Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible.
Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; “Hybrid Creatures” author Matthew Baker; “Miracle Creek” author Angie Kim; MAMAG Studios brand storytellers Sing J. Lee and Sylvia Zakhary; “Letters of Love in WW2” podcaster Anna Priestland; and “You Know You Want This” author Kristen Roupenian accepted their awards at the event. Four other honorees — “Six” creators Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, singer/songwriter Tenille Townes and “On a Sunbeam” graphic novelist Tillie Walden — were unable to attend.
Before the presentation, attendees and honorees gathered for wine and photos on the hotel’s rooftop terrace overlooking downtown Manhattan. Plants, greenery and dahlia floral arrangements accented the outdoor space while tunes played over the loudspeakers as honorees like Patti Smith and Kim posed for photos. After attendees found their seats, they were greeted by a lunch menu featuring braised portobello mushroom, asparagus risotto, roasted chicken and a dessert of chocolate raspberry roulade.
Steven Gaydos, EVP of content for Variety, took the stage to introduce Smith, winner of the Creative Impact in Storytelling Award, before launching into a 15-minute conversation with the writer and musician.
Then, Gaydos moderated a panel discussion with the honorees, talking to each about the stories they were being acknowledged for, the stories they have yet to tell and what inspires them. Akers, co-podcaster of “Limetown,” a fictionalized investigative story that has now been developed for Facebook Watch starring Jessica Biel, said his writing process starts with something that he inherently fears about our world.
“The place where I like to start is what scares the hell out of me right now and how I can make other people feel that, too, and make it more of an urgent thing. So I think that’s where my brain leads because of what the world is right now,” Akers said.
Through their collective and entertainment company MAMAG Studios, Lee and Zakhary have worked with the likes of Donald Glover on his Adidas Originals and Google Pixel 3 campaigns and music videos for Halsey, Muse and CHVRCHES, ultimately producing around 60 stories per year, working on everything from film and television to brand storytelling and technology. Zakhary explained that she wants their stories to be experiential and authentic.
“It’s most important for us to create the platform and space to bring in authentic voices. Most stories are so important to tell and they go unheard,” Zakhary said. “We, on a business level, get to play in this pool of marketing dollars from brands. We love to bring in the authentic space and voice for people to come in and tell their stories.”
After the honoree panel, Gaydos brought IFP executive director Jeffrey Sharp, producer and Killer Films co-founder Christine Vachon and Audible Originals editor-in-chief David Blum to the stage for a keynote discussion about the state of storytelling in today’s media landscape. The three praised the diversity of platforms featured at the awards luncheon, saying it’s indicative of how viewers and listeners are consuming stories.
“It all begins with the idea. To me, as wonderful as it is and as exciting as it is to be engaged with audio storytelling, it is just another form of storytelling that follows, I think, a great tradition,” Blum said. “And I think for all of us, we have these great technological means to listen, to watch, and to consume stories. And I think that’s what’s really fun to me, is you can walk down the street and listen to a story on your phone or see it in a movie theater or on television.”