2014-02-05

Co.Labs

Tribeca and CERN Want To Change Storytelling With A Hackathon

When forward-thinking artists and scientists come together, they can change storytelling. But is anyone in Hollywood listening?



The left side of the brain controls logic, math, and science. The right handles creativity and art. What if leading thinkers from each discipline came together to explore the connection between science and storytelling? An upcoming hackathon may show us.

Backed by the nonprofit Tribeca Film Institute and CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the five-day "Story Matter" hackathon is the first international, science-focused edition of the Tribeca Hacks program. Intended to birth interactive stories, the program will cross-pollinate filmmakers and scientists to create long-term, forward-thinking media using visuals and data, not just traditional formats like film.

The event will take place from March 15 to March 19 in Geneva, Switzerland at CERN, which is known for housing the world's largest particle physics laboratory and the hadron collider. There’s no big prize on the line here, no larger-than-life check or celebrity endorsers. Instead it's about exposure. All projects will be showcased at CERN's CinéGlobe Film Festival on March 19; select works will be shown at the Tribeca Film Institute Interactive conference later this year.

Left Brain Meets Right Brain

The only criteria is a passion for storytelling and science, says Neal David Hartman, the artistic director of the CineGlobe festival. Hartman says the goal is to inspire filmmakers and scientists "to look deeper into their own work," and allow the public "to see a side of the scientific process that they never knew existed."

This is the first collaboration between Tribeca and CERN, but not the first like-minded merging of art and science. The Sundance Film Festival is known for the Alfred P. Sloan prize, an annual award given to science- and technology-focused features. That prize began in 2003, with winners that include critical and commercial successes like 2005's Grizzly Man and 2011's Another Earth. The Smithsonian Art Museum, and nonprofits such as Data Science Global, have similarly themed programs--but perhaps none with the same name brand prestige as Tribeca and CERN. Founded by a group that includes actor Robert De Niro, TFI is a 501(c)(3) training and development project serving 25,000 New York City students annually. Since 1953 CERN has attracted some of the best and brightest scientific minds in Europe, making it an overseas equivalent of a CalTech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory on steroids.

Participants are excited, but a common criticism of hackathons is that ventures created in these short periods often don't have much merit or staying power after the events have ended. So will this one be any different?

"Expectations are often very high," says Ingrid Kopp, TFI’s director of digital initiatives. While great projects are the aim, Kopp says they're not the benchmark for success. Here success means "new ways of working and thinking" to help use story and science to engage the masses, she says. "With Tribeca Hacks, the emphasis has always been on process rather than product."

Beth Janson, Tribeca's executive director, agrees, and thinks that technology will work as the vehicle to help tell new, experimental stories. "We'll see some fascinating projects emerge from this pairing of unusual bedfellows."

But in order for these ideas to reach a large audience, the right people have to be listening. Kopp and Janson expect a heavy European presence at the event. But does that mean this is off Hollywood's radar, half a world away? Do creative executives in Tinseltown look at events like this as a new place to mine material or voices, or is this all an exercise in creative futility?

Will Hollywood Get On Board?

"If it's not on Hollywood's radar now, and it's new, so it's totally reasonable that it wouldn't be, I suspect there's a good chance that it will be by the time it's all over," posits Franklin Leonard, the founder of the Black List, a writer's platforming highlighting the industry's top unproduced scripts. "Anytime you get two organizations like the Tribeca Film Institute and the CERN laboratory working together, it's worth paying attention to. I will be keeping a close eye on what comes of it, if only as a potential audience member, and I doubt seriously that I'll be the only one."

That sentiment is shared by scientist-turned-filmmaker Alex Rotaru.

"I'm both intrigued and excited," says the MIT-trained physicist cum writer-director. In the 1990s Rotaru left a promising academic career to pursue a more uncertain life behind the camera. The Romanian-born Rotaru ended up winning a grant for his documentary Shakespeare High, became a Tribeca alum when his film premiered at the festival in 2011, and attended seminars led by Kopp.

"I've often thought about the relationship between science and technology, and arts and communication, how one feeds and supports the other," he said. "In both fields, discovery and invention commingle to form a final result. I'm curious to see what comes out of Tribeca and CERN's crossroads initiative, and what enduring, new forms they might find."

Not too long ago Hollywood was threatened by emerging technologies and science. Now, more and more film companies are looking to the sector for innovation and collaboration, or risk getting left behind by finicky audiences who care more about personal convenience than supporting legacy media.

"I think you're going to see art and science come closer and closer together," says Eric Kuhn, who has spent his career at the crossroads of media and tech, the last three years leading the social media division of United Talent Agency, and spearheading similar initiatives for the NBA and CNN before that.

Kuhn says artists and scientists are more similar than people realize, and big ideas could come out of this pairing. That could make this hackathon a litmus test for future collaborations. And despite being overseas, Kuhn says the right people are paying attention.

"Executives at all levels are looking to startups and hackers to get new ideas and become inspired."

Applications are open through February 17. Five teams of about 25 scientists and creators will be selected by February 20. While travel is not provided, participants will receive free room and board.

[Image: Flickr user Henry Mühlpfordt]