BFI curator Patrick Russell reflects on the year’s trends in the client filmmaking sector and the winning films at the recent EVCOM awards.
When reflecting on a year’s filmmaking, looking back at its various awards seasons offers a handy entry-point for exploring the relationship between moving images and the society producing and consuming them. And there’s lots of awards out there. Take EVCOM. Hardly the household name that is the Academy or BAFTA, it’s arguably more intriguing. Founded in 2014 (in line of descent from organisations dating back to the 1940s), this creative industries body represents those producing either (or both of) live events and digital filmmaking for organisations spanning public, private and third sectors.
These films – which amount to thousands annually in the social media age – further every possible communication goal, for every possible UK institution, from public information, charity and social issues campaigns, to corporate PR, recruitment and training. So EVCOM’s annual awards, which this year took place on 9 November, really matter. They’re a showcase for the quality, scale and scope of British talent populating this specialist yet huge international screen sector. They’re also a prompt for considering what light – technological, artistic, ideological – that sector’s best recent films might throw upon our digital roaring 20s.
2023’s award-winning roster represents a mix of film production companies and convergence-era multimedia agencies, and suggests an industry fully recovered from Covid, benefitting from techniques learned during lockdown but striding forward through a post-pandemic world. As has been evident across the last few years, millennial concerns are increasingly to the fore in the world of corporate comms. Mental health, social media, intersectional inclusion and climate crisis are themes recurring across award-winning work.
On the environmental front, multimedia consultancy Radley Yeldar took gold awards for its digital recycling campaign for WRAP – a climate action NGO – centred on punchy social video. The top diversity and inclusion award went to production agency RD Content for The Real Contract, a recruitment piece for legal giant Clifford Chance deploying a thoughtful documentary concept of diverse lawyers at the firm reading letters with advice to their younger selves; while CH Video won the low budget award for an infectiously pacey student recruitment promo for Kings College’s geography department. Its punchline: “Prepare to change the world.”
One fascinating formal trend this year is the evidently growing hybridity between the two sides of EVCOM’s field – film and live event production – symbolising our era’s media convergence. Creatively crafted video is increasingly being integrated into events (especially given how many are now at least party virtual). For example, Bristol-based Studio Giggle won best script gold for a thought-provoking poetry-to-camera piece that impressively opened UNESCO’s Internet For Trust conference in Paris, discussing global regulatory frameworks for the web.
In this light, it’s interesting to note that the live agency of the year award went to long-established Midlands-based company DRPG, which runs a large film department in parallel with its large live events division, while film agency of the year went to the smaller, newer Plastic Pictures who won more awards (no fewer than five golds) than anyone else on the night, for… a live event.
This was a conference, entitled Get on the Front Line, for Unilever marketing teams spread across every continent and speaking multiple languages. Reportedly, 10,000 staff participated in an event incorporating pre-produced films, studio content, graphics, AI components and interactive experiences, its production involving 60 crew members, 29 shoot days, a stunt coordinator, 168 hours of streamed content and 10 terabytes of project storage (and “523 cake bribes”).
In 2018, Plastic Pictures won EVCOM’s Challenger award for young video agencies to watch (taken this year by Casa Creative Studios), making their five-year climb to the top quite remarkable.
Deep dives into top films
Turning to standalone films, the coveted grand prix for best film of 2023 was won by Vulnerable People, produced by the Edge Picture Company for regular client Network Rail, which also took gold for health and safety, and internal communications. Founded 32 years ago, The Edge has seen off virtually all of its 20th-century competition and remains, amazingly, still at the top of the field and its game.
Vulnerable People epitomises the cinematic style and psychological insight that has long marked the Edge’s work. Being an internal film for frequent client Network Rail, it’s not available on standard social platforms, but can be watched on the Edge’s site. In two minutes 40 seconds this mini-movie paints a picture of human distress and how operational staff can compassionately interpret and effectively handle it.
“Our film unsettles the viewer, immerses them in someone’s life and encourages them to stop and think,” says Edge exec Pete Stevenson. “We can all make assumptions, but if you work on the railway, they can have serious consequences. When Network Rail staff see a trespasser, they may assume they’re up to no good and react inappropriately. By questioning their assumptions and communicating better with colleagues, our audience can help keep vulnerable people out of harm’s way.”
The Edge’s other EVCOM win was for Valued Behaviours, a ‘brand values’ film for bank Standard Chartered which won best sound. Not only is its sound design impeccable, it makes sound itself the theme of its communication. Stevenson recalls: “Standard Chartered wanted a film that would be surprising and celebratory and chose the creative idea which in their words was ‘the least corporate’. We sourced a drumming band whose members reflected the diverse racial backgrounds of the bank’s key international markets, working closely with a composer to develop a score that was made of non-western musical elements from Africa, Asia and Latin America. We filmed our performers bringing the music to life, tying it in with the ideas of collaboration and ambition at the heart of the Valued Behaviours. The film has really got people talking inside and outside the bank.”
Pukka Films, another highly respected firm with a strong record for filmic craftsmanship astutely calibrating the balance of information and emotion, won gold for best direction and best learning and development film for their excellent widescreen and longer-form piece Exploited. Pukka producer Jo Gewirtz explains: “This was a film created to be used nationwide in schools as part of a larger resource around child online and in-person sexual exploitation. We made an earlier piece with that title 10 years ago but were commissioned to remake it, updating the story and dialogue to reflect the issues and concerns facing young people today. At that time, there was less thematic focus on the dangers of online bullying and the role of social media in exploitation. The principal challenge of remaking the film was treading the line of imbuing characters with a realistic, authentic voice, while ensuring viewing was appropriate for school audiences aged 14 to 16. We needed to deftly deal with material which could be extremely triggering or challenging for viewers. Another key priority was working safely and responsibly with young actors required to film intimate scenes, given the mature subject matter.”
The aforementioned DPRG – its film division – took gold for two strong projects. Best documentary was won by their film Delicious, an interesting study in how client-commissioned content can have a long tail. DRPG’s The Boxer was a Birmingham Commonwealth Games film which won awards last year, now Delicious further follows boxer Delicious ‘DJ’ Orie’s journey from novice to champion, his career a metaphor for viewer aspirations in their professional lives. As DRPG’s head of film Scott Horsfield observes: “good documentary is all about having access to a fantastic subject so the filmmaker can bring their story to life. Our filmmaker got very close to DJ and his agent and was given complete freedom to tell his story.”
DRPG also won the editing category for The Whole You, a grippingly paced internal piece for Canon dealing with demographic discrimination, aptly using the metaphor of photographic snapshots as a window on autobiography, supplied by interviewees recounting experiences as members of UK minorities. Horsfield comments: “this was one of those projects that lived or died by working in partnership with the brand. We needed their trust to make such a sensitive film, which enabled the filmmakers to build a fantastic rapport with the contributors to reveal so much about themselves… really the first time that many of them had shared their personal stories.”
Screening the future
I’ve been following these awards, on and off, for some 15 years, having, if memory serves, first attended those of its predecessor organisation in 2007. To contemplate the changes each year’s awards have tracked since then is practically mind-blowing. Then, films were almost all produced on tape formats like DigiBeta, and snail-mailed their way through organisations on DVD or VHS.
But 2007 was the year Google bought YouTube, marking a media revolution to come that would transform this sector. Producers like The Edge, Pukka and DRPG embraced that revolution and still thrive, while many competitors who didn’t have long since bitten the dust. And since then they’ve been joined by ‘born digital’ newer firms like Plastic, Taylor Made and Casa. The fact that The Edge was bought last year by the Zinc Media Group – which also owns, for example, major TV indy Brook Lapping – seems to symbolise what was, when the Edge started out, a hermetically sealed niche sector becoming in the 2020s an artistically valued, and economically valuable, component of the mainstream moving image ecosystem.
To close out the year, I asked asked four of these competing creative professionals what they’ve learned from this year’s award-winning filmmaking? And where is their industry headed?
“In this sector, we can get preoccupied with ‘content’, optimisation, social media re-versioning, driving traffic,” answered Pukka’s Jo Gewirtz, “but a focus on ancillary use of film takes us away from where 95% of creativity and focus should be: on powerful, impactful storytelling. Our brains are wired for storytelling, people think in story structures. It’s something we remind ourselves of often. Quality storytelling is king. Even in corporates.”
DRPG’s Horsfield, meanwhile, noted an ever-expanding range of content and forms: “I really don’t know what a traditional corporate film looks like anymore. Our slate of winning films over recent years shows the diversity of work we’re producing. Clients are coming with varied, sometimes very complex, business problems and we know the solution is always in great storytelling. From a filmmaker’s perspective that means making so many different types of films, really stretching our wings. It’s really interesting to see so many film agencies entering the live part of the EVCOM awards. I think that is testament to storytelling being key, something we have always done at DRPG and will continue to pursue.”
The Edge’s Pete Stevenson places storytelling in the context of technology change. “Our filmmaking approach has always been rooted in integrating principles of behavioural science to better understand and influence people,” he says. “We’re seeing clients invest in ROI measurement strategies, encouraging that integration into their business-critical content to create a deeper connection with viewers. We’re also seeing attrition of attention as a factor. Films need to work harder than ever to hold viewers’ attention, getting more across in less time. Films that felt urgent and concise five years ago now feel sluggish. And like many industries we’re bracing ourselves for the impact of AI on our work as creative professionals. It’s going to streamline, in some cases replace, what many of us do. Here, we’re pinning our hopes on storytelling with a human face as an area where we’ll continue adding value and creating impact, while working with AI on exciting new ways to do that.”
Finally, Plastic Pictures’ co-founders Sara Cooper and James Dark also find plenty of reasons to feel optimistic. “We’re in a cultural renaissance,” they say. “The rules of engaging our audiences are shifting. Culture and technology leads. And attention is harder and harder won. We’re in for an interesting ride. Expect more emphasis on visually disruptive, striking narratives. Keep an eye on the evolving landscape of streaming platforms: we think they’ll become key players in hosting corporate content. And all senior leaders of agencies, big and small, will need to create an inclusive culture, serving it with humility – an understanding that leadership is a service to others.”
By Patrick Russell (BFI)
First published by the BFI here.