Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Ashley Cowan of East City Films Is Helping To Change Our World
Stay Calm: Decisions made in haste are often regrettable. I’ve found that some of the worst decisions are made under pressure. Once, in the early days, we were facing an intense project deadline. The pressure led us to cut corners, which ultimately impacted the quality of our work. That experience taught me the value of stepping back and taking a breath before making crucial decisions, regardless of external pressures.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Cowan.
Ashley is a visionary Executive Producer with over 15 years of experience in the extended reality (XR) field, co-founding the successful London-based company East City Films. Specialising in virtual and augmented reality storytelling, his portfolio features a wide array of critically acclaimed projects that span various mediums and collaborators, including international museums, global brands, and esteemed social organisations. Guided by the belief that immersive content can forge profound human connections, Ashley is steadfast in his commitment to shaping the future of emotive and impactful entertainment.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Born in London, my early years were spent in the historic town of Colchester, living with my elder brother, younger sister, and our parents. My dad, a doctor, instilled in us the values of hard work and education. It was during my time at boarding school that I discovered a deep-rooted passion for acting, a catalyst that would shape the trajectory of my life.
After a gap year, I enrolled at the University of Birmingham to study Drama & Theatre Arts, further cementing my love for storytelling and performance. Upon graduation, I was hungry for opportunity and moved to London. I sent out 100 letters to different production companies, seeking a foot in the door. Only three responded. One of those was Fine Line Features, the producers of the “Lords Of The Rings” trilogy, where I landed a job reading scripts, and the other two courteously declined.
My next stepping stone was working as a runner on a Channel 4 show, “It’s A Girl Thing.” However, my life took a twist when I appeared on an MTV talent show. I was so enamoured by the energy and creativity at MTV that I knew I had to be part of it. I managed to get someone’s email and started a persistent weekly outreach. After just three weeks, not only did I secure work experience on a live music show, but I also landed a six-month internship with MTV. That internship was my gateway into the world of entertainment and media, eventually leading me to where I am today.
After my time at MTV, I was deeply influenced by the energetic culture and knew I wanted to continue in the realm of music and entertainment. In 2006, my MTV colleague Darren Emerson and I saw an opportunity to fill a niche and co-founded East City Films. For the next eight years, we carved out a successful business in music TV, entertainment, and branded content. I found myself jet-setting around the world, capturing concerts, interviewing artists, and collaborating with major brands like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Sony.
Then came a lunch with an old friend that would change the course of my career. He introduced me to the burgeoning world of virtual reality and commissioned us to create a VR training experience for his company. To our surprise, the project became a game-changer, with numerous companies across the UK incorporating it into their training programs. This was a lightbulb moment; I realised that VR had far-reaching applications beyond just training — it could also be a powerful medium for entertainment, education, and meaningful storytelling.
Buoyed by this newfound insight, we embarked on our first VR project: a VR documentary about a survivor of the 7/7 London bombings. It wasn’t merely an experiment but a declaration of the limitless storytelling potential within extended reality (XR). The film garnered international recognition, touring film festivals all around the globe, and became a cornerstone for our future in XR. Since then, my conviction has only grown stronger. I truly believe that XR has the capacity to not just entertain but also to educate, inspire, and deeply connect people in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was just starting out as a runner on “It’s A Girl Thing,” I was still acclimating to London life, literally sleeping on my brother’s floor. I had the important responsibility of taking the day’s shoot rushes to the post house for telecine. One particular evening, we wrapped so late that I made the decision to deliver the rushes the next morning instead of driving into Soho at an ungodly hour. The mistake? Not only did I not tell anyone about my plans, but I left the rushes in my car overnight, along with some boxes of empty tape stock. I woke up to a flurry of panicked texts from the post house and my boss, inquiring about the missing rushes. To add insult to injury, my car had been broken into! By some miracle, the thief had only taken the empty tape stock and left the precious rushes untouched. That experience served as a hard lesson, but one that I sorely needed.
From that day forward, I never left any rushes or tape stock in my car overnight — for a while I even slept with them by my side! More than that, I learned the invaluable lesson of clear communication, especially in time-sensitive and high-stakes environments. Mistakes are inevitable, but the wisdom you gain from them can shape your professional journey in unexpected ways.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
In my early career, I had the privilege of meeting a star-studded array of individuals, from political figures like Bill Clinton to music legends like Bruce Springsteen, and sports icons like David Beckham and Thierry Henry. I even had the chance to rub shoulders with Beyoncé Knowles. While these encounters were surreal in their own right, the people who have truly inspired me are often those who’ve managed to evade the spotlight.
Our recent project involving creating documentaries about Holocaust survivors introduced me to some incredible individuals who embody courage, bravery, tenacity, and even humour amid unimaginable circumstances. These heroes have not only survived extreme cruelty but have also gone on to live long, enriching lives — raising families, running businesses, traveling, and now dedicating their time to educate others. They are living testaments to the resilience of the human spirit, and it’s hard to articulate just how profound an impact they’ve had on me and our work.
That said, I have to admit, as a lifelong Arsenal fan, meeting Thierry Henry and even getting to kick a football around with him was a dream come true. It’s moments like these — whether profoundly inspiring or simply joyful — that make me truly appreciate the extraordinary journey I’ve been on.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
To be frank, historical figures don’t typically serve as my main sources of inspiration. Instead, I find my inspiration much closer to home — specifically, in people like my grandparents. They survived two World Wars, raised my parents, and bestowed upon me invaluable wisdom during my formative years and into adulthood. For me, inspiration often comes from acts of kindness and enduring human spirit, qualities that can be found in everyday heroes as much as they can in any high-profile pioneers in film, TV, or sports. The truly inspirational people in my life have been those who’ve navigated incredible hardships with grace and resilience, and who’ve taken the time to pass on their life lessons to younger generations.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Our work at East City Films has always been about pushing the boundaries of storytelling, and what better way to do that than to shed light on narratives that must never be forgotten? We’re using the power of Virtual Reality to immortalise the stories of Holocaust survivors in a profoundly immersive way. In partnership with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, we’ve developed a series of three Virtual Reality documentaries, each spotlighting the harrowing yet inspiring journeys of individual survivors.
For instance, our documentary “Walk to Westerbork” dives deep into the life of Rodi Glass, as we trace her steps from Amsterdam to Kamp Westerbork. Directed by Mary Matheson, this film is not just a recounting of historical events but a multi-dimensional journey that lets you feel the resilience and love that define the human spirit.
Directed by Charlotte Mikkelborg, “Escape to Shanghai” follows Doris Fogel’s epic journey from Nazi Germany to wartime Shanghai. This is more than a film; it’s an emotional, tactile experience that allows viewers to virtually walk alongside Doris and her family as they seek refuge amongst 20,000 Jewish refugees.
We culminate the series with “Letters from Drancy,” a poignant tale of Marion Deichmann’s survival and her enduring bond with her mother. Directed by our Co-Founder and Creative Director, Darren Emerson, this documentary blends 360-degree video technology, 3D environments, motion capture, and a spatial soundtrack to recreate Marion’s world.
Our work, supported by our incredible team and partners like All Seeing Eye and Transmission TX, aims to go beyond mere storytelling. We’re creating an emotional legacy, leveraging cutting-edge VR technology to ensure that these stories don’t just inform, but deeply resonate.
We believe that this is more than just entertainment or even education. It’s a preservation of history, an homage to the survivors, and a cautionary tale for future generations. We extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone involved, especially the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, for allowing us to be part of something truly transformative.
In an era where first-hand accounts are dwindling, we feel it’s our responsibility to keep these stories alive. And it’s not just about the past; it’s about how we can learn and grow as a society today, reinforcing the importance of empathy, compassion, and understanding in a world that greatly needs it.
We’re thrilled to see our work recognised on global platforms, with “Letters from Drancy” world premiering at the esteemed Venice International Film Festival. But the accolades are secondary. The real reward is the impact these films will have on the global consciousness, compelling us all to remember, to reflect, and to act.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
While there wasn’t a specific “Aha Moment” that triggered our journey, there was a significant pivot a few years ago when Darren and I decided to focus East City Films on “Purpose-Driven storytelling in VR, AR, and film.” This decision shaped our identity as a small company and gave us a sense of renewed focus.
Our collaboration with the Illinois Holocaust Museum came rather serendipitously while we were engrossed in the production of “In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats,” a VR experience that delves into the UK’s acid house rave movement of the late 80s. The museum’s outreach felt like a confirmation that we were on the right path. Although timing was a hurdle — since it was November, and we were deep in production until April — the ensuing conversations went so well that we embarked on what has turned out to be an extraordinary partnership.
Being introduced to the people of the museum and to the incredible survivors further galvanised our belief that there’s much more compelling work to be done. It has provided an avenue for us to not only continue our existing projects but also explore new stories that need to be told.
This isn’t an overnight success story or a sudden epiphany; it feels more like a natural culmination of years of work, development, and growth. Darren has spent the last 8 years honing his craft as a VR artist, with me as his producer, and together we’ve been able to share stories that have real impact. Films like “Witness 360 7/7,” “Indefinite,” and “Common Ground” have illuminated the struggles of 7/7 survivors, asylum seekers in the UK, and people being displaced in southeast London. It’s the combination of dedication, belief, kindness, teamwork, and patience that has brought us to where we are today.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
While it’s still early days to gauge the long-term impact of our recently released films, one moment stands out as a vindication of our efforts. At the Venice Film Festival, the audience’s response to “Letters From Drancy” was overwhelming. People were literally queuing up to speak to Marion, who was with us in Venice to celebrate the film’s release. Witnessing firsthand the emotional and intellectual engagement from the audience underscored the vital importance of our work in immersive storytelling.
As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, the urgency to document and share their stories becomes more and more critical. This isn’t just about history; it’s about humanity and the lessons we must carry forward. Our partnership with the Illinois Holocaust Museum has only deepened our conviction in this mission. Meeting these incredible survivors has been humbling and inspiring, driving us to tell more stories that need to be heard and remembered. We’re eager to continue our journey with the museum and are committed to creating compelling work that touches people deeply, just as we witnessed at Venice. The goal is to provide future generations with an intimate, unforgettable understanding of a dark chapter in human history, so its lessons are never lost.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Absolutely, there are several ways individuals, society, and government organisations can contribute to our cause:
- Get Out There and See the Films: The first step is engagement. The more people watch these films, the greater their impact. If you have access to the museum in Illinois or any of the film festivals the films are programmed, it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
- Curators and Exhibitors, Take Note: If you’re involved in a film festival or run a museum, consider programming or exhibiting our films. These stories are universal and need to be told on as many platforms as possible.
- Support Educational Outreach: We’re keen to bring these films into educational settings not just in the U.S. and Europe, but also in more far-flung regions like South America, Asia, and Africa. Schools are a fantastic venue for these films, providing young people with an immersive educational experience that books and traditional films simply can’t offer.
It’s all about diving into the amazing world of VR and supporting these stories in any way possible. The Illinois Holocaust Museum is very open to partnerships and would love to speak with anyone interested in getting involved. So, if you believe in the power of VR as a storytelling medium and the importance of preserving the experiences of Holocaust survivors, there are ample opportunities to contribute.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- Be Patient: Overnight successes are exceedingly rare, and sustainable growth takes time. For the longest time, our company wasn’t where we wanted it to be. It was only in the past few years that things truly aligned. We built our portfolio, developed our expertise, and finally carved out a unique niche in purpose-driven storytelling. Patience was key to allowing that organic growth.
- Learn from Your Mistakes: Mistakes are the best teachers; not learning from them can have a severe impact on your progress.
Throughout the years, I’ve made numerous mistakes. I’ve botched timelines and underestimated project scopes. But it was from these mishaps that I learned invaluable lessons about project management and client communication, which I’ve applied to make our future projects successful.
- Remain Kind: Goodwill goes a long way, and sticking to your principles can pay off in the long run.
I’ve always believed that nice people don’t finish last. Even when competitors have undercut us or when clients have been difficult, sticking to our principles of kindness and fairness has led to long-lasting professional relationships and repeat business.
- Be Honest: Honesty builds trust, and trust is invaluable in any business.
There were times when we could have easily exaggerated our capabilities to win a contract, but we chose not to. I prefer the peace of mind that comes with honesty. Consequently, clients trust us to deliver on our promises, and that trust has been far more valuable than any short-term gains we might have made through deception.
- Stay Calm: Decisions made in haste are often regrettable. I’ve found that some of the worst decisions are made under pressure. Once, in the early days, we were facing an intense project deadline. The pressure led us to cut corners, which ultimately impacted the quality of our work. That experience taught me the value of stepping back and taking a breath before making crucial decisions, regardless of external pressures.
Each of these lessons has shaped how I approach business and life, and I believe they hold universal value for anyone starting their journey.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
If I were to offer a piece of advice to young people contemplating making a positive impact on our environment or society, it would be this: Don’t underestimate the power of a single story to ignite change. In our line of work with VR, we’ve seen firsthand how immersive storytelling can profoundly affect perceptions and attitudes. Whether it’s bringing attention to social issues or educating about health and safety, the ripple effect of your actions can extend far beyond what you might initially anticipate.
Starting small doesn’t mean thinking small. Each effort, no matter how minor it seems, contributes to a larger narrative of change and improvement. So if you’re passionate about something, dive in. The technology and platforms exist now to amplify your impact in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. And remember, it’s not about overnight success or “Aha moments”; it’s about sustained dedication, teamwork, and a belief in the good you’re contributing to the world.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
To put it plainly, there’s not one specific individual we’re looking to collaborate with. What matters most to us at East City Films is aligning with partners who share our vision for impactful storytelling in the realms of VR and AR.
We’ve devoted ourselves to harnessing these technologies as mediums for social change, and we’re eager to connect with those who possess the same level of commitment, resourcefulness, and belief in this transformative approach. We’re particularly interested in individuals or organisations that are passionate about what they do and aim to use that enthusiasm for the greater good.
If this resonates with you and you see the untapped potential in immersive storytelling just as we do, we’d be thrilled to explore collaborative opportunities. Let’s join forces to make a tangible difference in the world, story by story.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The quote is “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” from Confucius. It speaks volumes to me. Ever since Darren and I started focusing on purpose-driven storytelling in VR, AR, and film, we’ve discovered a profound sense of identity and direction. That’s because we’re not just working to pay the bills or make a name for ourselves; we’re committed to telling stories that make a difference, stories that resonate deeply with our audience.
It’s not always easy — our industry is constantly evolving, and the work we do is both complex and emotionally charged. But this quote reminds me why we chose this path in the first place. When I’m immersed in a project — whether it’s detailing the history of the UK’s rave scene or creating VR experiences that educate people about the Holocaust — I know that this is not just a job; it’s a mission. And when you love your mission, even the most formidable challenges become surmountable.
So for me, this isn’t just a quote; it’s a way of life. It encapsulates the dedication, belief, and teamwork that has driven East City Films since 2006. It reminds me why Darren and I have spent years honing our craft, why we’ve devoted ourselves to subjects that matter, and why we’re so thrilled about our ongoing partnership with the Illinois Holocaust Museum. At the end of the day, the work we’re doing feels like more than a culmination of our skills; it’s a testament to our passions, and that makes all the difference.
How can our readers follow you online?
While I don’t have a significant online presence personally, you can find me on Instagram and under the handle @ash_cowan. However, the best way to keep up with what we’re working on is to follow East City Films on social media. We’re active on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Just search for ‘eastcityfilms’ on all platforms and you’ll find us. We regularly update our audience on our latest projects, collaborations, and insights into the VR and storytelling world. It’s a great way to stay connected and see what we’re up to!
You can find Illinois Holocaust Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at ‘ihmec’ and on LinkedIn at ‘Illinois Holocaust Museum.’
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!
Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Ashley Cowan of East City Films Is Helping… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.