Given its lackluster tax incentives and lack of institutional will, Colorado could be doing much more to support its burgeoning film industry. That's most obvious when a local production is a breakout success. The latest example is The Social Dilemma, a documentary that played at Sundance on January 27 and dropped on Netflix on September 9. It became the most-watched film on Netflix in September, beating out Pets Unlimited, two Smurfs movies, and hundreds more offerings.
The documentary — a devastating examination of the toxicity of social media that makes a compelling case for why we should quit it or at the very least advocate for its regulation before it destroys democracy and our lives — was directed by Jeff Orlowski, edited by Davis Coombe, written by Vickie Curtis, produced by Larissa Rhodes, Stacey Piculell and Daniel Wright, and with music composed by Mark Crawford of Boulder-based Exposure Labs. Even the animations were homegrown, produced by Mass FX Media, run out of Denver by husband-and-wife duo Shawna and Matt Schultz.
The companies had worked together before on such highly successful social-impact documentaries as Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice, but none of them hit as hard as The Social Dilemma. We caught up with Exposure Labs and Shawna Schultz to talk about the film's unexpected success and impact.
Westword:This is such an urgent doc. Can you talk about how it's been received, and why you think people are so drawn to it?
Exposure Labs: We’ve been blown away by the film’s reception so far, and we're grateful to have distribution by Netflix to be able to share the film in 190 countries and various languages. The effects of social media impact everyone, even more so during the pandemic, and audiences can all relate to the dilemmas explored in the film, regardless of their age, background or political views. Whether it’s the mental health of our youth, the political polarization of our country or the breakdown of a shared truth, everyone has a stake in these issues, even if you're not on the platforms yourself. On top of it all, viewers may be feeling an added weight of the upcoming election, because so much of our political discourse lives online, and the film demonstrates how fragile our democracy truly is.
How did Mass FX Media get involved?
Shawna Schultz: Mass FX Media is a motion-design and visual-effects house based in Denver. We started the company back in 2011. We specialize in animations, titles and motion design for nonfiction films, but also serve a base of brands and nonprofit organizations. I'm the co-founder, and I run the business side of our studio alongside my husband, Matt Schultz, who leads as our creative director. He's the form and I'm the function. We work well together because he can make the striking designs and moving animations, and I help shepherd the story and purpose of the work we do. We've worked on films and TV series for Netflix, National Geographic and PBS, and with our background in documentaries, it's the perfect fit for our animation skill set to partner with storytellers wanting to bring more of their story to life.
We have been working with Exposure Labs since they were founded, helping to bring to life pieces of the story that are technical or hard to understand through animation. Previous to The Social Dilemma, we were the team that created the infographics, maps and animations for Chasing Coral, so when Jeff Orlowski and Larissa Rhodes approached us to work on their next film, we knew we had to be a part of it. We absolutely love and respect the team at Exposure Labs, and it was an honor to be chosen as the team to tackle this huge challenge of marrying a documentary film with a scripted narrative, to communicate the invisible forces behind our screens. We put about 3,000 hours into the visual effects and animations, and created a completely original social media platform from scratch for the scripted side of the film.
What does the success of this film mean for the Colorado film industry?
Schultz: For our team at Mass FX Media, we are Colorado natives. We went to film school here in Colorado. We started our business here in Colorado, and we intend to stay here in Colorado. We love the creative talent that resides here, and we adore the collaborative nature of our industry here. Our dream is to build back up the film industry right here in our state, and the only way to do that is to make the work ourselves. Filmmakers like Orlowski and Rhodes calling Colorado home and keeping their work local is a huge boost to our industry. A film like this making such a major dent in history and also rising to the number-one film on Netflix for the month is a huge accomplishment for a local industry that so many gave up on. People want to live here, and they're coming here in droves, so let's build it, and we can all stay.
Exposure Labs: There is certainly a blossoming film community here on the Front Range, and we are so fortunate to live and collaborate among so many creative and passionate filmmakers. Because The Social Dilemma incorporated a narrative component to the story, we also had the opportunity to work with departments and local crew members that we normally would not work with on a standard documentary shoot. In addition to the documentary production and post-production being based out of Colorado, we specifically tried to film as much of the narrative portion locally to showcase the immense talent that resides here in Colorado.
Have there been concrete changes that have come out of the film, in terms of policy or individual people's social media use?
Exposure Labs: The response to the film since the release on Netflix in September has been massive, and we have been so humbled and impressed by the volume and the range of individual reactions to the film that have reached us in the form of videos, emails, press and even via social media. Many people have expressed to us that they are looking at their technology usage differently and thinking more deeply about the ways in which they and their family members engage with these social media platforms.
We knew that The Social Dilemma could only capture a small fragment of a much larger story about our broken information ecosystem, and we recognize that there are numerous activists, researchers, scholars, community members and thought leaders who have been sounding the alarm bells about this for decades. It is our hope that the film will serve as a helpful milestone in a collaborative and inclusive process of bringing public awareness to the harms of these platforms.
In the coming months, our impact campaign will be hosting a series of virtual gatherings to discuss the many complex issues we face with regard to technology design, use and regulation, and to help shift attention toward a healthier, more inclusive and more equitable public discourse. We need a diverse array of voices — including those who have experienced the harms of exploitative technology — to be active participants in redesigning our future. We invite everyone to watch the film and then continue the conversation at thesocialdilemma.com.
Watching it on Netflix, I kept wondering if it would mention that specific platform's algorithm and what kind of data collection they're doing. Do you know about that at all?
Exposure Labs: You will need to speak with Netflix about the specifics on data collection. In The Social Dilemma, one of the film subjects says, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” While Netflix and other services employ recommendation algorithms, there’s an important distinction between streaming platforms and the social media and search companies we critique in the film: On streaming platforms, customers pay for the content in exchange for a product, and third-party advertising is not influencing the content curation.
Jaron Lanier and many of our interview subjects have advocated that one solution to extractive technology is for users to pay for the services they use with actual money rather than with personal data. With its monthly subscription model, Netflix and other streaming services are one such example. They make the same amount of money from customers whether they spend ten hours a day or one hour a week on the platform. Furthermore, many streaming services also hold their content to rigorous fact-checking standards, and there are limitations on who and what appears on the platform.
What's next for your company?
Schultz: Ten years in, and we're just getting started. We're currently working on the graphics for a show for Netflix and in development for other projects with Netflix, PBS and CBS, plus working on some original content for an animated series and a scripted feature film about a Colorado story that we hope to tell right here. We hope people will start turning to Denver as they look for the next creative hub to give life to their films and TV shows. We've got it all here; we just needed a little boost of recognition, which it seems The Social Dilemma may have offered up.
For more about the documentary, go to the Social Dilemma website.
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