Part 4 in our series on “How to Build an Audience.” If you missed our first articles, you can catch up by clicking the links below:
ROB: I definitely appreciate that. Erik, I think it would be helpful to get a real sense of what you do and where your heart is. If you could share a couple of the projects that you have worked on or that are coming up for you that are meaningful, I think that will help us fill in a little bit of the color and shape of what Aspiration really is. What’s been meaningful?
ERIK: We’ve had the benefit of working on 100+ projects and networks, shows, movies that mostly fit this aspirational audience—which is a very interesting conversation for a later time, the surge of aspirational-minded audiences.
But really, from Disney projects—Frozen, which is a big one obviously, but also much more of the arthouses like Tree of Life, Calgary. We produced a movie called Last Days in the Desert with Ewan McGregor that came to Sundance in 2015, premiered there.
Right now we’re working on Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Mister Rogers film which comes to theatres this summer, June 8th. It’s a doc, but we’re helping the studio market this because really it’s such a transcendent theme.
We’ve seen audiences come away very emotional about not just nostalgia for him as an amazing figure—a consistent, authentic figure in the history of television—but also because there’s this longing for kindness. There’s a crisis of kindness. People realize, “Who is Mister Rogers?” A need for having him and his voice sweeps over the audience.
So that one is a special film. Focus Features is doing a marvelous job with Morgan Neville, who’s the director. A beautiful, beautiful story.
We have several in production, several that we’re marketing. We work with Nat Geo channel on many of their projects. There’s just so many projects that are coming that have this bent toward legacy for the creator. The filmmakers want to leave an impact, they want to leave a legacy. It’s not just about the dollar. And there’s an audience that’s shifting into this, “if I’m going to give you 2 hours of my time, it’d better well be worth it.”
That’s where we feel our sweet spot is—not just entertainment. There’s many companies that do that well, and that’s great. But there’s something about this screen-forward view of entertainment where something happens on the screen, big or small, that helps me think, “What else?” and moves me in a way that I’m haunted by it. After the credits roll, I’m haunted by something I can’t explain, but I want to do something. I want to aspire to do something. That’s really the sweet spot for us as a company.
ROB: I think that really does help. You talk about Mister Rogers; there’s a familiarity, there’s a built-in audience, as you said, but it seems like the film is a fresh take on that. It’s not something that simply takes the audience for granted. It’s not a bunch of Mister Rogers clips.
When you talk about Last Days in the Desert, it has a familiar religious bent to it. It’s about Jesus. But it’s actually, in a way, about a white space in Scripture, a fill-in-the-blank conversation. But it doesn’t take the audience for granted.
I think that’s such a challenging slot to fit in, but I’m glad that you’re able to find these projects and help get them in. I want to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? now.
ERIK: You’re right, there’s a slot. We call it the middle space between—we describe it in a very simplistic way—there’s this “mass & crass” content and there’s this ideological “teach & preach,” very agenda-driven content, political/ideological, could be faith, whatever.
Then there’s a middle, where it’s “heart & smart.” It’s really an audience that wants to be moved intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I think there’s a lot of artists in there that are always leaving the tension of what is, what could be, how do they wrestle with their own demons and their own angels—just what does life look like, what it could be for themselves and others. That’s not a great logline for movies because the audience is not clearly moved by a new TV ad. It’s moved by other things: meaning, purpose, beauty.
I think, as marketers, that’s the tension we all feel as well. There’s things that we love to market. We love feeling the audience or the consumer moved by something with meaning. There’s also stuff we have to market because it’s just being a good steward of our clients and of the product we’re asked to serve on.
But I think we’re all bent toward, ultimately at the end of the day, end of our career, to say, “I worked on these five things that moved the needle, moved people, and is contributing to society’s overall good.”
ROB: Erik, what are some things that you’ve learned building Different Drummer and now Aspiration Studios that you would think about doing differently if you were starting fresh?
ERIK: Oh gosh. [laughs] I love that hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I love that I’m not at the point where I can’t take those learnings and figure things out.
I do think much of what we’ve been asked to work on is not just giving solutions, but also telling people, “There’s a bunch of hazards and potholes and cars in a ditch back there, so watch where you’re going.” [laughs] It’s a bit of warnings and learnings from all of our own challenges and mistakes.
I think for me, if the question is what would I look back and do differently or think about, it would be the importance of staying true to your purpose, your mission, your calling, your vocation. As much as we are drawn to be professional plate spinners—we’re interested, we’re curious and want to work on a lot of different things—the way the world is going is be really good at something.
A friend of mine was talking to us the other day and he said there’s three things driving younger generations, motivating them. It’s community, craft, and cause. It’s belonging to something, being good at something, and believing in something.
To me, that’s where I always feel like if I just stick to that and if I always try to stick to that—that’s where I get off the rails; I think that I should be doing something else or different. If I’m with the people that I care about, I’m doing things that matter, and I’m doing something that I’m good at, those three C’s (craft, community, and cause), when they align I do feel like we are doing great work for great projects.
ROB: That makes a ton of sense. I think that’s a recipe also for a deeper contentment than some people find sometimes in their work. We can get caught up trying to be the one best person at this thing, but when we look at how we’re gifted and what matters to us and how we do it—particularly with a faith perspective that we’re not valued-based on just what we do, that we have intrinsic value—it seems like a healthier recipe than just trying to chase the stars.
ERIK: Yes, exactly. That’s the great thing about the creative space, entertainment in particular. It has to be collaborative. It’s impossible to do it all yourself, and it’s impossible to think you have all the answers.
I’ve had the benefit of living in cities that are highly collaborative, and I’ve also lived in cities that are highly selfish. I’ve lived in D.C. People tend to not be there for the money, but there for the cause. They’re locking arms with people who are likeminded.
I’ve lived in L.A., which has this sense of “If you’re winning, I’m losing.” It’s like, you’re an actor. I’m not even in your space. I’m glad you’re doing well. But there’s a sense of envy if someone else is advancing. I’m generalizing of course, but it just feels like you’re losing if someone’s winning.
Then I lived in New York for 4 years and there’s this tribe and unity of New Yorkers, like “we’re in it together.”
I feel like Nashville has a sense of all those in many ways combined. The creative community here is very collaborative. They’re looking out for each other, they want each other to win—at least on the surface. It’s a good Southern hospitality side of it. [laughs] But there’s a sense of, we celebrate with each other and we’re in it together.
I meet filmmakers all the time who are like, “How can we make Nashville a great filmmaking center?” It’s going to take more than just one company or one person or one project.
ROB: Super wise. Very good, Erik. When someone wants to get in touch with you and Aspiration, how should they find you?
ERIK: There’s a couple ways. I’m always either spouting off on Twitter or just watching my friends spout off on Twitter. I’m @eriklokkesmoe there and @AspirationHQ. I’m also fine with getting emails: email@example.com.
Check us out on our socials too. We’re oftentimes traveling with films, we’re oftentimes doing public events, so we’d love to connect with people that you’re connected with.
And of course, we’d love people to read the book that we have. I’m giving a lot of those away, so if you have someone who really wants it for free, I’ll send it to them. As a starving artist author that I am on that side, it’s fine.
ROB: [laughs] That’s fantastic, Erik. For sure, if you’re listening and you see a project that Aspiration is working on and it connects with something that matters to you, I definitely encourage you to check it out. It’s thoughtful, it’s high quality, and I’m so glad it’s on my radar. Thank you, Erik, for sharing today.
ERIK: Thank you, Rob. Pleasure.
ROB: Take care.
That’s a wrap on our “How to Build an Audience” series. Have more questions about marketing your film? Give us a shout at HELLO@ASPIRATION.IS.