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Susan Johnston of the New Media Film Festival: “Frame your real background and yourself”

Frame your real background and yourself. In a perfect world, we see you straight on, framed with something that says a little about you without being personal like family photos. Not your living room or library as that can be distracting. For instance, it took time, but I have a life sized metal baby giraffe […]

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Frame your real background and yourself. In a perfect world, we see you straight on, framed with something that says a little about you without being personal like family photos. Not your living room or library as that can be distracting. For instance, it took time, but I have a life sized metal baby giraffe in my living room, I put it in the corner so there was some depth next to the pictures of the wild horses. I also wore something that the color would not clash with the background. What I learned from our first live show is I should have shown at least waist up so you could see my hands more


As a part of our series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Johnston.

Susan was plucked from college to immerse herself into major motion picture filming, hired by the illustrious Sherri Lansing, former president of Paramount Pictures. Susan continued her education privately at NYU, Dov Simens presiding.

Susan Johnston is the founder, director and CEO of the award-winning New Media Film Festival®, now in its 12th successful year. The festival is a global catalyst for story & technology that honors stories worth telling from all ages, all cultures and all media.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My parents were divorced and instead of babysitters, they took me out. This allowed me to meet Robert Redford on the set of the first Great Gatsby, play tambourine behind Slim Pickens, and pull the lever on a light show in a country bar at 13. All to keep me busy, but boy did I learn a lot. That was with my Dad. My mom would take me out with her and she loved music, we went to a very cool outdoor air tent with 360 revolving stage and saw amazing shows. Gladys Knight and the Pips,

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

There was a 3 month WGA (Writers Guild of America) strike in 2008 that basically shut down a lot of production, then there was the financial collapse right after that, the Industry was devastated. I saw a lot of Studio level executives leave, and a lot of friends went back home. I wanted to help the Industry that I grew up in and thought about all of my experiences to date, what was needed and what should it be. One night in my sleep, the entire festival blueprint came to mind. Knowing the technology would constantly change and stories would always be told, the festival was born to Honor Stories Worth Telling and creates career empowering opportunities for those storytellers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This goes way back. I was a Brownie (pre-girl scout) and was a flower in a play (holding this big cardboard flower in front of me).. Well, I accidentally dropped the flower during a very quiet part of the play and was horrified in that silence. But then the audience laughed loud and I laughed and that is when I knew I wanted to be in this business.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder Version.

For me, fantastical situations based on creativity and Willy with his wise quips when someone was a bit overexcited (out of line).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is no try, do. Yoda I love this quote because it is pro-active and there is no fail, because I tried.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing events in general?

2021 will be our 12th Annual New Media Film Festival® both live and online events with an average of 110 New Media Films & Content from 40 countries. Judges from Marvel, HBO and more.

Can you tell us a bit about your experience organizing live virtual events? Can you share any interesting stories about them?

Due to the pandemic, our 121 nominees from 32 countries voted to have an online awards show vs waiting for when we can be in person again.
You can see the full show, including the show will start soon messaging. https://newmediafilmfestival.com/schedule.php

What we learned, 5 Things You Need To Know to Successfully Run a Live Virtual Event. (we can expound on the list, just giving you an overview of what we learned)

1- Lighting. If you do not have good lighting you can look sickly. Don’t you want to look alive, refreshed, happy, engaging, truthfully? You will also want to see how that outfit you want to wear really looks on camera. A lot of things that look great in person do not transfer well to the screen, including makeup.

2- Frame your real background and yourself. In a perfect world, we see you straight on, framed with something that says a little about you without being personal like family photos. Not your living room or library as that can be distracting. For instance, it took time, but I have a life sized metal baby giraffe in my living room, I put it in the corner so there was some depth next to the pictures of the wild horses. I also wore something that the color would not clash with the background. What I learned from our first live show is I should have shown at least waist up so you could see my hands more (see below).

3- Does your voice and body language match what you are trying to convey. It is best to record yourself with your cell phone in the outfit you want to wear, with the background you are thinking, framed in the manner you think is most engaging yet non distracting. Practice does make perfect. Knowing where to look when speaking helps engage with your audience. Now honestly assess if what we are seeing, you, matches what you are saying. Perhaps you need to smile more, a suggestion would be, when you look at the camera, think of someone you love that you are excited to share this news with.

4- Have live event be available in all places your audience is. Where is your audience? I’m noticing more countries outside of USA are using Google. While most of our US audience uses Twitter, Facebook and their websites. Try to have as broad a reach as possible if you are looking to have new people discover you.

5- Have someone to manage chat, “bad actors” etc. Whether your audience is allowed to show video or just chat, you still need someone that is not the tech person running your show (they need to handle sound issues, drop out video issues, etc. You actually need someone to police the video and chat areas.

Today, there was a person in a chat of a very high level panel, that was using chat to “communicate” with the other people chatting, but really, selling who they are and what they do. Unless this is what you want to happen, the focus should be on the panel, notes on that, questions, not networking. This will also prevent people from using your chat to swear, voice their political opinions or just vent about whatever is bothering them. Thanks.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job creating live virtual events?

Lt. Gov. Office RI — Dan McKee. They created a Town Hall once a week that brought in leaders from SBA, Dept. of Unemployment and created initiatives to help Small Business.

Then a major magazine started by doing an amazing job, but then they got too excited and did too many and let loose on the 5 tips listed below. So instead of being excited about getting a notice from them, I was oversaturated.

What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to run a live virtual event? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Which virtual platform have you found to be most effective to be able to bring everyone together virtually?

Personally, I think hiring someone to run tech for a live twitter, Facebook and website show simultaneously works best. Hire someone to communicate to people in chat helps as well.

Are there any essential tools or software that you think an event organizer needs to know about?

In doing research, the enterprise systems are quite pricey and complex. I like things clean, simple, and direct.

Hired someone who knew what they were doing, as I discovered them from seeing their work. Doing a rehearsal and giving yourself enough time for issues prior to live will help. You don’t need to spend top dollar to get top results.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a live virtual event that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Think of this like a 3 act play. The first act is the setup, the second is the turn of events (meat of the matter), the 3rd the resolve (action item, follow through)

This will be the journey you are taking people one.

Super. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

What do you want your future to be? Be that now. Create that story and share it with the world.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Jacinda Ardern — Prime Minister, New Zealand. It would be lovely to shadow her for a day. I’d learn about the great people of New Zealand, through the eyes of someone who deals with hard issues head on, taking into consideration the global and local bigger picture with immediate implementation. Oh, like Yoda — there is not try, do. ☺

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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