Dedicated to capturing audience attention through the “world’s most amazing stories,” CNN’s Great Big Story has been devoted to cinematic storytelling since its launch in 2015. Now roughly two-and-a-half years old, the video platform focuses on content told in short film and micro-documentary format, which tells on unique, uplifting stories that are found in all corners of the world.
The CNN Great Big Story’s event house, held in downtown Austin during SXSW, was packed with interactive displays, including a giant claw machine filled with oversized stuffed animals, neon plants lit with a blacklight, and a hallway adorned with colored LED lights. Those attending were greeted by a man in a top hat and bowtie, welcoming guests into the bright, colorful atmosphere, designed to accompany some of Great Big Story’s most unique and engaging content that they’ve produced.
“We were a little more prescient than we’d thought,” said Chris Berend, senior vice president of digital video at CNN and co-founder of the Great Big Story.
When it was first launched on October 20th, 2015, Great Big Story was envisioned as a kind of antidote for those feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly never-ending news-cycle right around the time the 2016 election began to dominate the headlines.
“Even then, we were getting a sense that people were getting fatigued with what was in their newsfeeds, so it’s sort of an antidote to that,” Berend continued.
Along with the interactive displays, the event house featured small screens that played videos of some of their most charming and unusual pieces. These stories included The Deadliest Garden in the world in Northumberland, England, which houses nothing but plants that are fatal to human beings, as well as The Birdman of Chennai, India which told the story of Sekar, a vintage camera repairman who started feeding two displaced parakeets after a tsunami hit his town. Now, he feeds upwards of 8,000 parakeets a day who show up on his porch.
“It was very much about becoming that safe refuge to take people away from whatever was dominating the news that day,” explained Berend. “We’ve exploded in the past two years, and some of that is people running away from all the noise. We’ve certainly benefitted from that.”
Most of Great Big Story’s content hovers between two and five minutes, but they’ve also branched out to produce some prime-time content, along with a series short films.
“The producers that come to us, creatively these guys are as good as it gets, and it’s a refuge for all the very hard news,” Berend said. “It’s an amazing thing to work on.”
At the event house, guests seemed to marvel at the almost other-worldly atmosphere, who were encouraged to have their photos taken with the exhibits. The most popular display by far meant climbing into a pile of stuffed animals inside a makeshift claw machine, which accompanied the story of Chen Zhitong, who’s won roughly 15,000 toys out of claw machines in Xiamen, China last year alone.
Berend, who runs the video platform for CNN, said he initially went to CNN president Jeff Zucker with a very rough version of the idea back in early 2015. Zucker then greenlit the project on the spot, and within six months, the project was up-and-running online.
“The content we build inspires curiosity, adventure, and is all predicated on topics like travel, food, and emerging voices,” said Sophia Shin, who works in communications at CNN.
While Great Big Story’s content is housed primarily on YouTube and social media, Shin noted that the audience response has been overwhelmingly positive — a viewership that loves exploring their online content.
“People just want to get lost in something beautiful, and this is what that’s supposed to be,” Shin said.