Sundance’s First Digital Storytelling Conference Showcases the Best in Brand Videos

'Taking a bold stride away from interruptive advertising'

Headshot of James Cooper

As digital video and streaming services continue to recast the viewing landscape, a handful of digital executives and Sundance Film Festival attendees pushed to have the burgeoning videosphere represented during one of filmmaking's highest-profile events—and Rick Parkhill, CEO of VMA Media, made it happen.

After securing support from sponsors Twitter, Fullscreen, Maker, Zefr, Above Average, Hulu and Naritiv, he persuaded festival organizers that this was, in fact, a viable extension, and Digital Storytelling was born.

The event kicks off Thursday, Jan. 21, on the eve of the film festival, with additional sponsors including CNN's Courageous content studio, Fox Network Group's True(x) and The Huffington Post signing on.

Adweek caught up with Parkhill, who expects to host more than 150 attendees from across media and marketing in Park City, Utah, this week.

What's the mission of Digital Storytelling?
To illuminate the possibilities and opportunities for brands to connect with audiences through storytelling of all types and all platforms. From Snapchats and Vines to YouTube videos, influencers, long- and short-form content, social media distribution and even made-for-TV content, brands are seeking to connect with audiences in ways that are engaging, entertaining and inspiring. Digital Storytelling will shine a light on ways innovative marketers are leveraging content to raise their brand appeal.

What is the profile of the attendees?
The list of attendees includes the most innovative brands that are taking a bold stride away from "interruptive advertising" toward brand storytelling. Marketing execs from Dick's Sporting Goods will be there whose film, We Could Be King, won an Emmy last year. It is an inspiring story about two rival high school football teams forced to come together as one due to budget cuts. It's a beautiful story that reinforces Dick's belief that sports make people better. The global chief content officer from Marriott is attending. His mission is to make Marriott the world's largest provider of travel-related content on the planet. Other participants include the global head of content at Mondelez, the senior director of digital connections at Anheuser-Busch InBev and the chief strategy officer at PepsiCo. Additionally, agency executives who are helping brands imagine, produce and distribute stories will be there, including those from StoryLab, Liquid Thread, Digitas Studios, MRY, Team One and The Marketing Arm.

Rick Parkhill 

What are marketers and agency execs attending looking for?
Over the past 30 years, the Sundance Festival has grown into one of the most iconic celebrations of independent storytelling, attracting a global creative community. Increasingly, brands and agencies are partnering with storytellers and journalists to create engaging content. So the opportunity to network with the most talented storytellers anywhere is a natural draw. At the same time, the Sundance organizers are welcoming the exploration of new platforms and opportunities technology is presenting for stories to be told in new and exciting ways. The New Frontier exhibit at Sundance is celebrating its 10th year and will include immersive cinematic works, virtual reality installations, an extensive lineup of documentary and narrative mobile VR experiences, and an inside look at the innovations being developed at some of the world's leading media research labs. So Digital Storytelling alongside the festival combines to provide brands and agencies a deep dive into how stories are created, told and consumed both today and in the near future.

How do you see digital storytelling evolving? More short formats? More mobile-first content?
Certainly the ability to carry a screen wherever you go has contributed massively to the state of advertising today and the need to create great content. Because mobile screens continue to evolve in terms of quality, more and more content is consumed and shared on them. This is a huge driver of Digital Storytelling where short shows are watched, shared and talked about. Look, even the White House—which you can really consider a huge brand—is on Snapchat today. Tom Daly, the mobile lead at Coca-Cola, challenges us not to think of "mobile first" but "mobile only." That's not really so farfetched, and it is driving this renaissance in advertising today. Who'd have thought 10 years ago that mobile screens would lead to a revolution in video content creation and consumption?

Did you take any cues from DCNF or the traditional TV upfronts?
No. In fact, when working with sponsors initially, we agreed that Digital Storytelling should not be anything like the upfront sales events, whether digital or TV.

Do you have any sense of what the key takeaways will be?
How brands and agency partners are realigning their resources to create compelling content that people actually want to consume and share. When you look at how the media world has been structured for generations, this is a tectonic shift. It is happening very quickly and applies huge pressure to create, evaluate and replicate exponentially. There will be some rich networking going on where both brands and agencies can share ways they are building competency and structure within their organizations to meet the need of change.

@jcoopernyc James Cooper is editorial director of Adweek.