The Oscars: Storytelling Wins Every Time

by Josh Jacobson
The 86th Academy Awards are this coming Sunday, and my wife and I simply ran out of time.

Each year since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the roster of Best Picture nominees from five to 10 in 2009, we make our best effort to see all of the nominated films before the Oscars broadcast. Since most of these films come out in the November/December time frame, it means regular trips to the movie theater each winter.

Some years we do better than others, depending on what is nominated. This year, of the nine nominated films, we saw seven, missing just two of the indies – Nebraska and Philomena – which we hope to catch as soon as they are released on-demand.

It was a tremendous year for the cinema! Some truly amazing films with incredible performances. And if you’ve kept up with this blog, you know that I tend to find allusions to nonprofit management and messaging strategy in the strangest of places, and the nominated films are no different:

  • Her (Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson)Her

This was likely my favorite nominated film (along with Gravity). It was such an inventive concept, and acted very well by the leads. Her tells the story of a man who develops affection for his female operating system. The film explores themes of loneliness and the social anxiety experienced by those in the throes of heartbreak.

Since the film is set in the future, we are treated to a unique glimpse of a digital world that may await us. For example, the lead character works at a company that composes love letters for couples. Because in the future, we outsource the writing of our love letters to someone who can do it more artfully than we would do it ourselves. And according to the film, it is a poet-customer relationship that may last for many years.

As someone who makes his livelihood from utilizing the written word to encourage action – to make someone feel something enough to make a donation or embark on a new strategy – the idea of outsourcing the creation of poetry that expresses a love between two people is an amazing concept. What a commentary on modern communication!

The world is changing – the advent of the Internet is seeing to that. Consider 5-6 years ago, when people were frightened to use their credit card on the Internet. Now? Most people have overcome that barrier. What other barriers will we break down? To experience something that moves us, which makes us feel something? For nonprofits, messaging and storytelling must go hand-in-hand. It may just be our secret weapon in a hyper-connected world in search of meaning and purpose.

  • Captain Phillips (Starring: Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi)Captain Phillips

Who doesn’t love a good Tom Hanks movie? He is such an everyman, equally capable with comedy and drama. And yet, with Captain Phillips, we get a nuanced performance unlike anything else he had done since Apollo 13. This is Hanks in his all-business mode, and it was truly a gripping performance.

Early in the movie, we are presented with evidence that Hanks’ character is a bit of a stickler for process and procedure, and from the looks his crew give each other, we can guess what they say about him when his back is turned. He chides crew members for not locking doors and securing outside areas, and though they roll their eyes as he requests their immediate action, it turns out to be wildly prescient. Not long into the trip, their ship is boarded by Somali pirates.

If you know the story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, then you knew Hanks’ advice to his crew was just foreshadowing. But hearing it, and seeing their reactions, I couldn’t help but feel for him. It isn’t easy being the taskmaster, to be the one who takes ownership and manages people.

This is particularly true for nonprofit managers, who may find themselves being asked to undertake a near-impossible task with too few resources, too little time, and under-trained (even unmotivated) personnel. As a consultant, I am often seated across from very well-meaning managers who need their staff members to operate independently, to “own their roles,” but find they must micro-manage to ensure quality outcomes. Folks who leave the nonprofit sector are typically just plain exhausted and pine for a better-resourced workplace.

Hanks’ character is shown wearily preparing for the trip, later ordering security precautions and practice drills. I empathized with his prioritization of process, even as it makes him less popular in the eyes of his crew because of it.

  • 12 Years a Slave (Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o)12 Years

Not long into this heartbreaking film, I found myself near tears – a state I would stay in for nearly two hours. My heart was in my throat the entire time, not realizing how rigidly I was grasping my wife’s arm. From the minute Ejiofor’s character finds himself kidnapped until he is once again reunited with his family, I was just devastated.

To call this the best film about the subject of slavery doesn’t do enough to capture its importance – it’s true, it depicts slavery in a more shockingly realistic way than any film I’ve ever seen. But what sets 12 Years a Slave apart is how very intimate it is. We are meant to experience the film through the eyes of Ejiofor, ripped from his family and forced into a nightmarish scenario. You see what he sees, and you feel what he feels.

Nonprofits, particularly human services organizations, take notice – how do you tell your story in such a way that the audience is transported? In making the story more palatable for our audiences, do nonprofits also sanitize the case for support and miss the chance to connect emotionally? I think so, and can point at this film as a prime example of what everyday Americans are capable of experiencing, willingly, with the desire to better understand.

And the winner is? Really anyone who saw these films and the others nominated, as well as many that the Academy did not nominate. Movies can uniquely reflect our current condition as humans, holding up a mirror that allows us to learn and grow. Popcorn anyone?

Three Questions to Consider This Week:

  1. What would the movie of your nonprofit attempt to communicate? How would you position the story arc?
  2. For many nonprofits, video is a relatively new medium. How does your organization embrace video to tell your nonprofit’s compelling story?
  3. If you received an Oscar for your role in making your nonprofit a success, who would you thank in your acceptance speech?

Image Credit: Featured Image (Wikipedia), Movie Posters (itsjustmovies.com)

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