When Mary Mazzio starts talking about her work, her enthusiasm is infectious. She sweeps you up in a torrent of conversation, and before you know it, you’re itching to pick up a camera or a pen and create something meaningful too.
She has good reason to be enthusiastic: the Olympic athlete-turned-lawyer-turned-filmmaker has been lauded for her documentaries, which include Underwater Dreams, TEN9EIGHT, The Apple Pushers, A Hero for Daisy, Contrarian, Apple Pie, and Lemonade Stories. What’s most remarkable about her work, though, isn’t the critical acclaim but the real impact she’s sparked with her storytelling. Her production company, 50 Eggs, has partnered with brands to promote female empowerment, fight against food deserts, and raise over $100 million for STEM education. Her most recent film, I AM JANE DOE, is fueling a bipartisan effort to stop child sex trafficking.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mary about her approach to story, what moves audiences to action, and the intersection of advocacy, authenticity, and brand storytelling. (Our conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
You started your career as a lawyer and then made the transition to filmmaking. What sparked that transition?
I was really prompted by the fact that I felt as if there were no real strong role models in media around me. There was this ideal woman that was depicted everywhere, and I didn’t know anybody like her. She would often be a beautiful, blonde, leggy, two-dimensional, insipid kind of character. And all of the women I knew were irritating, smart, funny, loud, big-thighed, imperfect, heroic, remarkable people. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I remember thinking, “Oh my God, she’s going to come into a world where she is going to be limited and handicapped by who and what society thinks she should be.” And that was really the genesis for me thinking about film as a way to make a statement about that.
So I started writing screenplays that were bouncing around Hollywood, with these strong female protagonists, and we would have these meetings in LA that were big smiles, and oh, you’re so talented, and of course the second I’m out of their office, I’m sure they’re deep-sixing my script. At the same time, I had come back from taking a year off to compete as an athlete. I was back at my law firm, and I remember thinking, if the mountain isn’t going to come to Mohammed, Mohammed might do something different. I was going to film school on the sly, one course at a time, and I needed to make a thesis film. And I remember my husband said to me, “Whatever you do, do not use your friends from BU Film School. They’re not professionals, they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. If you’re going to go do it, do it for real.” That was one of the best pieces of advice he or anybody else could have given me. That really triggered my first film, A Hero for Daisy.
That was actually an exercise I had done for class. I had done a three-minute short, and there was a guy who worked for Saturday Night Live in my class, and I’ll never forget, he came up to me and said, “You’ve got to do a movie about this.” And at the time, I was really focused on writing features. Documentaries were the last thing I thought about. My thesis film really transformed into not a thesis film at all—in fact, I never even made a thesis film! I went off and made A Hero for Daisy, and it catapulted me into this career.
When you have a story idea, how do you know it’s a good one?
It’s instinctive. There’s an art to storytelling. And I know so many talented people that have challenges around a clear narrative. And I think in many ways my legal background was really helpful. You distill things down to their ultimate simplicity. I take that approach with our films. If somebody says something twice, does it really need to be said twice? Do you need all the ums and the ahs? And we shave our films down to the pure essence. That’s such an important piece of it.
I think the other piece is figuring out what journalists and distributors and audiences are going to respond to. What is the elevator pitch, what is the strategy, how are we going to reach them, what’s the ultimate plan?
That’s something I’ve found so interesting about your work—you’re not just telling stories, you tell stories that motivate action. It sounds like you’re thinking about that from the get-go.
Without a doubt—if you haven’t thought about the end user, it becomes a really expensive, brutalizing exercise. Because everyone has a story. There are so many talented people out there, people that are far more talented than I am, that have challenges articulating the strategy, or don’t really think about the strategy. And it’s like, if a tree falls in the woods, nobody hears it. We don’t want to be that tree!
When you approach stories, especially when you’re working with brands, are you approaching this purely as an artist telling a story because you have a story to tell, or are you approaching this more like a marketer in that the story has an end game?
Yeah, I really approach it like a marketer! Because if you’re telling the story for the story’s sake, and you don’t have a plan for the story, you’re in real danger territory. Because audiences are really fickle. Who knows if a story’s compelling? If you have no end game and no strategy for who you’re going to reach, it’s like throwing something against a wall and seeing if it sticks.
In my line of work, a lot of people will have a business model like, let’s try and get into Sundance. Let’s try and get into Toronto. What happens if that doesn’t happen? That is not how we’re constructed. We instead think about: What is our business plan? What is our strategy for cutting through the clutter? And then we go execute on that. And the sort of, I’m going to hold my breath and hope and pray that somebody accepts and validates our work, that’s not a model that works for us.
Now, we’re lucky that’s not for us. We have our own distribution opportunities. We plan for what it is that we’re doing and what the timing is like. How are journalists going to respond? What kind of heat can we create, what kind of national dialogue can we jumpstart or contribute to, and most importantly, how do we move people forward to action?
What makes a story one that motivates people to act?
It comes down to the nub of storytelling. One thing that runs throughout all of our work is overcoming obstacles. Everybody has them in various forms, and so much of what we do is all around how you move through obstacles and move to another plane. And when people see that, they get fired up. We don’t tell stories in a really melodramatic way; we tell them honestly, authentically, and then we move on. And where we can, we try and use humor. The audience can really relate and appreciate where they can laugh.
I think a distinguishing point for us is that we move fast. Our documentaries are cut like spots. I’ve been accused, by the way, of moving too fast and being slick. Guess what? I’ll take it. My attitude is I would rather have them wanting more than wanting less.
Let me ask you a bit about your relationship with the brands that sponsor your work. How did that get started?
That was happenstance, honestly. My first film, I showed a rough cut to an ad exec who worked at Havas. Havas at the time represented New Balance. He showed his team A Hero for Daisy, and they said it was too edgy for New Balance. He then took it and showed it to Jim Davis, the president of New Balance. And Jim had daughters who were facing, or going to be facing, glass ceiling issues, so it resonated with Jim, and he said, “OK, I’m in. Have Mary come in. Let’s see how we can support her.”
In the case of Welch’s, a friend of mine actually worked at Welch’s, put it on the president’s chair, and said, “Hey, take a look at this.” Again, the rough cut. He had daughters, and he said, “Bring Mary in, let’s talk about how we can support this.” Listen, that doesn’t happen! We had no distribution, this was my first film, we were desperately in need of funds, and what ended up happening was really extraordinary.
And the Welch’s logo, the New Balance logo, that’s lived on for more than fifteen years. Hundreds of thousands of kids see it and it’s embedded in curriculums all over the country.
In more recent project with brands, has that also been serendipitous, or have you sought that out specifically?
Then, it’s been seeking it out. And sometimes it’s in an obvious way and sometimes it’s not. Apple Pie was entirely a New Balance project, but we’d already begun that relationship, so that was a continuation. That was also about female empowerment, but the backdrop was athletics, so that made sense. My next film, we had support from Staples. That was around entrepreneurship, so that made sense.
For TEN9EIGHT, we did a really special initiative with Campbell’s Soup, with where we put the film, where all the Campbell’s Soup plants were, with curriculum. With The Apple Pushers, we actually worked really closely with Whole Foods. The film was blasted out to a number of cities around the country, and the film was in Whole Foods Markets. That was unusual because that film was about food deserts. So part of it is finding the right brand for the right content.
Then with Underwater Dreams we had an extraordinary opportunity to work with 3M. That was after the fact, but we were doing an initiative packaging it with curriculum and putting it where there were at-risk children we knew could be impacted by the film. So we work with brands both directly on production and then on the back end.
What do you think is driving this desire on the part of brands to get involved with these artistic, and also social, initiatives?
One thing is authentic content. We’re creating content that gets attention and that matters. We’re creating content that moves people to action. If we can piggyback on that authenticity, that excitement, that concern for a bigger issue and partner with a brand with that, it’s a huge win-win situation because the glow transfers to the brand.
When New Balance and Welch’s got involved with my first film, Welch’s did a market analysis to determine the value of the dollar spent. It was amazing the data they came back with! Sixty-nine percent of people they polled remarked after seeing the film that they were more likely to buy Welch’s and New Balance products. That’s an extraordinary shift with a single one-and-a-half-hour piece of visual media.
Do you ever feel any conflict or tension between what you’re trying to do as a filmmaker and as an artist and an advocate and what brands want out of the work you’re doing with them?
Not to date. When we’re working with brands, it’s clearly articulated what we’re going to do, and then we go do it. There’s no creative control, or interference, if you will, from the brand. That’s really important, because if we don’t have that Maginot Line, we become propaganda, and that destroys everything.
Is there risk for brands that engage with storytellers like you that they have to give up a certain degree of control?
No, I think the risk for brands is to not fully vet who they’re working with. It’s almost like saying, I want you to design a house for me: you’re either going to trust the architect or you’re not. The risk that a brand will run is with somebody that’s unknown, untested.
We have a very strategic methodology that serves the interest of the brand. We are not going off half-cocked. And we’re not standing on a platform like, this is so artistic that I can’t do X, Y, or Z. Again, that’s not our DNA. Because our focus is moving people to action, it’s a really different aesthetic. And one, frankly, that I think dovetails more closely with a brand.
What is your response to consumers who look at brand advocacy with suspicion?
They should! When ad agencies attempt to create content that’s outside their scope, that’s when it falls flat. End of story. If you want authentic content that’s going to move people to action, that’s where we come in. Because we’ve built up a track record, we have the trust of our viewers, we have the trust of schools, we have the trust of everyone around us, and we protect that carefully. We partner with the brand so that the brand can take credit for supporting an issue that their constituents and their consumers care about.
Let me go back to the data that Welch’s collected. They also did a qualitative questionnaire. Before you saw the movie, what did you think about Welch’s? What did you think about New Balance? The answers were male; doesn’t care about our issues; corporate; uncaring. What did you think about the brand after seeing the film? Progressive; cares about what we care about; good corporate citizen.
And this is even more important now because—this is a dramatic shift in how purchasing is happening over the past five years—millennials today care more about who they’re buying from than the actual product. So this new generation of consumers is all about: What does the brand stand for? What do they believe in? What is their value system? And that’s something we can help articulate.
See Mary Mazzio give the opening keynote presentation at Forward 2017, the premier brand storytelling conference, on June 15 in Boston, MA.