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December 13, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Ilan Benjamin '16

By Claire Wong

As our world of technology grows, new technologies are constantly developing and evolving. There is now an overwhelming amount of tools for digital creators. How do you best utilize these tools? How can you use new media to tell your stories? How do you make your stories stand out in this oversaturated digital world? A 2016 graduate from SCA’s MFA Writing program, Ilan Benjamin approaches those questions head on with his new media company, FourFront. FourFront utilizes the transmutability and accessibility of social media to tell stories in new and interactive ways. Ilan joins us to discuss his creative journey from writer’s room to Tik Tok.

How did your time at USC shape your creative endeavors? What are some takeaways from your education that you use in your career today?

At USC, I made life-long friends and collaborators who I work with to this day. I was lucky enough to be in the Webisode class taught by Dave Goetsch & Sean Mullin in collaboration with New Form Digital. The project I made in that class, Virtual Morality, an interactive murder mystery – changed my life. Not only did it go viral & win the Caucus Television / New Media Award, it allowed me to combine technology + storytelling in ways that shape my work to this day. 

Tell us about your company FourFront. Why did you start this company?

At FourFront, we create popular TV series set on TikTok that allow fans unparalleled access to their favorite characters. Fans can text characters 1:1 and participate in live explosive finales. These stories have accumulated millions of followers and views on TikTok & beyond. We started this company to answer the secret wish of entertainment fans everywhere: "Why can't I hang out with my favorite character?" Now, they can. 

FourFront content is primarily on TikTok, why did you select that platform to present
your work?

TikTok is the #1 streaming platform in the world with over 1 billion monthly active users. For Gen Z, it is the primary source of entertainment. We tell stories that are made for this generation & that feel native to the platform. The discovery algorithm allows us to test out pilots & only invest in those that gain organic traction. We flip the traditional studio system paradigm on its head. Now, the fans – not studio execs – get to decide who will become the next big star. 

Your characters all pose an impressionable yet aspirational tone. Can you expand on your process of writing and developing these characters?

We have an incredible team of Gen Z writers, many USC alums, who write stories that are social by design. These characters are aspirational and joyful and inspire fans to personally connect with them. The process is informed by the demographics on TikTok & the type of content that they like. By and large, that means comedy, romance, and coming-of-age stories. 

You often work with many USC alumni. Can you discuss the value of working together with fellow USC Alumni?

My college roommate Peter Etherington was our company's first hire: the Head of Production at FourFront. We've been collaborating since film school days and his drive, tenacity, and production-savviness are a constant inspiration. The writers that graduated from USC's Screenwriting program are on another level – and already have the necessary tools to succeed in a professional setting. 

You have had roles in both traditional, television writing and new media storytelling.
How do these work environments and work experiences differ?

Working in a Writers Room on a Warner Bros. TV show was an eye-opening experience. I learned the challenges of wrangling talent, dealing with studio bureaucracy, and late-night production fiascos. Many young writers still yearn to climb the ladder and participate in the traditional studio system. But they should be prepared for a harsh reality: by and large, the ladder is a myth. Many writers' assistants have been working for a decade without a promotion or opportunity to write. The beauty of the New Media model is – you can go out there and make something and get an immediate response thanks to social media. It means you'll have to be more scrappy. But, when it works, it's incredibly rewarding. 

Are there any limitations or challenges to consider when creating for social media

Transmedia projects & ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) have evolved a great deal over the past decade. Gen Z values authenticity – so blurring that line between reality & fiction must be done delicately. Traumatic backstories and dark themes may work very well in a TV pilot – but on social, it can quickly veer into uncomfortable territory. The biggest challenge is to tell stories that are both a) emotionally effective and b) ethically responsible. It's a tight-rope walk – but one we are getting better at with every new story.

How do you think new media and social media is impacting our society today?

Many social media platforms reinforce negative human habits. Instagram – beauty standards. Twitter – mob mentality. The beauty of TikTok is its raw authenticity. There is less gloss and more empathy. That's not say it's a perfect experience. Scroll long enough and you'll find a toxic comment section. But I believe New Media filmmakers have an opportunity to shape a more nuanced and compassionate social landscape.

Where do you see the future of storytelling and new media?

If I was a film student at USC right now, I'd be looking very closely at Web3 & NFTs. Decentralization will disrupt many industries – including film & television. Why follow an old hierarchical model when you can create a new DAO / community, built on smart contracts and meaningful utility? This will unlock new ways to raise capital, bypass traditional gatekeepers, and pave the way for storytelling in the metaverse. We're early – but this future is not as far off as it seems. WAGMI.

What advice would you give those interested in pursuing a career or future in new media?

I know we're all crazy about Roger Deakins' cinematography, but forget the fancy cameras for a second. Write a script, don't overthink it. Go shoot it on iPhone. Release it for free on social. Get feedback. And repeat. Do it this week. No excuses. Rapid iteration unlocks everything.