Facebook's former director of monetization Tim Kendall has a lot of wisdom. And his findings are a great resource for filmmakers. His way of connecting Big Tobacco and Facebook offers filmmakers and storytellers useful strategic advice.
Kendal left Facebook in 2010 and has been overseeing its development ever since. He was fascinated by how this particular social media platform, with tools that could also be very important for filmmakers, grew so big and quickly.
Tim Kendal's theory that connects Big Tobacco and Facebook
According to Kendal, Facebook was trying to mine as much money as possible through human intervention. To do this, they took a page from Big Tobacco's playbook. Facebook, like Big Tobacco, wanted their product to be as addicting as possible.
Big Tobacco originally thought they could get bigger audiences, and therefore more sales, by simply making their product more effective. However, they found that this was not enough to increase their sales. So they added sugar and menthol to their cigarettes so that smokers could breathe deeper and keep the smoke in their lungs longer.
In the early days of Facebook, a simple directory returned users almost every day, but commercial requirements meant Facebook had to return users multiple times a day. So their engineers added updates, likes, and photo tags. This raised the primary user experience to one of status and reputation. While Facebook began to gain the commitment it took to sell more and more ads, it also laid the foundation for the growing mental health problems we face today.
Big Tobaccos playbook
The next page in Big Tobacco's playbook was adding bronchodilators to her cigarettes. This allowed the smoke to come into greater contact with more areas of the lungs. This also increases addiction. Despite all of the health problems that were generally addressed, the great tobacco increased its impact on smokers.
The "bronchodilators" for Facebook are similarly addicting. They allow misinformation, conspiracy theories, and false news to flourish.
But that toxic content wasn't enough for Big Tobacco. They added ammonia to their tobacco to increase the speed at which nicotine gets to the brain.
Facebook's ability to get this fire content to the right person in the right place on the right day is its ammonia. It's your algorithm. And we now know that it encourages tribalism and division.
What filmmakers can learn from it
What both Big Tobacco and Facebook share is their ability to be addicting to their products. What filmmaker doesn't want their viewers to keep coming back to their film?
What makes Facebook so successful is its ability to evoke an emotional response from its users. And that's exactly what storytellers want to achieve.
When Simon Hunter created the Raindance 2020 trailer, he was able to convey the feeling that each of us felt during COVID-19. The end result was a 90-second combination of 5 different COVID-19 stories: the tired nurse, the bulge on the elbow, social distancing, and the hand on the window pane that separates daughter and elderly parents. Most viewers say they had a tear in their eye at the end. And for Raindance it was an extremely successful campaign.
Big Tobacco and Facebook's Lessons for Independent Filmmakers
Let's not be intimidated by the mammoths in the industry like Big Tobacco and Facebook. Let's see what we can take from each of their playbooks and apply to our stories and films.
Let's learn from Big Tobacco how to engage our audience. Let's see if we can create any kind of interactivity between characters and audience that will force our viewers to stay longer and go deeper.
Let's use their powerful logarithms for our own stories on Facebook. Storytellers can take advantage of these powerful tools.
Author and filmmaker Kira-Anne Pelican has done fascinating research on algorithms similar to those used by companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook that can be used by storytellers. You can actually learn to develop powerful seeds in your act. She calls her Raindance lecture Moneyball for filmmakers Here she explains the basics of this powerful (and free) tool. She also explains how to develop these extremely powerful and powerful tools within her Deep characterization Master class.
I once asked an elderly Japanese fisherman and screenwriter what he thought was a good story. He answered:
Elliot-san – Your body is 75% water. A good movie or story pushes your body fluid out of a suitable pore.
Think about it, isn't that exactly what Big Tobacco and Facebook are doing? They trigger emotions. And that's exactly what you and I are trying to do with our films and scripts.