When former television executive Greg Moyer launched the production company Blue Chalk Media in 2013, the plan was to make “high quality, short form, nonfiction storytelling for clients,” says Pam Huling, Blue Chalk Media’s Chief Operating Officer. Moyer and Huling hired a small staff of filmmakers with backgrounds in journalism, including creative director Rob Finch, who had been a freelance photographer and director for film and TV productions. Prior to that, he had been director of visuals at The Oregonian.
Moyer and Huling anticipated a demand for short films for editorial, educational and commercial clients. “What we didn’t anticipate was that demand for branded content would be rising so fast,” says Huling, “That was luck.” Blue Chalk has produced branded content for Pepsico, Google Ideas, Sherwin Williams and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and has been hired by ad agencies and by native advertising divisions of traditional media companies, including T Brand Studio at The New York Times and National Geographic Creative, to execute stories for their clients. All these jobs “are true storytelling,” says Huling, who worked at MediaStorm and Discovery Communications before joining Blue Chalk. “It doesn’t make a difference whether it’s in the service of a brand or a nonprofit.” All of the projects draw on the team’s journalistic skills and experience.
During a recent week, Blue Chalk had more than 60 projects in various stages of production, and Finch was supervising the look and creative direction of each one. He says, “It’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”
Finch says Blue Chalk is typically hired “to do what journalists do: Find the story.” Many of their branded content jobs are brought to them by ad agencies or the custom content divisions of traditional magazine publishers. “We are engaged to do everything,” Finch says. “It’s like, ‘Here’s Brand XYZ. You guys have to find the story, develop the story, pitch the story, edit the story.’”
Last year, T Brand Studio approached Blue Chalk with a project for Dell Computers. The idea was to highlight “future-ready cities.” A study Dell had funded and conducted had identified cities around the world with economies well prepared for future growth. The Blue Chalk team had to decide which cities on the list offered compelling and visually interesting stories. “We ended up calling medical hospitals, state senators, business people, reaching out to our contacts,” Finch explains. Once T Brand Studio and Dell approved the selection of Austin, Minneapolis and Stockholm, Blue Chalk producer Natalie Taylor organized shoots with a small team consisting of a DP and an editor who archived assets and began editing footage before the shooting was done “because the timeline was challenging,” Finch notes. Finch directed the two films shot in the U.S. and followed all the projects through editing. Each included interviews with locals and portrayed features of the city—such as culture and music in Austin and transportation infrastructure in Minneapolis—that have contributed to its livability, attracted talent from other places, and helped foster the growth of new businesses. The finished films ran on the websites of The New York Times and Dell.
Blue Chalk takes a similar approach when collaborating with nonprofits and advocacy organizations. For one of their early nonprofit clients, WonderWork, which provides free surgeries for children in need, Blue Chalk made a short film called “The First Sight: Sonia & Anita.” It featured two girls in India who had benefited from eye surgery.
Finch says one of his favorite projects for a nonprofit was a film he directed for Open School, an alternative school in Portland, Oregon. “We worked with the communications team at the school and the ad agency, and batted around ideas,” he recalls. Instead of following a single student through the school day, the agency suggested focusing on the stories that several students had to tell. Blue Chalk pitched in on location scouting and offered suggestions for the look of the film. “We shot it and edited it and delivered it,” Finch says. Though the format was simple—students posed against seamless, talking to the camera, Finch says, “They have such powerful stories to share and to tell, it was creatively satisfying.”
Finch says that the Open School project was “not about money, it was about helping a school succeed.” Blue Chalk can afford to spend time and resources on advocacy campaigns and other work for nonprofits thanks to the work on branded content, a field where “budgets are decent,” Finch says, though lower than those for typical commercial spots. Like documentary filmmakers, the team at Blue Chalk is experienced at working fast with a small team and finding low-cost solutions. Finch notes, however, that as brands move from relying on slick commercials to more authentic nonfiction advertising, there is a learning curve. “Brands don’t always understand that ‘real’ [or] ‘documentary’ doesn’t mean just a cheap commercial. They don’t understand that real people don’t look like models and they don’t speak like Morgan Freeman. They’re sweaty, they stutter and they have their real humanness about them—which is what I love and what we all find fascinating.” He notes, “It doesn’t suit all brands.”
For some brands, however, stories of real people and real-life events can be an effective way to communicate. Huling observes that as people become more distrustful of traditional advertising, they “want to see people in true situations they could relate to, and companies are willing to pay to get those kinds of stories associated with their brands.” Finch adds, “I think people crave stories, relatable stories.”
As Blue Chalk’s client roster has grown, the company has expanded its staff, and it has also hired freelance editors, DPs and other talent when needed. “When we have the budget and it makes sense creatively we’ll [hire freelancers], but if we can staff it ourselves obviously it’s financially better for us. Also, we like to be creatively challenged,” Finch says. As the workload has increased, Finch has become less hands-on with some projects, and instead taken a more supervisory role. Says Huling, “If he thinks a project looks too formulaic, he’ll disrupt that and bring in something different, so it still looks less predictable.”
Though Finch says he sometimes misses daily newspaper photography, he feels all the earlier steps in his career inform the work he’s doing now. “Photojournalists solve problems. They’re faced with a logistical or technical issue and they say, ‘I gotta figure it out.’ So they fix it. That’s what I do now and that’s what we do at Blue Chalk.”
He notes, “I think journalists are incredibly well suited for whatever comes after journalism.” As a journalist, he says, he was not only figuring out logistical issues, but convincing strangers to let him into their lives and share their stories. “I don’t know how you put that on a resume: ‘intimate detail sharing expert.’ I think journalists are well suited to anything because they have human skills. That certainly applies to my work now, whether I’m out in the field trying to direct a film, or in client conversations, or working with editors to try to figure out how best to tell a story. It’s all those soft skills that are critical to success and I think journalism prepares you better than anything else I know.
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