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The Pitch

Episode 7: Big Think

Learn about the ins and outs of pitching to media platforms around the world.

Kate Villevoye

May 24th, 2024
Episode 7: Big Think

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.


The Essentials:

  • Platform: Big Think (as part of Freethink Media)

  • Executive Producer: Alana Kakoyiannis

  • Outlet Type: YouTube platform

  • Editorial themes: Science, ecology, philosophy, neuroscience, geopolitics

  • Ideal Video Format: Short-form documentaries

  • Pitches/Submissions Considered? No

Catering to a 6.8+ million-strong YouTube audience, Big Think is a digital publication spotlighting the brightest minds and boldest ideas of our time — while leveraging video as its main storytelling tool. We sat down with Executive Producer (and VC member) Alana Kakoyiannis to discuss the platform’s evolution into the beloved and recognizable short-form format it embodies today. Whilst Big Think's team solely produces its films in-house, this conversation taps into other opportunities for collaboration and reveals Alana’s insightful takes on sharpening any story's messaging and the art of self-publishing on YouTube.

Alana Kakoyiannis

Kate Villevoye: Hi Alana! Can you run me through the editorial philosophy behind Big Think?

Alana Kakoyiannis: Big Think is about making you smarter, faster — and we do this in a variety of ways on video, though we also have our accompanying site. We invite academics, thought leaders, CEO’s, and authors to come on our channel and share their big ideas.

We break down each interview into four different sections. The tentpole piece is usually the Big Think interview, where we take an expert's most recent thought experiment or piece of research and do a deep dive with them.

What differentiates the work that we do at Big Think from other direct-to-camera style interviews is that we really allow the expert to unpack their ideas during the interview. In the edit, we also try to maintain the integrity of the ideas and don't try to cut them down or distill them too much. The end result usually starts at about 7 minutes, we've gone as long as 18 minutes.

Our different sidecars fall under different categories. The approach is to have these be separate topics from The Big Idea. Explain It Like I’m Smart is our attempt to invert the tendency for people to overly simplify explanations of topics. It is a response to the popular “explain it like I’m 5” format and meme that’s seen throughout the internet. Audiences aren’t dumb; they are smart and totally capable of understanding complex, nuanced topics. With EILIS, we ask our experts to explain their ideas as if they were talking to a colleague. We believe audiences will reward us if we don’t talk down to them but rather treat them like the smart people they actually are.

Our next sidecar is Great Question, where we have experts explore questions they (or other people) don’t have answers to yet. Some of the most interesting questions are the ones where the answers are unresolved. With this sidecar, we want our experts to invite our audiences into the exploration of unresolved questions. It's fine if we don’t have the answers, but here are some things to consider that might eventually help us get there. The third sidecar that we work on in the interview is called Devil's Advocate. We know that they have a particular stance on a particular issue; we ask them to state that stance and then also work through what would be the sort of devil's advocate position of it. Altogether, that's the full suite of videos that we produce in a Big Think Interview.

The setup for Big Think interviews.
Camera placement and lighting for Big Think interviews.

KV: How does the Big Think team produce its content? Are all films created in-house?

AK: The ideas are sourced internally. We do in-person interviews, either in the field at a location close to the expert or in our studio in Washington, DC. The interview is led by our in-house directors (Ryan Commins, Big Think's Lead Director, Kate Webber, sometimes myself, sometimes Robert Chapman-Smith, Freethink & Big Think's Editor in Chief).

For the actual interview, the directors are fully remote. During the pandemic, Big Think figured out our own mode of operation, and the way we work now was developed then. We have our own version of Errol Morris’ Interrotron, so that the expert is looking directly into the eyeline of the director while they're sitting in the chair. Our producers and production coordinators are also remote, but what we do have in-person, and we hire on a freelance basis, is our DPs, our grips, our gaffers, our sound person — so wherever we need to be in order to interview that particular expert, we are hiring our crew.

BTS for remote directing of Richard Reeves Interview.
Richard Reeves Interview.

KV: Take us through your approach to storytelling. As this has been honed at Big Think through the years, I’m curious whether there are certain techniques in terms of format and pacing that you come back to time and time again.

AK: That’s a great question. Well, we want you to feel as though on the other side of the video, you have learned something on different levels, right? So you've learned a new concept and that's act one. You've gotten into the meat and bones and the nuance, perhaps the history; that’s act two. And then, if there's a possibility for any actionable takeaways in act three that's always nice to have when applicable.

It’s a very annoying question, but it’s always important to ask 'what's your headline?' If you are not clear on your headline, then you are not clear on the idea that you are aiming to communicate out to your audience.
—Alana Kakoyiannis

Insights are really important. Data is really important. Examples are really important. And those are some of the key components that I'm always looking for in our treatments.

And this is something that I’ve developed throughout my career, also with the team at Business Insider when we were really building up the video unit and learning a lot about what works on the internet. It’s a very annoying question, but it’s always important to ask “what's your headline?” If you are not clear on your headline, then you are not clear on the idea that you are aiming to communicate out to your audience.

Everyone [on the team] who is working on an interview is very invested in the actual content. It's almost like an exercise we're all doing to understand this particular topic of, let’s say, black holes, and as a result, there’s a lot of care and dedication that we put into it, for the love of learning. And I think our audience is also going through that process with us.
—Alana Kakoyiannis

KV: Reflecting more on Big Think, there's something captivating about the format and the punchiness with which an idea is always being conveyed. I wonder if there’s one aspect when it comes to that delivery that you think has really played a part in the channel’s success?

AK: I think it's important to touch on our editing style here. We take a more cinematic approach to the editing process, and combine the interview with poetic imagery, music, sound effects and data on screen.

I remember a quote from Rachel Grady, the director of Jesus Camp. She was in a talk with Albert Maysles, and said, “When you're learning, everyone's learning.” And I think that’s one of the key ingredients at Big Think: everyone who is working on an interview is very invested in the actual content. It's almost like an exercise we're all doing to understand this particular topic of, let’s say, black holes, and as a result, there’s a lot of care and dedication that we put into it, for the love of learning. And I think our audience is also going through that process with us.

Good sex explained in 9 minutes with Dr. Emily Nagoski
 

KV: What is your definition of success?

AK: Well, this is an easy one to find an example for because it's top of mind. About a year and a half ago, Rob Chapman Smith sent over a book pitch for Of Boys And Men by Richard Reeves. And he was like, what do you think? Should we do this?

So we assigned it to Ryan Commins, the director, and we did the usual suite of videos with Richard based upon his book. We also did a sidecar about the decline of friendship, and from the jump I loved that we were producing a video about that because I think we were touching a nerve that so many folks have been experiencing, and unpacking it in a way that was thoughtful and data-driven and actionable and relatable. It wound up performing very well, which is always nice to have - and we measure performance not just on views but on completed views and the quality of the comments. And I was really proud to see it recognized with the 2024 People's Voice Winner at the Webbys. And awards are great, they're fun, but I am just really proud of that video because I think it speaks to our times and that is really what we're trying to do.

Alana Kakoyiannis at the 28th Annual Webby Awards.
Why aren't there more filmmakers as creators making cinematic work, and driving their own mission?
—Alana Kakoyiannis

KV: Do you have any takeaways for filmmakers who are trying to bring a great story to life on the small screen?

AK: Okay, I have two things. One: what's your North Star? Be really clear on that. Make sure that you are clear on the story that you're trying to tell and how you anticipate it resonating with your audience. Really think with your audience in mind. I often find, when you can't come up with a title, it's a reflection of something bigger. And once you do, everything else falls into place and you can run more intentionally towards your target.

The other thing I would say — and this is maybe more of a big idea that I've been wrestling with — is that, as filmmakers, we're all feeling the push and pull of it all. Having distributed the majority of my work and the work of my team on YouTube, I'm finding myself asking why there aren't more filmmakers embracing YouTube or online distribution, and more of them are chasing platforms like Netflix when the tools are already there for us. Why aren't there more filmmakers as creators making cinematic work, and driving their own mission?

Physicist Brian Cox in "Brian Cox on how black holes could unlock the mysteries of our universe."
Enclave Films DP-Director Tristan Vince while working with Big Think.

KV: That’s an interesting point. I wonder if in comparison to content creators and vloggers, YouTube feels more like a wild west to filmmakers, as you're not sort of benefiting from a bigger publisher’s readily available audience – but you seem to think they might be missing out on something here?

AK: 100%. I mean, in terms of a platform, YouTube is one of the biggest on the planet. There's a lot of data and statistics out there and it’s just like a bird in hand, a wasted opportunity. Why let that get in the way - there's so many ways for you to take it.

Take your work into your own hands. There are so many tools out there to understand how to build a YouTube channel and how to optimize it so that you can stay in control of so much more. So just as a thought starter.. why aren't there more filmmakers as creators in the world? I would really love to see more of that.

Have an idea for The Pitch? Send Kate a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.


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