REI Director of Content and Media Paolo Mottola on New Producing Division, REI Co-Op Studios
Earlier this year, REI, the Seattle-based specialty outdoor retailer, announced the launch of REI Co-Op Studios, a content division that is already producing short films, features, podcasts and a magazine. One early progenitor of the new initiative was last year’s REI partnership in the production and release of The Dark Divide, a feature directed by Filmmaker 25 New Face Tom Putnam and starring David Cross and Debra Messing. The well-reviewed film is a real-life story of a butterfly expert on a trek through the wilderness of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, a tale that is representative of REI’s goal of supporting work that speaks to the outdoor experience.
More recently, another independent filmmaker, Angela Tucker, has completed a cross-generational series of short films, The Trees Remember — three stories of Black women finding moments of epiphany and strength through their outdoor encounters, whether that’s a widow leaving her home to birdwatch during the pandemic to a Philadelphia couple in 1990 whose park maintenance volunteering reveals itself to be a form of couples therapy. And then there’s the forthcoming “Hello, Nature” podcast, hosted by Misha Euceph, which finds Euceph exploring various national parks while asking the question, “If the parks are public, aren’t they supposed to be for everyone?”
Paolo Mottola is REI’s director of content and media, and over Zoom he spoke to the company’s acceleration into film and media production, the presence of the REI brand itself within these projects, and how he feels brands can best work with filmmakers and producers. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Filmmaker: Let me start off by asking why REI decided to work with filmmakers on short films and features?
Mottola: REI started in 1938, and we’ve been creating a lot of content for a long time, but that content has been educational and instructional content — telling people to get outside. Over the last few years, we’ve been producing short films — about three dozen films that are not stories about REI or the brands that we carry. They’re just about human experiences and the outdoors. We financed and released our first feature film, The Dark Divide, last year. It was directed by Tom Putnam and stars David Cross and Debra Messing. And it’s not just films [that we’re producing] — there are podcasts and editorial. So over the last three to five years, we’ve been testing and releasing in these different formats, building relationships with the creative community, and learning that while a brand engagement is a new way to get projects into the market, there are a lot of best practices in the creative process. I think that when brands get out of the way of the creative vision and play a producing or executive producing role helping finance and bringing those projects to market, often those are the best possible outcomes. Because then it’s not about a brand inserting its point of view, it’s about a brand enabling a point of view that it’s aligned with. So we’re trying to create some systems in our studios that look a lot like traditional studio relationships that creatives would normally have, and we’re trying to not let the way that we engage members and customers be a complication. Rather, we think it should be an advantage that we’ve got 20 million members at REI — that’s a heck of a way to catalyze a film.
Filmmaker: Tell me, what did you learn from releasing Tom Putnam’s film? The Dark Divide, which came out last year, was obviously a digital release, right?
Mottola: It was primarily a digital release because of the pandemic, and it’s on Vudu, Tubi and iMDb TV this month. We’re in streaming and SVOD spaces. We learned that we have a member audience that loves film and is really excited to see great inspirational stories. We’ve got people that want to stay connected with the outdoors and who want to be inspired for their next outdoor adventures. And they’re really excited to see great talent and great storytelling. We saw great reception within our digital channels when we were promoting the film through email and social media. We invited some of our members to digital exclusive screenings where Tom and other key talent were attending. We think there’s a scalable model there because customers are always consuming content, and they’re excited by the idea of seeing themselves in the REI network community and being the first audience to see [this content].
Filmmaker: You say you have 20 million members. Can you break that down? That’s a huge audience.
Mottola: REI is actually the largest consumer cooperative in America. Our members pay a $20 lifetime fee to join the co-op. Okay, so that’s 20 million people over the course of our history who have joined the co-op and paid that lifetime membership fee. But we hope that these films reach audiences that haven’t stepped inside of an REI store yet. In some cases we are deepening the engagement with our members because this content they’re consuming is another interaction with us, but it may also be that these films are the first interaction that an audience member has with REI. [The films] then spur curiosity and give [audiences] reasons to explore more of our ecosystem and the services that REI offers.
Filmmaker: How is REI present in a film like The Dark Divide, for example?
Mottola: We are present as a studio credit. There’s no visible REI product, there’s no REI store visit, there are none of those kind of product integrations, if you will. Our objectives are about enabling an outdoor life and fighting to protect the outdoors. We’re hoping to [inspire] people that look at the David Cross character, who is a little intimidated by the outdoors and then he figures it out and has a life-changing experience. Our hope is that when people consume content like that, as maybe they have in films before, like Wild, audiences will [become] interested in the outdoors first and foremost. We’ve got a visible enough mark in the billing and the promotion that I think audiences can easily discover REI within that.
Filmmaker: How do you work with directors and writers in the development of the material?
Mottola: We are engaging in projects at very early stages, including the screenplay, attaching talent and then enabling that project to go live in the financing pool. We are not taking an approach of steering the creative. Our role is to support projects and enable them. We are not adding notes to scripts and we are not providing notes in cuts. We have a vested interest in [scripts and cuts], but we are letting the creatives do their job. It’s really about upstream vision alignment — ensuring that we all all see the desired outcome the same way.
Filmmaker: For features, are you financing, co-financing…?
Mottola: We are co-financing and participating in the investor pool.
Filmmaker: How do you get involved with projects? Do projects come to you? Are you initiating them in-house, or are you bringing projects in from the outside? Are you represented by an agency?
Mottola: We’re not represented by an agency. We are building relationships with producers, production companies and studios, as well as distributors. We sometimes listen to pitches. We are also originating some of our own IP because we’ve got this large member base, and we’re barely tapped into everything happening in the outdoor community.
Filmmaker: Along with feature films and shorts you are doing webseries and podcasts. Could you speak about the specific attributes of the feature film as a form for the kind of messages and points of view you’re trying to get out.
Mottola: We are finding [out] the role that different formats play for different audiences and also when in the course of their day, or their week, they want to spend time [with content]. Specific to film, it’s really simple: it takes a lot of effective advertising in traditional advertising formats to reach the time and engagement level that you [can] get in a film and long-form content. We’re really excited when our members spend 30 to 40 minutes with us in one of our podcasts, and we’re just as excited when members and new audiences spend an hour and a half with a feature film. Consider how much time is spent with us in that single format, in that single piece of content, compared to all the aggregate time that has to be spent around shorter forms of content to get that level of engagement —
Filmmaker: So in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, the feature film format is still a viable and desired one for you?
Mottola: Absolutely, and I think that’s why you see a lot of brands entering the space, albeit in different ways with different levels of control, or self insertion in the creative. Look, people are spending a few hours to a dozen hours a day consuming content for both recreation as well as for information. We can interrupt them or precede some of that content in some formats. We can be the content provider. And we can be both. I think a lot of brands can do both; it’s just a question of how well you’re executing and how well you’re serving the audience with what they’re interested in seeing.
Filmmaker: Tell me how the series directed by Angela Tucker came about.
Mottola: We’ve been doing a lot of work around equity and inclusion at large, like a lot of organizations, and we really accelerated that following the Black Lives Matter movements and tragedies of last year. We reached out to a number of filmmakers and production companies with an ask, which was, “Bring us your perspectives on what time outside means to you and your community and your cultures.” We really want to broaden our perspective and bring more perspectives to our members. Angela had a clear vision of a multi-generational, multi-decade view of Black women having experiences in the outdoors, and we enabled that vision into production. She brought her team together, she selected the cast, she had full autonomy over that project. We aligned up front, obviously, on what we all expected that to be, and it was a wonderful collaboration because I think the roles were really clear. She is a super talented filmmaker who brought three powerful stories to us, and and they’re beautifully shot and directed.
Filmmaker: And what’s the podcast you have upcoming?
Mottola: Misha Euceph serves as executive producer on the Michelle Obama podcast and the Renegades: Born in the USA Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen podcast. And she has many other podcasts that she’s produced. She’s going to be the talent in a show that comes online in the fall. She is on the road right now, going to national parks. She’s a Pakistani American woman looking at national parks through the lens of, “Okay, these are public lands for all Americans, who’s really showing up, who has been showing up, and what is the representation of these places compared to traditional depictions?” It’s an example of where we’re pushing really hard on the question of race and equity in the context of the outdoors and public lands that all American citizens should enjoy.
Filmmaker: Any last words?
Mottola: I would just leave you with this: We’re creating more films to help more people see themselves in the outdoors, and I think the films you’re going to see from us in the future are not just going to be [set in] wilderness and mountainous places. They’re going to be cityscapes too — you know, time outside [can be] going into your city park with your dog, or going on a run along the city waterfront. We want through these stories people to see themselves as “outdoorsy,” and we think that when that happens, more people will be advocates for protecting outdoor spaces. We talked a bit about the business economics and the financing piece, and that enables these projects for that ultimate outcome, which is more outdoor advoacy and protection of public places. Any creatives that are interested in that ultimate outcome, I think there’s a lot of story territory that we can explore.