Jonny Zeller: Behind the Scenes of Storyverse Architecture

Please introduce yourself. What do you do? Why? What do you want people to know about you? 

Although I am now based in Los Angeles and work in the entertainment industry, I come from a completely different reality. I grew up in a small midwestern town just outside of Minneapolis, MN, where parents usually say, “You can be whatever you want as long as it’s a doctor or a lawyer.” For better or for worse, I rejected that thought process.

Thankfully, I’ve been able to build (and sell) a media company, launch the digital division of the prominent film company Tapestry Films (Wedding Crashers, Point Beak, Pay It Forward, just to name a few titles), and even build a Web3 lifestyle brand all in the name of storytelling.

I’m so lucky to tell stories of all shapes and sizes. The backbone of my creative inspiration is rooted in multi-platform/immersive storytelling to create a new style of content that engages audiences in a more robust story world.

Moreover, directing branded and commercial content with some of the world’s biggest talent in and out of the studio has brought me to five continents, touching down in countries not included on the traditional tourist hits list, like Nicaragua, Laos, Israel, and Zambia.

Traveling and experiencing new cultures is one of my favorite things. It’s also been paramount in helping me define my personal directing aesthetic and approach.

What qualities make you different and unique from everyone else in the industry?

Traditionally I would consider myself a director. But the more my career has evolved, the more that definition doesn’t seem to encompass what I do. So I’ve grown to like the term “Storyverse Architect.”

A “Storyverse Architect” approaches a project with a holistic mindset for content creation and focuses on creating a narrative that viewers choose to go on rather than are forced to watch. Whether for a car commercial or a film, I develop an immersive journey for the viewer that can come to life in many ways and on many platforms.

I’m talking about more than “cut downs” for social or utilizing a product image on IG and a billboard. We need to speak to an audience uniquely depending on what platform we’re reaching them on, but keep a cohesive through-line. An example for a car brand could be placing a secret QR code in their TV commercial that launches a digital or IRL scavenger hunt.

The gamification could extend through newsletters, print campaigns, micro-sites, and even a PR stunt. Film studios can do this through building a limited-release E-Novel that follows a character’s side storylines, narrative podcasts, secret bonus content, and/or a VR experience.

Switching the thought process behind content creation at the early stages opens the door for many more opportunities to hook the audience and bring them into a more immersive “story world.” Building this emotional connection through multi-platform content is my “special sauce.”

Having spent time working both in creative development at an independent feature film company and extensive work on the physical production of hundreds of commercials allows me to speak “both languages” effectively. This has helped me become a much stronger director because I understand the implications of my decisions beyond just the face value creative.

Describe THAT moment when you realized you’re doing what you were born to do.

Whether I explicitly realized it or not, I have been a storyteller my whole life.

I remember crafting rudimentary plays with my cousins during family reunions and using my parents’ video camera at a young age. Snowboarding and skateboarding eventually became the focus of my creativity. Our little neighborhood snowboard/skate crew would shoot hours and hours of content and thousands of pictures.

I remember daydreaming about it in school and waking up early on the weekends just so I could keep working on whatever our current project was. I’m not sure there was a defining moment, but it’s fun to think back on those times and realize that it was laying the foundation for “doing what I was born to do.”

As with any hobby-turned-job, some of that enthusiasm from those early days when we all crowded around the computer crafting jackass-esque videos has waned, but I still do wake up most days excited to get to work and create.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to go through and how did you grow through it?

My family was deeply affected by the real estate meltdown in 2008, and it was a scary time because we lost almost everything. The little savings I had burned up pretty quickly, and credit card debt started to add up quicker than it should for someone in their early 20s.

Looking back, I never realized how easy it was to get stuck in a monotonous rut with very little hope of rising out of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I grew up, but I desperately needed to leave in search of more opportunities if I wanted to take a career in entertainment seriously.

I was lucky to have a few close friends who were also naïve enough to “dream of making it big in Hollywood,” so we decided to pack up what little possessions we had and took off. The next few years were spent couch surfing, ingesting a steady diet of ramen noodles, and taking odd jobs in between filming gigs to survive.

Building a network from nothing and clawing my way upward has been anything but easy. The flip side of the situation is that the financial crash forced me out of my comfort zone, and I had to learn a lot of life lessons really fast. The sink-or-swim model is terrifying, but I feel that I came out the other end stronger.

Who are the TOP 3 people you’d want to meet that could elevate your career or business?  Why these specific individuals?

This is a tough one! There are so many brilliant people working in our industry today so my initial list was quite long.

Ridley Scott
Not only is he one of the great directors of our generation, but he and his team’s approach to building a multi-faceted company like Scott Free, RSA, etc., is something I hope to emulate someday. I respect their fusion of creativity, finance, and multi-platform content.

Reese Witherspoon
I’m continually in awe of Reese Witherspoon and her company, Hello Sunshine. They produce incredible content, but I’m even more impressed with their out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to developing IP and building their media empire.

Daniel Katz
What Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and the team at A24 have done to re-imagine how entertainment properties are financed and distributed is nothing short of extraordinary. I love learning and have recently been focused on better understanding the VC/investment side of filmmaking. Someday, I’d like to manage my own film fund and empower other filmmakers to share their stories with the world.

Drop your social media links. 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jonnyzeller/

Instagram: https://instagram.com/jonnyzeller

Vianka Petines
Vianka Petines
Vianka is a bright, savvy, and capable marketing publicist. She brings a breath of fresh air with a very sound approach to strategy and campaign development. We're excited to have her on the team :)

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