Hello, everyone! This month, I spoke to Joe Sabia - the creator of Vogue’s 73-Questions interview series, ex-SVP of Creative Development at Conde Nast Entertainment, and current CEO/Creative Director of Studio Sabia, a consultancy/production company for digital content and storytelling. We talked about YouTube, celebrities, internet video, and the science behind engaging audiences. There’s a lot here for everyone who works across video. Let’s dive in!
Nikita: Hi Joe! How did your journey in the filmmaking space begin?
Joe: It's been quite an untraditional path for me. In 2005, I was 21 years old studying political science and economics at Boston College thinking I’d become a lawyer. Around then, I also started using my dad's camera to create a spoof parody of the popular TV show called “The O.C.'' We developed a whole series around it, called “The BC.” I played a character and I also shot, directed and edited it. It started as a joke, and we had the crappiest camera and equipment, but it began getting a lot of attention on the internet, fueled by sites like CollegeHumor and press from The New York Times and CBS Evening News.
As I was developing and honing my skills on this web show, I realised that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I didn’t know exactly what form it would take, but I loved the idea of making things and making people feel something. So, I told myself to forget about economics, forget about political science, and take a chance on this. All the stars aligned and I got a dream job at HBO right in college.
Nikita: What were you doing at HBO and how did that lead to your career in the internet video space?
Joe: At the time, HBO was interested in experimenting with YouTube. So I cut my teeth figuring out how to produce cheap, high-constraint, engaging YouTube videos. One experimental thing I did was recap and narrate episodes of The Sopranos in videos I called Seven-Minute Sopranos. This was done just two weeks before the debut of the final season. The executives at HBO liked it but said there was no way they could publish it because it used so much footage and spoiled everything. My boss at the time, Fran Shea, said, “I’m not going to tell you not to put it up but if you do, don't put your name on it.” So, I uploaded the video, it got a million views in a day. HBO was about to sue whoever did it, but then they backed down because the creator, David Chase, loved it. That was the first time ever that a company had celebrated the fact that a viral video promoting the final season ended up getting more earned organic attention than what you would pay for in the press.
Soon after, I quit my job, and I spent the next five years making projects that interested me, many of which went viral.
Nikita: How did the 73 Questions format come about?
Joe: In 2013, I was one of ten directors invited by Vanity Fair to represent ten decades of the past 100 years since Vanity Fair came into being. I was assigned the 1950’s. So I made a one-take music video recapping the main events of that decade. It was successful because it was authentic to YouTube, meaning it was the right type of content that resonated with YouTube audiences. Six months later, I got a call from Conde Nast Entertainment about Vogue, which is in the same family as Vanity Fair. They asked me what I would do with Sarah Jessica Parker if I had some time with her. I spent the weekend thinking about it, and then told them I would love to ask her a ton of questions, all in one-take. (I liked one-take things back then). Sarah loved this idea and offered to do it in her home.
I didn’t know anything about Sex in the City. I didn’t know anything about Vogue. I didn’t know anything about fashion. But that ended up working well because 73 Questions is relatable and much bigger than Sarah Jessica Parker. These were questions anyone could answer.
So we created another episode. And another. And another. That was truly the early days of “celebrity formats” on YouTube - basically, if you make a successful one-off experiment, just do it many times more. Build an audience around it.
Nikita: We don’t generally see celebrities in their own space, doing their own thing. How did the format evolve after Sarah Jessica Parker’s piece?
Joe: At Conde Nast Entertainment, we tried to get the craziest ideas done with very famous celebrities, because it made things easier for other equally famous celebrities to participate in future episodes. For 73 Questions, SJP set the bar so, so high. She was perfection. And she simply made other stars think, “Well, if SJP can do that crazy one-take interview in her home, then I will, too!”
Nikita: How has this series and this format evolved over the years?
Joe: With Sarah Jessica Parker, it began as a quick and snappy interview with one-word answers to very random questions. This worked super well for her given her talent as a comedically gifted actor.
When we started doing the format with talent who were not actors, it was harder to pull off. For some folks it came off a little rough around the edges, trying to keep up with rapid fire random questions and non-sequitur things happening. Over time, the format evolved. It’s no longer five and half or six minute interviews with a lot of randomness; we're up to 14 minutes, or sometimes 22 minutes. The flow feels more intentional. The questions are organised into thematic sections and it's more conversational. You're going to hear me reacting more, sharing my thoughts. We're now treating this as something that's a little bit more personal, intimate and less of this choreographed spectacle. Adele’s video, at 20 minutes, is an example of just how far the format has come.
Nikita: You mentioned it’s slightly scripted - do you still consider 73 Questions nonfiction?
Joe: Yeah, of course it is nonfiction. These are real answers. Everything is real. It's just choreographed and prepared for smoothness. The choreography is often less about getting things smooth for the talent, and more for the crew. We have six people behind the camera all working together to make sure we don’t trip over each other, to make sure the focus is right, to make sure the lighting is right, to make sure an animal doesn't run out in frame or something. Doing a one-take, 20 minute-long interview is really technically hard. So, we have to film it multiple times. But in no way does that make everything less authentic.
Nikita: How did you settle on 73 questions and how many videos have you made in this format?
Joe: We originally pitched 100 questions but when we timed out the take, it was way too long and way too risky to try and pull off. So we just cut it down, and 73 was a unique number. I think we’ve made up to 75 videos so far.
Nikita: Can you tell me a bit more about the process? What goes into making a 73 Questions video?
Joe: Pretty much every video is booked for a reason – either the celebrity is promoting something, or Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, wants a video with someone in particular. Once the logistics are finalised, the teams get together and write a list of questions based on research and previous interviews.
I get involved after they’re done with that first pass, where it’s around 100-120 questions. Then I trim that list down and add a few questions after I scout the celebrity’s home. I craft the flow of the script to match the choreography of all the different rooms and eventually come to a finalised script of the 73 questions I’m going to ask. After we get publicist approval we go over the plan with the celebrity. Some celebrities offer their suggestions on what they could do that's fun or interesting and we block it.
We “stumble through” in the beginning - and it's messy and we don’t even press record the first couple times. It’s all in an effort to choreograph the smoothness of where we all need to go and for the crew to figure out their movement as well. It basically takes a village to set up, and I’m just right behind the camera because if I’m to the left or to the right, the talent is going to look off-camera at my eyeline.
Nikita: Is it eventually a one-take video? I mean that’s huge!
Joe: I'll be honest in that there were a couple of times where it wasn’t one-take, and we had to do some movie magic because we literally had to teleport from one location to the other. Or there's some episodes where something really problematic happens during the take or someone needs to leave. In those cases, we have to figure out how to cut so we can continue the rest of the video. But 95% of the time, it's all really one-take which is crazy.
Nikita: What are some of your favourite 73 Questions videos and why?
Joe: The first one with Sarah Jessica Parker will always have a special place in my heart because I can't believe she said yes. Emma Stone took it to another level and made more of a spectacle out of it with her personality. Roger Federer was great and being on the Court at Wimbledon was really special. Adele was maybe my favourite because it was so real and honest and authentic. Then there are times where I really just appreciate where celebrities are willing to go with it - Taylor Swift getting serious about slut shaming or Nicole Kidman sharing what’s bothering her in life while feeling pretty raw. I really appreciated that honesty.
Nikita: What’s most challenging about this format?
Joe: The most challenging thing is making sure that the celebrities feel comfortable.
My favourite moment when we're shooting is when we are rehearsing and it’s all coming together and the celebrity realises it's going to be okay. This whole ordeal can be scary for a lot of people. So, that naturalness and comfort and fluidity is probably the biggest challenge when we’re trying to make a giant one-take interview.
Nikita: Eight years in, how does it feel for you as the creator? Has the process become boring or repetitive for you?
Joe: Honestly, we’ve jazzed it up. We’re making it more real - like I mentioned, look at Adele! To me, that feels like a renaissance, just to be able to take this format and have a conversation with someone. Also, look at Liam Gallagher - he showed up and we just did one take and he left. If you watch that episode, it’s the first and only true one-time-only take. With moments like those, I’m like “Oh my God, that was actually insane!”
Nikita: I want to go back to YouTube. How has it changed? Do you have any advice for people who are making videos for YouTube?
Joe: There's been a lot of changes. The biggest one is that now there's other platforms that have just ripped away time spent on YouTube – TikTok especially. The forms have changed too. TikTok is short-form videos and YouTube released a new product called Shorts, which is a TikTok competitor and it promotes one-minute videos. Over time, YouTube as a whole went long form to put more ads in videos. So, videos now often need to be optimised to be at least eight or ten minutes long.
The algorithm has now replaced human curation. The first era of YouTube was a front page where editors on the front page of YouTube curated videos. The next era was where they enforced an algorithm but it was really bad so human curation from blogs ended up driving traffic. The third iteration was where YouTube really got buttoned up with the algorithm and now the algorithm is the only thing that matters and human curation from blogs doesn’t mean much anymore. (Though, celebrities and influencers posting it on their socials does have an impact.) The algorithm detects when people are clicking on videos and when they leave, and then recommends videos performing well on those metrics on your front page or right rail. That's a pretty significant change because it basically makes everyone need the perfect title, the perfect thumbnail, the perfect opening seconds to a video. It really has shaped the creative process to have to conform to what an algorithm is doing to maximise human attention.
Nikita: Do you have any advice for building an audience in the age of algorithms?
Joe: Unique concepts and a strong voice still matter. Just watch everything that’s out there, and try to make something you haven’t seen yet.
Nikita: Now, if we get out of the 73 Questions format, what kind of filmmaking excites you the most?
Joe: I just want to be in love with what I’m doing, and I think the best version of me as a creator has been where I’ve lost sleep with excitement. Now that I’ve launched my own agency and studio, I’m excited to freely hunt for those types of things that excite me.
I think all creators and filmmakers need to have a dashboard. They need to have a list somewhere of all of their dream projects. We all need to stare at these ideas, and for them to stare right back at us to say why are you not making me yet.
Nikita: If you had to give one piece of advice to people making videos what would it be?
Joe: Be obsessed, be curious, try things, and if you find an energy with other people that's organic, beautiful and serendipitous, lean on that, because sometimes as creators, we need other creators to help keep us going.
The art is all about what you are interested in. What are you excited about technologically? What's an important thing that matters to you? The science is understanding where you're putting it, what kind of audience you want, the strategy for your video to get seen in an ocean of billions of videos that are competing for people's attention. So, as filmmakers, don't dismiss this science part. You're not any less of an artist because you're thinking about algorithms. The biggest tragedy in the world is making something you spend so much time on that only a few people end up watching. The most important thing we can do is simply figure out how videos tick and why they are shared, and bake that into our creative process.
Nikita: If you had to pick one nonfiction video or one creator that everyone should watch, who would that be?
Joe: Concerto is a Conversation is a great short film that got nominated for an Academy Award. Directed by Ben Proudfoot, it features the fantastic film composer, Kris Bowers, and his grandfather.
I also love what Johnny Harris has done going out on his own - building his own brand off of his own personality. This is just a good example of people who care, people who spend a lot of time pouring their heart and soul into a video. I love videos like that because you can really feel the hours of their labor.
Nikita: What do you think is the future of non-fiction videos?
Joe: I think there will be a much bigger focus on how to make stories that stand out, because tomorrow, everyone will be a creator and competitor for your audience’s attention. For those who create time-intensive productions, this may fundamentally change the way you consider which stories to invest your time, energy and bandwidth into. For those working with subject material that may not have universal reach, this may compel you to consider what you can bake into your approach that’s optimised for viewership. I think all of this is an exciting opportunity for creativity.
Here’s the In Sync Spotify playlist that now includes Joe’s suggestions too! (And more from Nikita!)
Thanks for reading. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions about who we should interview next as well as any suggestions to make this newsletter more useful (or to, just, say hello)!