Eric Rojas, founder of NYC creative agency Six+One, speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about turning Americans’ “apathy to empathy” with ‘Chicago: America’s Hidden War’, celebrity support for the movie, and why agencies should commit to causes as much as their clients.
Shockingly, there have been 10,000 deaths from street violence in Chicago since 2001 compared to approximately 7,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Chicago@ America’s Hidden War is a revealing documentary that dives into the history of the city’s street violence and its effect on the local community. The 120-minute film from CineLife Entertainment pulls back the curtain to expose the pervasive genocidal-like behaviour in Chicago (mainly the south side) and takes a war correspondent approach to examine the origins of local violence, the policy failures that continue to sustain it, and the corrosive impact on the community. It highlights children in some of the worst-hit neighbourhoods in particular, the constant anxiety they live in of being shot (or having a loved one shot), and how hard this made it to focus on school even before the pandemic. There are interviews with former gang leaders, politicians, pastors and community members that provide a raw, on-the-ground account of the last two decades and ultimately serves as an inspiration for a clear path toward change, presenting viewers with an action plan on how to get involved and create a better future for the Chicago community.
When the film launched in US cinemas in May, a host of celebs stepped out in support, buying out theatres to let young Chicagoans most affected by violence see the movie for free. That (growing) list includes Denzel and Pauletta Washington, Charlamagne tha God, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, Willie Robertson, Darryl Strawberry, Dexter Darden, JoJo, Curtis Martin, Dean and Scott Winters, Angie Stone, BeBe Winans and Clifton Davis and more.
Chicago was directed and produced by Dimas and Tiffany Salaberrios’ (whose previous credits include the Emanuel, which tells the true story of the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina), in partnership with Eric Rojas, founder of NY creative agency Six+One, who produced the film through his content division, Six+One Studios, in addition to producers Mark Shaw, John Shepherd and Miss Muffet Studios. Eric and Six+One Studios also helped shape the film’s storyline, editing and all marketing, creative and key art for the film. In addition, Six+One Studios created the online platform to enlist fellow Americans to help out the city of Chicago through donations and boots on the ground.
Six+One got involved with the film after launching ‘Stop the Silence’, an initiative that provided healing to New York City following the murder of George Floyd for which Eric worked alongside the film’s director, Dimas Salberrios. The three-month long campaign inspired peaceful protests along with the first live event of the pandemic held in Times Square with 1200 participants spaced 6ft apart, standing in solidarity.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Eric about the importance of Chicago, the personal effect on him from working on it, and why agencies should commit to causes as much as their clients.
LBB> Can you give some background to what this film is about and why it's an important story to tell (bearing in mind that LBB readers are from all corners of the globe)?
Eric> Chicago is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Since 2001, there have been over 10,300 senseless deaths. That's more than our fallen soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And the violence in Chicago last year was at a staggering high, with 774 people killed due to gang violence.
Unfortunately, Chicago has been used as a political ploy for both parties but very little has been done to help make a real difference. In return, it feels as if Americans have turned a blind eye to what's happening there. Commonly we will hear Americans say, "they are doing this to themselves," which is an easy way out of caring. The stark reality is that many are implicitly fine with what's happening, and that’s the problem. What we attacked in this film and the platform we created was our biggest enemy, apathy. We want to turn Americans from apathy to empathy and to do so we have to educate and expose the real truth about Chicago's inner city. The film is a well-timed instrument of change and action in the community and America at large.
LBB> The film takes a "war correspondent approach" to examine its subject and tell its story. What can you tell us about that and why it was a fitting way to tell the story?
Eric> Everyone has their own story, their own perspective on how they see things - and for too long, the voices in Chicago were not being heard. All Americans heard was the number of deaths told from the media, but never focused on the stories behind the violence. So it was important for us to show all sides of the coin in the film. To not come with an agenda but to listen first, hear the stories, honour their experiences, and create the narrative that educated and exposed the truth. We know that in order for individuals to have empathy, they need to be exposed to and see things they never have before. We need to change the place their opinions come from in order for there to be change. The “war correspondent” approach was the best way to do this.
LBB> Six+One produced this movie via your content division, Six+One Studios. What was the production process like? How did you bring this to life?
Eric> We treated the film as we do any client, by building out a strategy and audience segmentation to help craft the story to engage with our audience at large. Our single most important goal was education and exposure, so we worked to shed light on individual stories of those who live in Chicago's inner city. We focused on three audience segments: the Connected, the Concerned, and the Curious. Building off the behaviours of each one of these audiences helped us shape the film and the messaging.
The Connected were our boots on the ground ambassadors, the individuals making a difference in Chicago. These are the individuals we interviewed for the film. The Concerned are our affiliates, the ones who are engaged but from afar that we used to get the message out to see the film. And the Curious are our influencers, who watched the film and spread it on their social channels.
LBB> I imagine the process was pretty gruelling and potentially quite harrowing at times. Can you speak about the experiences you had making this film, whether it be through research, interviews, etc.?
Eric> It was important in this film for our team to get around the pain and get to know the kids, families, and community. Through that process, you can't help but start to internalise their pain and hurt. That common phrase "hurt people hurt people" has never been more evident than in the inner city of Chicago. The hardest thing for us was seeing the struggle in the children's eyes and those of the community. It was one of the heaviest projects I've ever worked on in my career. It was something we all had to take home with us every day.
There were numerous times when we had to take a moment to collect ourselves while working on this film. One that stands out is our interview with Lorenzo, a nine-year-old child who said, "I had to sleep under my bed for a month, just so I don't get shot." This is just one of many shocking quotes from our interviews and something we will never forget. It is so heartbreaking to hear that this is happening in our backyard in this country.
What kept us going was the realisation that this needed to be seen and heard to truly make a difference in Chicago's inner-city lives.
LBB> You also helped shape the marketing and artwork for the film. You have touched on this slightly but what was that process like? How did you get this film out to the world?
Eric> Six+One was one of the production studios that helped produce the film, from the story arch, to editing, graphics, logo, branding, and building out the platform to make the film more than a film but a catalyst for change.
We created an immersive 360 campaign that brings accountability to individuals who have watched the film to take a stand and create change. We wanted the public to no longer see this as Chicago's War but to see it as ‘This Is Our War’. THIS IS OUR WAR was a rallying cry that brought accountability to individuals who have watched the film and took a stand to create change. In this campaign, our approach was to use powerful and impactful quotes from the film in our wild postings, trailers, commercials, pre-roll, paid and organic social. The website Chicagoshiddenwar.com educates our audience with personal stories, sheds light on the unsung heroes of Chicago, and drives people to enlist in the war today and support them through donations. We're continuing to build hope in Chicago through grassroots initiatives by connecting people to the community through education, street outreach, and mentorship programs.
Working as the client and agency simultaneously was something we are accustomed to, as we often do with our non-profit arm, ‘For The Greater Hood’, that places value and dignity back into the lives of the homeless community.
LBB> Some celebrities have been paying for inner city kids to see the film. Is that correct? How did that happen?
Eric> There was an outpouring of celebrities who wanted to get behind the film and take action with us supporting Chicago's youth by buying out theatres to allow young people most affected by the violence to attend the movie for free. The film sparks reflection on their choices and the overall effects violence has on children, families, and the community. A growing list of celebs joined in this buyout effort include: Denzel and Pauletta Washington, Charlamagne tha God, Mark Burnett, Roma Downey, Willie Robertson, Darryl Strawberry, Dexter Darden, JoJo, Curtis Martin, Dean and Scott Winters, Angie Stone, BeBe Winans, Clifton Davis, and more. But this is just the beginning. We need everyday Americans to stand up and say no longer will this be seen as Chicago's hidden war. This Is Our War.
LBB> Overall, what do you hope to achieve with this film? And what do you hope viewers take away from it?
Eric> We hope the film sparks a catalyst for change in the inner city of Chicago. That Americans will have a perspective that includes others in it, putting empathy first, opinion second. And that they would not feel pity but rather compassion for the kids and families in the inner city of Chicago, because compassion begets action. Compassionate people don’t see this as Chicago’s war, but as everyone’s war, enlisting their help through donations, their talents through our master class programs for the children in Chicago, and most importantly, their time to sponsor a child in Chicago in need.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Eric> The trickiest part was getting people outside of Chicago to care about what was happening in Chicago. The media has conditioned us that Chicago is a deadly city, and although there is tragedy daily, there is also hope daily. Some amazing men and women are on the streets of Chicago every single day making a difference. Our goal is to highlight the tragedy and the victories taking place through our efforts with unsung heroes on our website and via our social media channels.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Eric> As a community of storytellers in the communications industry, we need to take a stand and use our talents to help our underserved communities. We need to stop outsourcing our compassion and start loving our neighbours, not only when something traumatic happens but constantly. We need to commit to causes as much as we do to our clients daily. It doesn't mean advocating for everything you see but taking root in initiatives near and dear to your agency's heart and focusing on making a difference, not just making money.
I believe the next generation of great agencies will lead the way, not with just words and pretty pictures but empathy. As agency leaders you will see that when you implement empathy into the soul of your agency, your staff will go above and beyond as a team, and it will draw everyone closer together.