Welcome to The Pitch. Each month, Kate Villevoye, VC member and independent filmmaker, speaks with a commissioner or executive producer at a leading international media platform to learn about the intricacies of their editorial processes and what collaborative opportunities exist for independent video journalists and filmmakers with an unmissable story to pitch.
First up, Aeon!
With an eclectic yet carefully curated video selection — tethered together by philosophy and the mission of spreading ideas — Aeon has quietly carved a corner of enlightenment for itself on the internet since its beginnings ten years ago. We caught up with Adam D’Arpino, Head of Aeon Video and Psyche Film, to learn about their editorial philosophies and go behind the scenes of their thought-provoking selection of films.
Kate Villevoye: How would you describe the overall mission of Aeon’s video platform?
Adam D’Arpino: We call Aeon, essentially, a magazine of ideas. A lot of the writing — and it did start as a writing platform until we added videos to it — is by academics who are translating their work from the world of academia, where the language can be very insular, to the wider world.
In 2013, our founders Paul and Bridget Hains decided they wanted to add a video element to the [online] magazine, to give it more of a felt experience. And obviously film and video offer something quite different. I continue to see that as the main focus of my job, and the motivating force of Aeon Video: not to stand alone, but kind of to be in service of the platform, in service of the mission, which is the spreading of ideas. We try to operate outside of the news cycle, and pick films that do as well.
KV: How was Psyche born? Was film a big part of the editorial strategy from the get-go?
AD: Psyche is our other magazine: it's both practical advice and broader exploration of psychology. And that was born out of the idea that the internet, or digital publishing, was kind of missing something — something that wasn't just about psychology, but also about the human experience…and not just research-oriented or practical advice, but kind of taking the whole human experience into account. Psyche Film was part of that from the start because we had this idea that it might get a bit clinical if it was all writing about psychology. And again, we wanted to address the poetic parts of life. Film could be a way of adding some lightness to the program, but also connecting it to felt experience and also giving people maybe these poetic experiences that again, moving images do too, in a way.
KV: Tell me more about the types of stories published by Aeon. What themes and formats speak to your audience the most?
AD: In addition to documentary, or what you would traditionally think of as a documentary film, we also feature high quality video essays, and we've produced some of our own short animations. Sometimes we'll even feature, for example, a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley – that's from the sixties. So it's kind of a wide net: it started off as strictly short documentaries and it's expanded to a wide variety of nonfiction. And I think that all of our films can be tethered together by the notion that even if it's subtle, there's kind of a force of an idea embedded in each film.
Let’s say, for example, that someone submits a portrait of an artist. If we’re seeing, in the film, some kind of art form that’s surprising, that you'd never heard of, that gives you, in an anthropological way, a certain way of creating or something like that — that could be a fit for our platform. But, if it were just the kind of portrait that was like “Hey, look at this artist, this is the work they're doing,” that's cool, but that kind of thing wouldn't be for us.
KV: How many of the films published by Aeon are produced in-house, and how many are sourced externally? Do you ever commission?
AD: We don't commission ahead of time. In-house, I think we've produced 38 short films of different kinds overall thus far, but it varies every year. For example, last year I don't think we produced any. We just don't have a regimented process of production; it's kind of opportunistic.
A lot of the films that appear on Aeon aren't acquired. For some films we pay a fee for exclusive online streaming, and then other times we'll email people and say, “Hey, we saw that your film was on Vimeo and we liked it and we'd like to feature it on our platform a couple weeks ahead of time.” So it can be curated in both those ways, where we're offering a fee for exclusive online streaming, or just embedding something from somewhere the same way you might do with a blog or something where we're just saying, this is something that we found on the internet that we think is worth watching.
And these fees can range: the lowest fee would be around $150, where something isn't exclusive and somebody would like to offer us a file to go on our YouTube channel and so that we can actually have it embedded on our website and add subtitles to it and whatnot; on the higher end, meanwhile, maybe a thousand to $1,200 for something that we're very enthusiastic about and maybe have six months of exclusivity for — and we think is an excellent film and an excellent fit for the platform.
KV: How does your submission process work?
AD: We have an online submission form, and if you submit, we will watch it. We might watch it for five seconds and say, well this is a fiction film, so we're not going to feature it. But if somebody reaches out, even though we didn't request it, we will watch it —and it might be a few months, but again, we will watch it and get back to them. Perhaps half of our films are ones we’ve come across, and maybe the other half are pieces that we've either reached out about and people send us a screener link, or people submit directly to the website. We always meet filmmakers where they are, both in terms of the contracts and exclusivity, and also certainly work around people having their film festival runs.
KV: What do you look for in a submission? What makes a good film stand out from others?
AD: I think one of the first things — and maybe this isn't helpful — is that there is a sense of, “Oh, this seemed right, but it didn't capture my attention.” I didn't feel it in my heart, you know? There is that kind of ineffable thing, which probably isn't super helpful, but still important to note.
But my gosh, have I seen a lot of films and short documentaries. And so when I see something that is different, something that’s especially suitable for us, it's often something that I never even thought about. It kind of picks or tweaks at something that I didn't even know was out there.
I'm thinking about this short film, Party Poster. It's about these folks in India who, during festivals, get posters of themselves printed because they're interested in political jobs, and they want their faces on these posters. It's so strange and funny, and as a viewer, I enter this world that I'd never even considered, where these men who want these local political jobs are on the phone, talking about whose head should be bigger on the poster. If something like that — as opposed to an artist portrait, which can be great, but I've seen so many — comes across our desk, something strange and interesting and can capture my attention, that’s for us.
KV: What are some of your other favorite published pieces, or a film that’s been received particularly well by your audience?
AD: There's a filmmaker Brian Bolster, whose films that we've featured quite a few of. He had this one called Winter's Watch, about a woman who cares for a hotel out in Cape Cod on an island through the winter. It's about solitude and her life there. She's also a photographer, but again, the craft of filmmaking in his short films is so strong. And that is also kind of what makes him so special. He has another one called One Year Lease: it's essentially his story of a one year lease on an apartment in New York City told in voicemails from his landlord. It gets wilder and wilder before they have to move out. The audio is just the landlord and their voicemails that they've left on their phone. So that's how the film's told. And his films really stand out.
Another film that we've had that did really well is called Unravel – this is something that we first featured on the website like eight years ago now, and it’s our, you know, third, maybe second most viewed thing we've ever had. It's just about the process of clothes from the West being recycled in India and how they're processed there. It was a lovely film, and well made and very beautiful. But it can be surprising what people have an appetite for on our platform, especially when you think about how video is going more widely on the internet, TikTok included. Something like a 14 minute documentary about the process of recycling western clothes in India — to think that that could do so well is kind of surprising.
KV: In a recent Aeon newsletter you mentioned “an increasingly noisy internet video landscape.” How have you seen this field evolve?
AD: What I was referring to there is the way that most videos are watched online now, which is short formats and TikTok, etcetera…and that's really not what we do. Most of the time, it’s also not what short documentarians are interested in in terms of getting their stuff distributed. It certainly seems, though, that there now are more opportunities, a greater hunger for short documentary content. Often we'll be interested in something and we'll learn it's going to a platform that we've never heard of before.
With its unassuming yet impressive repertoire, Aeon has emerged as an inspiring online home for nonfiction. As a nonprofit organization, they aren’t in a position to have larger conversations about funding – but for filmmakers with a penchant for creative storytelling, who like to explore novel or overlooked ideas, Aeon is an indispensable ally and collaborative partner to look to for exposure.