At a screening room in the lower level of the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York, top brass from The Economist debuted its new film division with a screening of two short films on Tuesday.
The screening, which also took place in London on Thursday, gave journalists and potential sponsors an idea of what The Economist Group 2.0 will look like, as the 172-year-old company moves deeper into the digital age.
Newly promoted editor in chief Zanny Minton Beddoes told WWD that the idea to launch a documentary unit was the “brainchild” of deputy editor Tom Standage, who is in charge of the company’s digital innovation.
“I’m very involved since [February],” she said, referring to her promotion. “It’s one of those things where now that we’ve done it, you think, why didn’t we think of this earlier? It actually was a function, I think, of digital video has reached a maturity that it makes sense to do now. The distribution is there.”
Minton Beddoes brings up an important point about distribution maturity, which is a product of high demand for video. She addressed how The Economist’s films will be different from similar news-centric digital videos produced by mainstay rivals such as Vice, The New York Times, HBO and nascent attempts from Fusion, Condé Nast and Time Inc., to name a few.
The editor referenced the “mind-stretching journalism” central to The Economist as a point of differentiation for its documentaries.
She cited “global thinking,” “forward-looking” and The Economist’s “empirical, vigorous, analytical base,” allowing for “championing change,” as evocative of the company’s journalism in print and video. Her team is putting together films touching on issues such as urbanization, the ecosystem for entrepreneurs, as well as a series called “The World If,” which is an examination of would happen if certain events take place. That series complements a print section to launch this summer. The pilot film is on malaria, drug treatments and what the world would be like if the disease could be eradicated.
But the two, 13-minute films screened were not particularly novel, focusing on drugs and drones, subjects well covered by rivals. The first covered the war on drugs and it stretched from investigating a recent policy in Portugal to clean up the streets to Colorado, where the legalization of marijuana has improved the economy and diminished drug trafficking. The second film on drones examined jobs of the future, as well as the social impact.
Nicholas Minter Green, the president of Economist Films, noted that what differentiates his unit is the access it gets, thanks to the reputation of the publication. In the drug film, he noted that his team interviewed ex-president of Columbia César Gaviria.
He added that another point of differentiation is that print journalists consult with his team on the documentaries.
Logistics aside, there is still the question of sponsorship. Economist Films is looking for sponsors, so it can produce a range of short- and long-form films both sponsored and commissioned. So far, 10 films are slated without sponsors for the year. (The two pilot films are not sponsored either, but are available to watch on the company’s Web site).
“If no one partners with us we are still going to make [this content],” Minter Green said. “We’re in this business now.”