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CREATIVITY IS LEGION - Jay Williams Seeks The Perfect Union Between Rising Storytellers And The Demanding Digital Audience

Posted By Spike Friedman, Thursday, March 31, 2016

Creative ambition and the financial realities of new media are forces that often find themselves in conflict with one another. Dig a little deeper and you find other structural tensions, such as the audience-driven trend towards fan/creator interaction versus the artist’s single-minded pursuit of a unique creative vision. But at Legion of Creatives, Jay Williams and his team are betting on these oft-diverging forces coming together in symbiosis, and the early returns are promising.

For Williams, who came out of Disney’s marketing division, storytelling and audience development have always been of a piece. Having started his career working on brand integration efforts, Williams saw these commercial efforts as an opportunity to develop his creativity. "I was really fortunate, as I got a chance to hone my craft for storytelling,” Williams said of his early experience, "but I also learned how important brands were. What I realized early on was just because you’re a marketer doesn’t mean you’re not creative.”

Even early in his career, Williams’ work often sat in the digital space. And we’re talking early, in digital marketing terms; his first experience with digital promotion was working with CBS and Prodigy. "It was all text,” he explains. "And we did a ‘watch and win’ with the CBS fall season. This was early for digital. Murder She Wrote was still on the air.” While his current company works with cutting-edge digital tools, the goal then was the same as it is now: encouraging savvy audiences to invest more deeply in stories by using technology.

Jay Williams (right) with fellow PGA member and vice president
of Disney/ABC Television Group's Digital Media Studio, Chris Thomes
In 2000, Williams came out west to work in Disney’s creative content division. "It was a group within Disney Studios, that lived in the space between TV spots and trailers,” Williams explained. "It’s the other great content that can be developed around the stories we’re producing at Pixar and other Disney properties.” This effort pushed back into digital and early iterations of mobile content. "It was about the innovation. Where can we take the storytelling? Our work went from a passive experience to a very interactive experience.”

After spending some time post-Disney on the ad agency side, again working on creative content, Williams moved over to work for Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci at K/O Paper Products. "Hands down, two of the most creative writers I’ve ever met. I learned so much from them about the creative process,” says Williams. But that learning was a two-way street, especially when it came to the marketing process. "Once a script is complete, a lot of the old guard of writers think, ‘okay, my job is done, I’ve written this.’ Whereas today’s writers are like, ‘Now I can actually communicate with the fans! I can take that fan base to a whole new level.’ And we had some really early success with that on Sleepy Hollow.” The fans weren’t the only ones who noticed; the TV Academy recognized Sleepy Hollow with its 2015 award for Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Media User Experience and Visual Design.

After K/O dissolved, Williams found himself in the new position of being able to strike out on his own. Partnering with Orci, screenwriter Noam Dromi, and Sleepy Hollow cast member Orlando Jones, Williams formed Legion of Creatives as a response to what he saw as the needs of writers and producers in an increasingly digital entertainment landscape. To Williams’ credit, he remains steadfastly focused on the quality of the work he’s fostering. "We’re interested in premium digital content. The ‘premium’ really comes in with the scripted part, bringing in the best writers from movies and television, people who really know how to write stories.”

Legion of Creatives also finds success in a model that fits somewhere between traditional television production models and independent film. Specifically, by keeping costs down through tight production timelines and the use of technology, Legion of Creatives is helping its partner artists work in new ways. As Jones explains, "Jay’s focus on new technology to empower creatives together with a reframing of storytelling formats has the potential to disrupt production models that are starting to strain as the media landscape becomes increasingly fragmented.”

That instinct towards disruption informs the content itself, and Legion of Creatives functions as a collective looking to tell stories that traditional models won’t tell.Inspired by the success of Sleepy Hollow, a show with a diverse cast that told authentic yet fantastical stories, Legion of Creatives is pursuing partnerships with creative talent across the spectrum. "In digital, we’re telling stories you won’t find elsewhere,” asserts Williams. "We feel part of that model is bringing different audiences in. Digital is a great place to do that. And unlike on TV, you can connect on the platform where your show is actually airing.” With Sleepy Hollow specifically, Williams also cites overwhelmingly positive fan feedback on the diversity of the show.

Williams (left) with Legion of Creatives co-founder and co-president Noam Dromi
at the 2015 Emmy Awards
Furthermore, by engaging with a wide spectrum of fans directly, Williams is carving out room for new voices. "It’s really important to find partners who tell authentic stories. Whatever our creative conceit may be, our creative partners have lived it. And they have a unique perspective on it.” One partnership is with disabled performer Katy Sullivan, an actress who Dromi met while working on Dolphin’s Tale. "She is incredibly talented,” says Williams, "and we have a project we’re working on now with her called Legs that’s about what it’s like to be a 31–year-old woman who happens to be disabled trying to make her way in life. It’s just an honest, unapologetic look at her experience.”

Connecting with fans also means partnering with entities such as xxArray, a company that allows fans to scan themselves in a photo booth with 150 still cameras, and become part of the show’s cast. "Instead of doing your crowd scene with nondescript CG people,” Williams explained, "we can fill it with fans. And now you have fans that want to watch and see that they’re in the show.” This is new territory. LoC is currently using the technology on its new season of Tainted Love featuring Jones, and the response has been exciting. "A lot of fans are asking, why haven’t we been able to do something like this before?”

For Williams, his passion in creating content is driven by the fans. "Part of having a partner like Orlando is that we understand the fan base. He always takes the time for his fans. He goes the extra mile. I’ve learned how important that is. When you talk about the increasing bifurcation of audiences, the question is, how do you go about building an audience? You do it through loyalty.”

To that end, he’s pushing his projects to utilize the sort of technology that can put the fans into the action, which for LoC means staking out a position in the vanguard of virtual reality. Sleepy Hollow was among the first shows to have VR content associated with it, and as that technology develops, Williams wants his team developing for it. "The mistake a lot of people make with technology is it becomes a crutch.” Instead, Williams asks, "How can you use technology to actually supplement the storytelling, so your production value becomes greater?”

As this hybrid production model matures both at Legion of Creatives and elsewhere, it will organically attract partnerships with more traditional media powers. Legion of Creatives is collaborating with ABC as they develop their digital platform, while also working with companies like eOne on international distribution, and figuring out the different ways to move content across borders. "Something that’s a digital series here in the U.S.,” said Williams, "can be a movie in the international market.”

The question then becomes how to fund premium content. "You hear people talk today about there being too much content,” Williams muses. "For me, there’s still not enough good content.” For Legion of Creatives, this mandate carries serious implications for content creators. Having that seat at the table demands an investment beyond simply writing a script and handing it over. It’s a chance to change the game. "Digital is a different place,” Williams smiles. "It’s fun to be able to write the rules instead of frankly, playing by everyone else’s rules.”

- Illustrated by Elena Lacey

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