the community that we would want to be a part of.”
3. Education: “We’re not only connecting filmmakers with other filmmakers,” Justin says. “We’re serving up the voice of our community as educators.You can look up a tutorial or review, but it’s more than that,” Justin continues. “If your application to join the community is accepted and you put up footage, you won’t be denied – if the footage isn’t what it needs to be, you’ll get a phone call from one of us to help get you there.”
The guys are nothing if not ambitious.
The application process is indeed unique. You go through it and figure – in direct opposition to Groucho Marx’s famous “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member” – that if someone does get through this gauntlet, they must at the very least be interesting.
You can find the application here. Do check it out.
And if that isn’t enough to entice you, the team has created the Storytelling Parade, a wonderful opportunity to do well by doing good. “It’s a kickoff and celebration, really,” David says, “of the power of storytelling and the power of collaboration embodied in the launch of Story & Heart.”
Introducing: Storytelling Parade
In The End
OK, so maybe this hasn’t been a very short story after all.
Do you even remember my comment about capitalism 906 words ago (give or take)?
Here’s Justin, once more:
“What we hope to be able to say 10 or 20 years from now is that we started something, we tried to be authentic and transparent. It wasn’t at all a clever business move.”
Again, I believe him.
But to their credit, it is a pretty savvy set of moves to identify a gap in the marketplace; and bring on board a commercially successful partner to help ensure that their vision is executed and communicated – at least thus far — with such aplomb.
We look forward to the continuing journey of Story & Heart, and will watch their progress closely.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments!
(cover photo credit: snap from Storytelling Parade)