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GE Tells The Stories Of The World's Innovators With "Focus Forward"

With its "Focus Forward’ content initiative, GE worked with leading documentary filmmakers and consumers to create inspiring films about people changing the world. Here, some takeaways from the story-focused project.

GE is wrapping its 18-month long Focus Forward campaign—which launched at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and has traveled a world of festivals in between—this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. A program dedicated to telling the stories of people who are making the world a better place, and strengthening GE’s positioning as a leader in innovation, the initiative included 30 short films from the world’s leading documentarians, as well as a user-generated competition that yielded over 600 films of innovations and invention.

More than just a content-marketing gambit, the short documentaries within GE Focus Forward’s Short Films, Big Ideas series were revelatory. From stories about breakthroughs in cancer testing and research to profiles of waste management and pollution pioneers, and breakthrough ideas in energy production, pain management, music creation, and food access, the films give life to the people challenging convention and reimagining entrenched systems of belief.

GE global creative director Andy Goldberg says when the idea was conceived with filmmaker Morgan Spurlock over two years ago, the aim was to associate GE with "stories of people who have this desire to think and make and build stuff that’s going to change the world. We set out to build community, build great stories, and open our doors to a whole new way of developing content," he says.

In addition to the 30 commissioned films, GE Focus Forward also held a filmmaking competition, where amateur directors could make a film following the same brief. Twenty finalists were chosen from more than 600 submissions from 69 countries. The winning film—The Cyborg Foundation from Spanish director Rafel Duran Torrent—was awarded a $100,000 grand prize at the 2013 Sundance festival.

According to GE, over the course of the 18 months since it launched, the campaign garnered more that 1.5 billion total media impressions, racked up over 14 million online views and was seen in over 156 countries, across seven continents. Each of the 30 films received world premiere screenings at a major international film festival, including Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as festivals in Los Angeles, Melbourne, Busan, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Amsterdam, Guangzhou, and Dubai.

With content marketing strategies becoming an increasing priority for marketers, such a successful campaign surely holds some insight for those looking to follow a similar path. Here, according to the creators, are five essential keys to the success of GE Focus Forward.

Engage the best filmmaking partners.

GE’s partnership with strategic media company cinelan allowed the company to access an impressive list of nonfiction storytellers, each with distinct voices, from around the globe. The 30 filmmakers were each given the same specific but very broad brief: to create a film about innovation in three minutes. Award-winning directors included Albert Maysles, Jessica Yu, Leslie Iwerks, Steve James, Alex Gibney, Gary Hustwit & Jessica Edwards, Lixin Fan, Ross Kauffman, along with Morgan Spurlock, cofounder and partner of cinelan, who also executive produced the project.

"The beauty of this project is that we get 30 unique takes on how to tell a story," says Goldberg.

Tell the best stories.

The goal of content marketing campaigns is usually to reveal something about a brand’s values—be it a support of artists, such as Lincoln’s recent efforts, or to highlight stories of innovation. Goldberg says that the first priority with GE Focus Forward was to create films with fantastic storytelling. "Everything we’re putting out from a content standpoint should tell a great story," he says.

This focus on story served the campaign well. Whether it’s Jessica Yu’s Meet Mr. Toilet, an amusing and informative film about a sanitation crusader; Spurlock’s introduction of wunderkind Jack Andraka, who’s developed a vastly improved test for pancreatic cancer; or the story of how two young entrepreneurs created an invisible bike helmet, each story is engaging and illuminating in its own right. As a whole, the films give you hope that there are smart, passionate people working to figure out solutions to the problems our world faces.

Relinquish creative control.

Goldberg says that when it came time to make the films, GE was pretty hands off. "We developed a brief, and it was a fairly broad brief—to tell stories of impact and of people who are changing the world," says Goldberg. "And then Morgan reached out to his world of filmmakers and put the brief out there. We were given treatments—the subjects all came from the filmmakers—and then they would go off and produce the films." Filmmakers also retain the ownership of their films.

Cinelan cofounder and managing partner Douglas Dicconson says that GE approved a filmmaker brief, approved filmmaker treatments, and was able to review final cuts before world premieres, but other than that, it was in the hands of the directors. "They were incredibly brave and trusting of the process, largely because of the caliber of filmmaker we were able to partner with. These are some of the very best and brightest documentary filmmakers in the world."

When it came to judging the public’s film submissions, Dicconson says GE was equally trusting. "There was zero control of the judging process within the jury room. GE believed that the authenticity and integrity of the process was key for them in the success and measurement of the program." Jurors included filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Floyd Webb, José Padilha, Peter Wintonick and Joe Berlinger, Sundance senior programmer Caroline Libresco, and actress Daryl Hannah. "The jury evaluated the films based on their own experience in key areas such as storytelling, technical quality of the film, and, of course, how well it delivered on the brief posted for the entrants to review," says Dicconson.

Create a thorough distribution plan.

The fact that the films in Short Films, Big Ideas are only three minutes long was a well-considered element of the project—and not just an undue limitation put on filmmakers.

"We talked at great length about three-minute films, because to tell a story in that time is not easy," says Goldberg. "But when we’re talking about distribution on the internet, three minutes is a very digestible time."

The 30 films are also available on demand on Rogers, Charter, Cox; Comcast Xfinity; and Verizon. They’re also available online on Focusforwardfilms.com, Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, and other digital platforms, and they’re available on social-gaming console PS3 via Jun Group partners. This is all in addition to the robust film festival circuit.

"The authentic nature of the content in a program like this allows for distribution well beyond normal ad channels all over the world," says Dicconson. "This is about great storytelling relating to the brand, the brand-affinity created among the audience is invaluable."

Be clear about the story you’re trying to tell

This is a key element to any content-marketing strategy. It’s great to tell a story, but are you telling the right story?

"We consider ourselves a bit of a content factory here. Brands can be producers and I think the way things are going, brands are going to be more and more involved in the development of great content," says Goldberg. "The question is where do you draw the line between content and ads? It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. An ad has a very distinctive purpose and it’s very important when you’re building your brand—you’re telling your story. With these Focus Forward films, we’re telling someone else’s story and associating our brand with them."

The purpose of that, he says, was to "take people from being brand neutral or brand agnostic to brand advocates, because all of a sudden they saw GE associating themselves with these ideas that we believe in."

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