Participants at the first "Story Hack: Beta" event hosted by StoryCode and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in April. (Courtesy of Photographer Emon Hassan)

One participant sported teddy-bear ears. But don’t be fooled: this was not an event for children.

This was a Red Bull-drinking, no-sleeping group composed of programmers, filmmakers, gamers, and graphic artists, among other tech and creative types. This was the first-ever Story Hack — an event produced by StoryCode, a not-for-profit dedicated to the future of cross-media storytelling, in partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and studio/technology company Murmur.

On the morning of April 28, “Story Hack: Beta,” as the event was called, brought together seven teams of four. The participants were “held captive” at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center until after the presentations. A winner was announced the following evening. 

But why hack storytelling?

“We were tired of hearing the same five case studies at every conference that focused on cross-platform storytelling,” said Michael Knowlton who, along with StoryCode co-founder Aina Abiodun, came up with the idea. “The challenge is really creating, not talking about it.  We decided to borrow something that works really well in the tech space: the hackathon. The "hack" culture doesn't exist in the entertainment space but we really felt it was applicable.”

The teams were challenged with designing a cohesive narrative using three or more technological platforms. They also had to execute a single story over the course of 48 hours.  They could use mobile, social, live performance, web-based and/or gaming (console or live) to tell their story. In terms of a theme, teams were asked to focus on “courage.”

There were requirements, which were delivered to the team ahead of time. Each hack had to integrate at least one of the technology sponsors, Kaltura, Logicworks, Social Samba and Twilio, and teams were given extra credit if they incorporated more than one. Finally, all the teams had to use a dress from clothing boutique and brand sponsor, Free People, in their hack. The dress had to appear in the finished product. Then, on Saturday, the teams were thrown a wild card: They had to integrate the Emily Dickinson quote “Fortune befriends the bold” into their hack as well.

Making a city like New York shine and showcasing brands were challenges similar to what professionals encounter in the corporate world.  Getting a chance to actually implement ideas was also an important part of the experience.  Then, of course, there was the highly-concentrated networking opportunity.

“We put an open call out and it turned out, we had to turn two thirds of the people away,” said Abiodun, “We didn't want to start out too big. We wanted a tight, closed environment. Half of the teams applied as teams and the other half applied individually and we paired them up.”

Jim Babb, a member of Team Awkward Hug, holds up a pill capsule filled with sprinkles at the "Story Hack: Beta" event hosted by StoryCode and the the Film Society of Lincoln Center. (Courtesy of photographer Emon Hassan)

Most of the teams used multiple technologies, and some even did so during their hack demos. In the end, creativity, strong storytelling and presentation won the judges’ and audience members’ hearts, with Team Cupcakes and Rainbows emerging victorious. Brian Fountain, a member of the team, described his team’s brainstorming process for their project.

“It took us around six hours of discussion to find the core idea,” said Fountain, “We talked about courage and the various ways it can be demonstrated. [Teammate] David Gochfeld had this idea about ‘small moments of courage’ — like telling someone you love them. We all felt that was a terrific place to start and began to spider-web out from there.”

The team went through a number of “really extreme scenarios,” said Fountain, including abductions and haunting.  But nothing seemed to click. Then Fountain lobbed an idea.

“As a joke, I tossed out the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic dating’ and [teammate] Gyda Arber’s eyes lit up,” said Fountain, “within minutes we were all on board."

Steve Coulson, creative director at the marketing agency Campfire, served as a mentor for the event and gave some insight, “I've seen great ideas killed through bad presentations, and mediocre ideas win funding with a great pitch. So my advice to the teams was to focus as much creative energy on how they explained their stories, as they did on the stories themselves. Create drama around their fifteen minute pitches — the story of their story.”

Team Cupcakes and Rainbows were a hard team to beat on presentation, since the demo included puppets, actors and engaging the audience in a speed-dating session. Other teams also got creative, with Team Awkward Hug donning lab coats and dispensing sprinkle filled pill capsules.  They also included hand drawn animation in their project’s demo — a detail that VH1’s Warren Cohen said impressed all the judges during deliberation.

The organizers deemed the event (minus a few technical difficulties) a success, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center has posted highlights on their Web site and will be posting further updates in the form of 2-to-5 minute videos in the near future. As Knowlton says, “We can no longer afford to think of narrative content as objects to be stuffed through a static electronic (or analog) pipeline.”

Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called "Truth in Documentary Filmmaking" and is currently producing the documentary, "The Art of Memories."

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