What can content creators learn from '90s cinema?
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What can content creators learn from '90s cinema?

Author: James Cresswell | Posted on: 18 July 2019

A new season of screenings at the BFI Southbank later this month will be celebrating the adventurous cinema of the 1990s. When I studied film myself, I was particularly inspired by the attitudes present in many films from this era — notably, the striking visuals, the "indie" spirit and aesthetic, and the extensive library of influences and reference points shared amongst many of the filmmakers.

As the BFI state, "[these films and filmmakers] subverted cinematic convention, created a new cinematic language ... and swerved what was expected of a director and the moving image..."

At a time when brands and content creators are constantly needing to innovate to stay relevant, what can they draw on from this filmmaking era and its boundless creative energy?


Drawing on popular culture

Speaking to Creative Review, Anna Bogutskaya — the programmer of the BFI’s season — talks about the encyclopaedic pop-culture literacy of many filmmakers in the ‘90s, and how this was a defining characteristic of their work:

“They were discovering films on their own terms, on a video shelf in a video store, meaning they could then create their own cinematic language, drinking up elements from different types of films. Tarantino’s obviously the best example: someone who grew up surrounded by videos and took very specific elements from exploitation cinema, and Hong Kong cinema, [etc.]…”

Fast-forward a couple of decades and that “video shelf in a video store” is now a drop in the ocean compared to our now near-limitless access to content from all over the world. As a result, today's audiences share a more varied array of pop culture reference points, and there are many ways in which brands can appeal to that.

As in the films of a director like Quentin Tarantino, these reference points can be a springboard for a brand’s own creativity. Paying homage to influences that your audience will recognise is an excellent way of humanising your brand, and showing people that you are on their wavelength.

Developing an understanding of your audience (through, for example, social media analytics tools) can give you an insight into their tastes, especially for brands with a more specialist offering. Staying on the theme of cinema, take a look at an example from the stock footage and music provider Shutterstock. Aware that their audience of filmmakers and creatives is likely to have a keen eye for the stylistic trademarks of their favourite directors, they produced this video in which they use their library of stock video and audio to pay tribute to the likes of David Fincher, Terrence Malick, and Tarantino himself.

In addition, it’s also good to keep aware of current trends and talking points in popular culture, and to think about how you can creatively add to the conversations that the majority of people are having. Look at how many brands, each year on the 4th of May, share content for Star Wars Day, for example.

Fostering a community around your brand

Technology that made film production cheaper and easier led to an explosion of indie filmmakers in the 1990s, and there are a great number of directors who kickstarted their careers in this era by making the most out of what they had available to them. Probably one of the best examples is Richard Linklater, whose origins as a filmmaker are well summed-up by Lanare Bakare in The Guardian:

“[Linklater] made his own one-man productions, recording the sound on a Walkman. He moved to Austin and found like-minded friends who started a film club and would eventually become the crew and production unit behind [his 1990 film] Slacker.”

In Slacker, Linklater drew on the burgeoning creative community that was growing around him in Austin, Texas; just as, with the advent of social media, many businesses have found the opportunity to draw on the communities that develop around them.

Take Vimeo, for example, who — through curating the best and most interesting short films uploaded to their platform for their ‘Staff Picks’ badge— have been able to establish themselves as the video platform of choice for professional filmmakers. In an interview with Director’s Notes, Vimeo’s Sam Morrill describes how the company seized upon a “happy accident” and made the decision to shine a light on the great content being shared by their community.

“It was a bit of a happy accident that Vimeo became the de facto video sharing service for professional filmmakers … When we launched HD we were the only video sharing service in town that was offering HD uploading and playback. That was right around the time that consumer HD cameras became available, so naturally everyone came over to Vimeo … and now Vimeo was sitting on this giant library of high quality content. That’s kind of where it started.” 

Whatever your business provides, it’s always a good idea to think of how the customers you already have can help to further promote your brand: this could be through testimonial videos, case studies, or even simply through sharing social media posts.

Creating a distinctive 'look' for your content

Another recurrent theme throughout a lot of 90s cinema is visual spectacle — whether in the groundbreaking effects of Jurassic Park, the iconic imagery of films like Trainspotting and The Matrix, or the emergence of a director like Wes Anderson who brings a singular aesthetic to his work.

Eye-catching visuals, of course, also play an important role in how brands market themselves and their products; as can be seen in the fact that Wes Anderson himself has, throughout his career, been frequently commissioned to bring his distinctive style to advertising campaigns for the likes of H&M, Sony, and American Express.

A distinctive, attention-grabbing visual approach is now a higher priority than ever for businesses. When publishing content on social media, in particular, the aim is to create “thumb-stopping content” — something that can draw a viewer’s attention away from idly scrolling through a news feed, and firmly on to your content. Being able to create something visually striking and concise is the key to securing a viewer’s engagement; as Joshua Conran writes for Inc.:

“Your advertising efforts ultimately boil down to the first five seconds. In these crucial moments, consumers decide whether they’ll buy into your brand or check out completely.”

You don’t have to be an acclaimed cinematic auteur to be able to do this, either. Think about how you can go against the grain to create images that aren’t conventionally ‘sales’-like, but which reflect what is uniquely human and interesting about your brand and its products — maybe through animation, creative camera angles, or original artwork.


Brands have always faced fierce competition for the attention of their audiences, and today’s new technologies and many ways of accessing content have made this a tougher challenge than ever before. When looking for a solution though, drawing from the past is just as worthwhile as trying to think of all-new solutions. In the idiosyncratic cinema of the ‘90s, we can see how savvy resourcefulness, boldness, and an awareness of what’s going on in the world around you can go a long way towards helping your work to stand out.

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Author: James Cresswell

James Cresswell gravatar avitar
James is our copywriter and social media manager here at Ember Television. He joined us after studying an MA programme in Film and Television: Research and Production at the University of Birmingham.
What can content creators learn from '90s cinema?



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