Who are the staff behind Vimeo’s Staff Picks?
Not an algorithm but four film fanatics, It’s Nice That heads to New York to meet the team catapulting the careers of filmmakers large and small.
On entering the Vimeo offices in New York, you could be forgiven for thinking this was just another tech company, residing in another towering glass building. On paper, you’d probably think this too, with its 150 million members in over 150 countries, an estimated worth of $1 billion, and employees based across the globe. But once you walk through the doors and onto Vimeo’s floor, a very different kind of business presents itself. It’s one Jordan Smith, who looks after communications at the company, describes as a “scrappy organisation,” in a way that instantly puts you at ease. “It’s just more in our personality to stay small and nimble.”
Small and nimble is also the best way to describe four of Vimeo’s employees in particular: its Staff Picks team. Set up in 2008, four years after Vimeo was founded, this team hand selects innovative videos and has become a beating heart of the global film community, championing everything from big-budget to bedroom production. It’s also a coveted stamp of approval many creators long for, respected for the power it holds to catapult someone’s career in an industry traditionally difficult to break into. In today’s digitally driven and content-heavy world, many people suspect a Staff Pick is purely based on an algorithm. “People don’t think we’re real,” explains one of its curators, Jeffrey Bowers, to a patter of laughter from his other very real colleagues Ina Pira, Meghan Oretsky, Ian Durkin and Courtney Horwitz.
Each has been at the company for a surprisingly long time for the tech world, and sitting down with the team is like meeting a family who are very familiar with each other – their tastes, attitudes and points of view, however different. Obvious film fanatics from the word go (references to directors and suggestions of films I have to watch immediately fly around), each member ended up at Vimeo after following various routes.
Ian, the lead curator and a filmmaker in his own right (who begins by telling me jokingly he’s a Pisces like he’s being interviewed on a panel show), joined as an intern in Vimeo’s community team nine years ago. Meghan (Sagittarius), a curator on the team whose job before working at Vimeo was on a farm – “my mom was always saying ‘20 per cent of people like their jobs’ and I was like, ‘That’s not how it has to be!’” – too joined in a different department, before making the move to curation. Jeffrey (Gemini, twin), the team’s senior curator is next up, joining just over five years ago, following curation roles at both the Hamptons and Tribeca film festivals. An old colleague of his, Ina (Libra), soon followed him there, joining three years ago as the most recent addition to the team. The four Staff Pick team members are then overseen by Courtney, head of brand and marketing (and a Taurus), who joined seven years ago after working at Hulu while feeling a desire to be closer to creators, “and Vimeo was the perfect next step”.
Each holds a unique job within the company, and in comparison to other content platforms, Ina sums up the team’s priorities by outlining their job description as “professional cheerleaders”. Who they are rooting for, however, changes every day.
Although there is a pretty rehearsed soundbite for what makes a Staff Pick a Staff Pick – “original stories, exceptional craft, diverse stories, what’s the last one…” – the team admits that, in real life, it’s a difficult thing to quantify. “The intersection of exceptional craft and great storytelling, when these two things come together, it makes a really great Staff Pick – ideally,” Ina continues to explain. “Within that, we obviously Staff Pick things that really excel in craft and maybe the story is a little bit thinner, or vice versa. I think that’s definitely true, but in my heart, it’s really so film-specific.” With her colleagues nodding in agreement, the team explains that, truthfully, it’s about assessing whether “this filmmaker succeeds at telling this story within the parameters that they’ve set themselves, with the tools that they have at their disposal.” A team of one or 100, with a budget of $50 or $500,000, starring Danny Devito or a pet dog, anything can be worthy of a Staff Pick.
As a result, over the years, the group has compiled a bunch of varying favourites, largely driven by what Courtney describes as their ability to Staff Pick “for the sake of originality and not viral quality” – their taste usually informing the latter anyway. Some are emotional, such as I think this is the closest to how the footage looked, one which Jeffrey describes watching and “just crying at like midnight and writing to him at like 12.06 saying ‘I need to play this film.’” Equally emotional is Ian’s firm favourite: Denali by Ben Knight. “I watched it and was totally floored,” he says. “If a film can elicit an emotional response, especially tears, I’m always like how did you do that? Magic.”
For the other curators it’s particular filmmakers whose work sums up this feeling, such as Bianca Giaeverfor Meghan – “she has such a special voice that’s really evolved over the years” – or the duo, Celine Held and Logan George, who have become friends with Ina since their introduction over Staff Picks. “That’s not part of the job,” she adds, “it’s just part of being humans in the world that we get to work with really talented people every day. Of course, some of these people become our friends. How could you not want to be friends with them?”
Although the group are often too modest to admit that they had a vital hand in elevating the filmmakers’ careers, the impact a Staff Pick can have is transformative. An example of this that comes to mind is one of the first Staff Picks I remember watching, gathered around a monitor in the computer room at my sixth form college. Playing was Murmuration, a short by two friends experimenting with filmmaking while rowing across a river to a nearby island, only to come across a huge starling murmuration. It’s terribly filmed (they can’t be more than teenagers on a tiny boat), the wind is incredibly loud, and you can even hear the camera holder gently mutter “shit” as thousands of birds descend on them. It is a perfect film and a perfect Staff Pick. To date, it has 26.1 million views, and the duo went on to start their own film company, aptly named Islands and Rivers.
But how the group actually discovers these films, especially when they’re sometimes made by one person with no film background and definitely no following, is difficult to comprehend. “The secret is… we watch a lot of videos,” jokes Ian. “We have eyeballs of steel” – “AND spreadsheets!” pipes up Ina. And while Ian is only half-joking, the team, of course, spends a lengthy part of their days sat up watching shorts, and there are also some helpful tools at play. “We have some backend tools which populate stuff that has already gained traction,” says Ian, “but we keep that threshold pretty low so we try not to miss out too much.”
It’s on this point that Jeffrey explains that it’s worthwhile really taking the time to consider the upload of your video, if you’re on the hunt for a Staff Pick yourself. “In terms of actionable advice, for me personally, your video will get watched if you make the effort and put the energy into putting your film out there,” he says. With the threshold on what is shown to the team being so low, small details – for instance choosing an eye-catching thumbnail, taking the time to write a description, having people log in, comment and like the post – will all help. “These are the things that come onto our radar,” says Jeffrey. “If you have respect for your film, we will show you respect for your film.”
If a team member enjoys a film, they then give it a nomination by adding it to a mega spreadsheet, where the others can weigh in. Once watched by all, the majority of the curators have to sign it off as a Staff Pick in order for it to be featured. “Democratic and autonomous,” as Jeffrey describes, the team only has each other to answer to when it comes to their curatorial choices. “The company has been gracious and respectful,” he continues, “in terms of leaving us alone.”
Although it’s surprising to hear that everything is decided as one cohort of curators, the team believes this approach is vital in keeping the output of Staff Picks well-rounded. “Hopefully we’re a team where we shave off each other’s worse impulses and balance each other out, overall representing a more global audience,” says Jeffrey. “Or even that all our taste combines,” adds Ian. When I push the group to describe each other’s tastes they’re uncharacteristically quiet, keener to explain that their differences are what has helped them each garner a wider appreciation for the industry. “You judge other films on a curve of your broader understanding,” says Jeffrey. “Like, I enjoy watching The Avengers but also The Lighthouse. Different days for different vibes.”
All this isn’t to say that they don’t often disagree. But for Ina in particular, when those more heated discussions move offline and away from the trusty spreadsheet, “that’s my favourite part,” she says. “To get to tell somebody why they should be excited about something, pulling them in to see what you see. If I can’t do it with my co-workers, how can I get someone on the internet to see what I am seeing?” The concept of a “veto vote”, one instant Staff Pick granted per team member a year, is still being debated.
The same enthusiastic discussion ensues if one of the team has watched something the others need to see immediately. Above all of their desks sits a TV, “so that we can be, like, everyone stop what you’re doing right now, we’re going to watch this video, which is then Staff Picked in the length of duration that it’s running.” A brilliant example of this moment is remembered by Meghan: “There’s this film Human Fountains, which is just a group of guys on a tennis court drinking water bottles in robes, like weirdly choreographed, spitting water onto each other,” she says between laughter. “It’s quiet in this office until it’s really not quiet and it’s when there are those films which are crazy, and undefinable.”
Despite their nimble size, the impact Ian, Meghan, Ina and Jeffrey (and their eyeballs of steel) have is just as great within the Vimeo office as it is within the creative community. “On the content side, this is the team that is feeding that content engine, feeding the blog, our paid social strategy,” Courtney explains of their larger aims. “It’s feeding the funnel that is the heart and the soul of the brand.” Over the years, this has expanded to small and large events, whether it’s in-house “best of the month” screenings, visiting talks from Staff Picked curators, Meghan’s own Ladies with Lenses event showcasing the best of female filmmaking, the team’s director commentary events or its yearly festival and awards. And although these initiatives differ in size and impact, it appears that investing within the Vimeo community is always a consideration.
When discussing the future, this factor also appears to remain front of mind. In an ideal world, the team would grow to a little more than four, enabling them to further their growing understanding of film and showcase an even larger breadth of inspiration for viewers. But, they’d keep the small and nimble approach which has served them so well. Growth too would allow the team to make a further step closer to creators themselves, already achieved through its premieres, and support of original filmmaking. “If and when growth happens, we want to make sure all the work is being surfaced correctly,” Courtney explains. “It wouldn’t really matter where they lived, or who they were, they just need to add another unique perspective just like everyone in this room,” she says looking around at the team. “That’s why Staff Picks are so special. All of your tastes, which none of you will define, all of your experiences. That person would just need to be able to butt heads with you all… I’m kidding.”
That said, the notion and strength of community is palpable even between the people sitting in the Staff Picks office. Any conversation or topic to discuss is open, and any medium or stylistic attribute of filmmaking welcomed. Vimeo’s community online is already more engaged than most tech companies would dream of, accomplishing the difficult task of translating the friendly tone of voice of its staff to a digital platform. As Meghan sums it up with yet another seamless reference: “There’s this quote in Catcher in the Rye where he says, ‘The best part of being friends with an author is when you’re done reading the book, you can just call them up and say that was so amazing, how did you do that?’ That’s exactly what it feels like in the comments underneath a video on Vimeo.”
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.