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.
Kate Villevoye: Hi Ansh. For any newcomers to Atlas Obscura, could you briefly describe what the platform is all about?
Ansh Vohra: Atlas Obscura was co-founded by Dylan Thuras and Joshua Foer, who came together in 2009 to start building a repository from their own travels, of communities and experiences that they were encountering that felt off the beaten path – just experiencing the world through traveling that felt different from the more mainstream touristy way to do it. Over time, this grew into a user-generated platform, and that's what’s at the core of Atlas Obscura today: a database of over 25,000 wondrous, awe-inspiring places. And over the years, on top of that foundational layer we've built several content streams, whether that's through deeper storytelling, editorial articles, long-form articles, and then trip experiences, podcasts and videos are also derived from this repository of places and people.
KV: What themes would you say are most important to your viewers and readers?
AV: We prioritize a sense of discovery, whether that's through highlighting a story that's unheard of, or an unexpected perspective on a story people believe they might already know everything about. Whether that story is about a tradition or a community or a place, whether that’s historical or unfolding in the present; a sense of finding something that you didn't know existed out there in the world runs through everything we do. The work we do at Atlas Obscura gives us the opportunity to dig a little deeper and uncover what exists beyond the surface.
KV: How many of Atlas Obscura’s films are branded content and how much of them are editorial?
AV: We've paused our editorial video work during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. We were producing editorial videos across the world and the production realities of the pandemic meant we had to halt those efforts. In the last couple of years we've shifted focus, at least for now, to branded videos. A large percentage of videos we produce today are branded. Having said that, the way in which that model works is that most of those are created in partnership with DMOs (destination marketing organizations) who we've found are the perfect partners for us. It feels a lot less like your traditional branded partnership because our goal essentially is the same. The shared goal between DMOs and ourselves is that you want to highlight unexpected, under-covered aspects of a place. For a destination marketing organization for Orlando for example: everybody's going to Orlando for the theme parks. What a destination marketing organization wants to do is send people away from the theme parks and have them explore other corners of Orlando that you might not know about. The same is true for New York, the same is true for Vegas, the same is true for LA, all of these hubs that people travel to and have a certain sense of what these places have to offer. And to them, it's important that people step out of those conventional travel habits and explore these corners. We've been working on a series called Small Town Big Story that lives on an OTT platform called GoUSA TV, which is all about interesting communities, events or traditions in small American towns.
KV: Do you have an in-house film team that works on these productions, or could freelance filmmakers take part in these projects?
AV: We work with production houses and freelance directors all the time, and one of the ways we do that is we've posted requests on Video Consortium – and we're often tapping into the same network that Video Consortium works with to identify people and invite bids.
Editorial video is something that we're not formally inviting pitches for currently, but if there is a particular project that someone feels really strongly about, I think it never hurts to reach out to us and if it feels like the right fit, we'll start a conversation and go from there. Meanwhile on the branded video side, the process is quite the opposite. The time at which we typically start to look for filmmakers or production partners, we already have a rough concept in place. And we're looking for the right match for that project. A way to be considered is to reach out, and we can talk about what we have going on and speak about the filmmaker’s prior experience and add you to the list of vendors that we will reach out to the next time there's a project.
KV: What makes a filmmaker the “right fit” for Atlas Obscura?
AV: The needs for every project are very different, but we're taking into account your previous experience and your genre of work. Because even within the people-driven, place-driven short-form non-fiction work, there's so many niches people occupy. And based on the idea we're working with, we look for a fit there. But also, there's some projects that require a more scrappy approach, and then there's some that require a more buttoned up production infrastructure. We have 40 videos to make over six months that involve a lot of moving parts. Some require a fairly bare bones crew while others need someone who has experience managing a much more massive scale of production. When we work with automobile brands or spirit brands outside of the DMO world, for example, we also look for whether you have branded video experience; commercial experience; have you worked with big brands before, are you capable of helping out with client comms and putting pretty decks together and posting ideas and treatments. All of that also goes into that selection process.
KV: Is it often in later stages of production when you’d determine whether an editorial project might be right for Atlas Obscura?
AV: Ideally, you've shot some material that you can share with us, or at the very least a treatment. A reel of some sort, a couple of images, speaking about who and explaining the access you have to a story is important. I would say before you have some materials you've filmed or documented probably doesn't make sense, and after you've finished your final cut also doesn't make sense, but between those two extremes, we’re happy to come in and help out if it feels like the right fit. We're also happy to hear pitches that you might not yet material for just yet but have confirmed access to an intriguing first-to-market, never-heard-before story.
KV: What's your favorite film that you've ever commissioned or made so far with Atlas Obscura?
AV: One of my personal favorites is The Ghosts of Tonopah, which started out as a piece about a clown motel in Nevada but ballooned into the mysterious history of Tonopah as a town. There's a dark mining history, and ghost stories that originated from that.
I feel the way in which the story exists in the world and the way in which it comes to life match each other. It doesn't simply feel like a report about this town. We've tried to replicate what one might feel like when you're in that town. It's a little more kooky than we would usually do with branded work, but I think it's a really cool example of when we get to work with brands (in this case, Travel Nevada) who share our enthusiasm for the unusual, resulting in branded work that feels like something we would do for an editorial video anyways.
KV: And for your viewers, which one do you think has gained the strongest traction and sparked conversation?
AV: We have a series called Atlas Obscura Tries, which started out as a written editorial series and was then turned into a video series, now adapted to a branded format as well. How to Become a Mermaid is an episode we produced in partnership with Visit Florida – there's the Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida where during the summer you can sign up to learn how to be a mermaid. They're sirens who used to be underwater performers back in the day, who have now returned to train new generations of mermaids, after having lived a full life. Most of them are in their mid to late 60’s, 70’s and have returned to the Springs to teach a new generation of people how to become a mermaid. I think that video turned out really well, and performed really strongly for us.
KV: Lastly, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ever-changing landscape of online documentary. How do you perceive it might evolve over the next few years?
AV: It can feel like a bit of a saturated place sometimes, but it's also a really exciting time for short documentaries. I think there's a lot of hunger for it. And I think there's more and more people just making time and space in their lives to just have their little YouTube break, to watch something that inspires them before they move on with their day.
I’ve been reflecting on how nonfiction storytelling has changed. For so long, short form nonfiction borrowed vocabulary from longer form cinema, whether that's narrative films or feature length documentaries – short form video really borrowed a lot of its own vocabulary and techniques from it. And now we have content formats like Instagram Reels and TikTok, which has taken me, as a filmmaker a decade into his practice, quite a while to embrace as something worth paying attention to. But it's clearly doing really well, and there's a reason for that. It's packaging information and stories in an entirely new manner, and it's appealing to a newer generation of people, so it's been interesting for me as a filmmaker and a storyteller to start opening up to the possibility of borrowing from that vocabulary as well and see how that impacts longer-form storytelling. I'm excited by the possibility of bringing in those tools to nonfiction storytelling in my world.