When Acreage Holdings, a cannabis company with one of the most diverse portfolios in the United States, approached Blue Chalk to create the first-ever Super Bowl advertisement in support of medical cannabis we jumped on board. Although it was ultimately rejected, the film, produced with creative agency Unkommon, has still been seen by millions of people online thanks to widespread media coverage.
We chatted to the film’s producer (and Blue Chalk business development extraordinaire), Matthew Slutsky, to learn more about the project, his dual-role and why he left the world of politics to become a storyteller.
1: Can you tell us about your background before you began working at Blue Chalk?
Was there life before Blue Chalk, really? My path to storytelling and Blue Chalk is a bit unconventional as I started my career by working in U.S. politics. In fact, I left Boston the morning after my college graduation to drive to Iowa where I spent almost two years on John Kerry’s presidential campaign. This was a transformational experience in so many ways and I was lucky to get a front row seat to witness how our electoral process works (and, where it falls short). While it would take a number of years to happen, it was in Iowa where the seeds were first planted that led me to the work I’m doing today. After politics, I worked on a number of social issue campaigns in D.C. and in 2009, joined the social venture Change.org as a member of the Founding Team and spent over seven years serving in a number of roles building the organization.
Though I was deeply committed to that work, I also became increasingly aware of a thrumming undercurrent that was with me when I walked down the street, was in-between meetings or standing in the middle of a crowded subway car. I imagined the world visually, hearing the voices of characters whose stories I wanted to tell. It became clear that it was time to pursue the passion I’ve always had for documentary storytelling, and I enrolled in the documentary film graduate program at The New School to help build my foundation to do this work. That was the beginning of a new and exciting journey that ultimately led me here.
2: What is your current role at Blue Chalk and what does a typical day look like for you?
I wear a couple of hats at Blue Chalk. I’m a producer which means I work on a handful of projects at any given time and spend my days thinking about characters, messaging, style, locations, crew and how to tell the best story possible. I also help develop new projects which means engaging with the incredible network of people I’ve worked with over the past fifteen years in the political, nonprofit and social good sectors to help land new projects for Blue Chalk. When I’m not on location filming, I can be found sitting at any number of coffee shops across from great people plotting and scheming about how we can tell stories together.
3: How was this project different from what Blue Chalk has done before? Can you give us a quick overview?
This project was unique in terms of the scope and also the content. Had it been accepted by CBS, this would have been the first ever Super Bowl ad in support of medical cannabis. Oftentimes when we start a project, we know we’ll create something special but we aren’t sure exactly who will get to see it. In this case, we knew from the outset that lots of people would see the work which was both exciting and also it lights a fire under the whole team to make sure we do our best work.
4: What was your specific role?
I produced the project and was responsible for a number of facets — most notably, casting. Like most projects, the success of the final product depends on the authenticity and quality of the characters. In this case, we knew that in order for this piece to have a real impact, we’d have to feature people who were relatable and “break the mold” in terms of how many Americans perceive cannabis users. The people we filmed were incredibly generous with their time, open to telling their stories and ultimately they are the reason the project was so successful. As a producer, I essentially put my head on a swivel and do my best to help support everyone involved in the production. And, of course, I make sure there are always snacks!
5: What was the most challenging aspect of this project and did you learn anything new?
The most challenging part of this project was the timeline. We were only in production for one week and in that time we filmed in Oakland, CA, multiple locations in Colorado and Buffalo, NY. It was a major effort to keep the trains running and to make sure we had a plan in place to get the footage we needed. Given the condensed timeline, we also brought our talented editor, Eric Schoenbrunn (and his giant Mac computer screen), on the road with us so he could be logging, organizing and beginning the edit as we shot.
I learn something new every single time I produce a project. Usually, that lesson is a result of a mistake(s) and something I vow I’ll never do again. There is science involved in this work but so much of what we do is art — reading the people, the room, the crew, the weather, etc. — and doing our best to adjust in real-time as needed.
Given the timeline and complexity of this project, my biggest learning was around how to better communicate plans and goals and to make sure everyone sings from the same songbook. Given the sensitivities around the characters’ stories and the incredible amount of work everyone has in order to execute their particular job during a shoot, good internal communication is a critical element and scheduling time to discuss plans, scout locations and fully prepare everyone is essential even on a tight timeline.
6: What was it like to work on something that was so widely covered in the media?
I’m told there have been over one billion (!) media impressions from the coverage of this ad and it was one of the top five most popular web videos online during Super Bowl 2019. Despite the fact that it never ran on TV, it was seen by so many people and my hope is it’ll help advocates all over the country to further their work in campaigning for more equitable laws when it comes to access to medical marijuana. That is a very good feeling and exactly why I got into this work in the first place. I am forever changed after having met our characters and their families and I look forward to telling more stories on this topic.