Change The Model: Build New Alliances To Deliver Greater Value For A Better Price

The post I did on "The Really Bad Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012" has generated a lot of health conversations.  The wise recognize that each of these really bad things is just an opportunity to make this all better -- and sometimes to make some money.  The post has been shared and "liked" more that usual for this blog and I think that speaks well of our collective endeavor to rescue indie film. I particularly liked all the comments the blog generated, and have done my best to reply to them.  Thanks for the participation!

I want to single out one comment in particular from Jb Bruno, who kindly has allowed me to repost it here:

Maybe one way to break the hold the people at the top have on the artists is to change the model, as it’s a model that serves them but not even one an audience really wants.

Movie-going in its infancy was about people buying a ticket, which got them into a show, where they could get entertainment they could not get at home. While there, they could buy snacks like popcorn and peanuts and sodas. This was the same model as other forms of entertainment; baseball games, circuses, traveling shows, etc. Buy your ticket, get in, watch it, buy our over-priced snacks, get out.

Today, we have entertainment at our fingertips everywhere wherever we go. What is our theatrical model? Buy your ticket, get in, watch it, buy our over-priced snacks, get out.

Maybe that works for the spate of blockbusters that are basically extensions of video games or franchises, but not only doesn’t it work for the types of stories we are talking about telling, but it doesn’t appeal to the type of person that wants this type of fare.

Could we not find ways to partner with other activities where seeing the movie was only part of the experience?. What if people could purchase memberships that got them not only in to see a movie, but also combine with other things that are part of their interests. Those “other things” could be part of packages that could be tailored to people’s taste: for one person, it could be opera, or museums; for another, stand-up comedy or dinner; for someone else, metal clubs and hookah bars.

What if this expanded also ethnically and culturally, and we started speaking to audiences outside of middle-aged White guys like me?

It would mean forming communities with other groups, and isn’t the idea of the larger community a good thing?

The only people the “buy your ticket” model serves is the current establishment, whose interest certainly isn’t with the filmmaker.

Those packages could range in price-scale, so in the end, it wasn’t $13-15 dollars for a two-hour-and-out experience.

Changing the model would be hard work, but would it be any harder, or more frustrating, than the one-size-fits-all model we now have no control over? At least, we wouldn’t be at the mercy of the gate-keepers.

It's a good idea, yeah?  I know I want a lot more for my money that the expenditure of time and the opportunity to overpay for snacks I never wanted in the first place.  What are the barriers we need to overcome if we are going to make this work?

Exhibitors control the ticket pricing.  Will this have to be done at the exhibitor level?  If so, does that mean it must be locally based?

Who provides the discount?  The exhibitor or the participating additional party?  How can we make both sides sacrifice since both sides will benefit?  Does it require that the film be four-walled so that the discounts happen?

There must be some pre-existing models and experiments with this already.  Does anyone know of them?

What would be some examples of perfect pairings?

 

Without An Audience, It Can't be Art!

By Emily Best I hold this apparently really unpopular view that without an audience, it can’t be art. “Art” is a social label, a negotiation between the artist, the object (or performance) and the viewer.

This is history’s fault. Art was reserved for the rich or those with access to the rich. We didn’t see how it was made, conceived, choreographed, or staged until it appeared in front of us. And mostly, everyone liked it that way. Artists got to create with very little interference. Audiences had very little interaction with the artists or processes that created what they saw in museums, theaters, and on stage, so they were happy to pay their hard earned money to witness that “magic.”

But now we live in the age of the digital download. What a viewer used to have to spend $10 on a museum ticket to see can be called forth with a few clicks of a button. What a viewer used to line up to buy in a store for $10 (a CD or DVD) can now be downloaded in a few seconds for a few dollars (or free). The value proposition has been turned on its head. And now there’s just so much stuff available everywhere all the time, film studios and filmmakers are trying desperately to compete for a slice of a rapidly dividing pie. The movie business had a system: It used to be “theatrical release, then video, then TV.” Now it’s “VOD, then theatrical and DVD,” or “all three together!”, or whatever combination of existing options the studios can come up with using their data models. Not a lot of out-of-the-box thinking being applied.

Did you know football used to be a running game only? There were a LOT of combinations of running plays. Then one day in 1905, St. Louis University’s Bradbury Robinson passed the ball forward to his teammate, leaving the other team scrambling through the rulebook to see if that was ok. It was. Everyone started renegotiating their offenses around the forward pass. BOOM. Whole new ball game.

In the digital age, transparency is the forward pass. It’s the business play that’s changing the game. Everything changes when you let everyone in. Kickstarter has done it to business and Facebook has done it to society. It makes consumers - audiences - demand to know more, to see more, to feel like a part of the process. It’s toppling regimes, swaying elections, and making it more possible than ever for people to get creative endeavors off the ground.

It’s faster and cheaper to make movies and your audience is out there and it’s easier to connect directly to them than ever before. Yet fewer specialty titles are getting the green light from studios than ever before. Transparency is creating so much connectivity, but the data hasn’t caught up, and data is what they use to green-light pictures.

At the moment, studios are throwing money at the problem, trying to find the Thing to replace those juicy DVD revenues that padded their pockets for a decade. They make and remake existing properties rather than risk the potentially lower return of specialty (indie) movies because they have to feed the Beast. The Beast is not agile and flexible, and the technology platforms profiting hugely from transparency certainly are.

And yet, filmmakers read “How to get film distribution,” or “How to get your film financed” and all these books tell you how to think like a studio, how to find data like a studio, how to write a script based on the “market.” There’s no talk of passion, or connection to your audience, or ART. These expert authors write not about finding audience but about about finding “markets.” Who is a market? What does it like? It’s as impenetrable as the studio walls or cable’s VOD numbers. No one really knows (despite their most fervent claims).

So why are so many independent filmmakers trying to use the Beast’s model? Filmmakers are startup entrepreneurs with creative products, and can design their business models really any way they like. The difference is, startup entrepreneurs are learning from books like Eric Reis’s “The Lean Startup.” Reis’s core argument is that rather than investing tons of time and money producing what you think the market wants, you need to get the product in front of real consumers as soon as humanly possible – even before the masterpiece is ‘ready.’ You ask questions by showing them a fledgling product and seeing how they react. Then you iterate, and build a core of supporters from the very beginning who will help you make it better.

So, who is your audience? Can you really know without testing?

Transparency - letting people in - is a brave, creative act. It asks more questions of the material than it answers because it acknowledges that the art of filmmaking is meant to have an affect on an audience. And only an audience can tell you if that’s successful. They might also help you make it successful.

And so here’s the fight I have: many talented artists I talk to feel that letting the audience in to the process, even as a thought, somehow corrupts the purity of expression. And I say, corrupts? You must not think much of the people on whose eyeballs and pocketbooks your livelihood relies. Why should they not demand their equal place in the artistic equation? I argue that rather than hinder the artistic process, an engaged audience emboldens the creator to take bigger risks.

It means trusting the audience with their taste. In turn the audience trusts you to produce high quality work without all the traditionally legitimizing (studio) eyes on it. It's a big responsibility for everyone, but it means we might all get back to the art of filmmaking. And, you know, change the business while we’re at it.

EMILY BEST is the founder and CEO of Seed&Spark, a startup to build truly independent community in which she would like to make moving pictures. Before producing Like the Water, the project that inspired it all, Emily produced theater, worked as a vision and values strategy consultant for Best Partners, ran restaurants, studied jazz singing at the Taller de Musics, tour guided and cooked in Barcelona, and before that, was a student of Anthropology at Haverford College. 

Podcast: Everything I Know About Producing (A Start)

Courtesy of Screen Australia, you can now have access to everything I know about producing.  I gave two days of lectures in Sydney at the end of August, and the mic ran into a recording device.  It's just audio so you don't get to see my colorful outfits or all the nifty slides I never prepared, but it is the next best thing to being there.

You can get them here.

Episode 1: Grasping The New Paradigm

Episode 2: A New Business Model For Indie Film

You can also download them from the iTunes store here.

But I have to warn you: the lectures were each 6 hours long.  Screen Australia have done us the courtesy of keeping each one to around 30 minutes.  We did not want the liability of blowing your mind.  You will have to come to a class sometime for that privilege.

Building Storyworlds Podcast (Episode 1, Featuring... Me!)

The always stimulating Lance Weiler has launched a new podcast, and this morning I was his first guest.  Check it out here.  We had a lot to talk about.

Topics of discussion 

  • The future of film - Ted shares the thoughts behind a recent post to his blog  Hope for Film.
  • Finding new froms of value
  • The role of scarcity and abundance in storytelling
  • The internet of things - the emergence of a storytelling layer over the real world
  • Generalist vs. Specialist

Lance has named this new venture "the art, craft & biz of storytelling in 21c", and he shares:

Welcome to an experiment in participatory storytelling. As I gear up for a course I'll be teaching at Columbia University, I've decided to open my teaching process. I've established this tumblr and will soon be joined by the class for what I hope will become an ongoing collection of thoughts, projects, tech and ideas as they pertain to storytelling in the 21st Century. 

I'm hard at work on a trilogy of participatory storytelling projects with the first one entitled, Robot Heart Stories launching this fall. I wish to explore the realities of the connected world we live in and what that means for storytelling. I'm especially interested in the changing role of authorship and its impact on the birth of a collective narrative. In this spirit I'm bringing the class in to this tumblr to share all things story. 

Finally this tumblr will also tie into a book I've been working on entitledBuilding Storyworlds: the art, craft & biz of storytelling in 21C. The book is the basis of the course at Columbia and is an experiment in scarcity vs. digital abundance

What Is The Great Hope For The Future Of Cinema?

Or for that matter, what do you think can really change and move things forward in both the near and distant future? If we could ask five key people what they saw on our various horizons, what would they show us? Who should we ask?  One of the great things about being pointed in a direction, is that it is almost a path. Could we have walked down that road when Francis Ford Coppola predicted YouTube in 1991:

It is not easy to just boil down to one specific all the various change that is swarming over us at this point.  I see major shifts coming in so many different aspects of cinema: discovery, consideration, value/return, participation, collaboration, transitioning, immersion, and many others. The fact that this far down the road of a connected culture we have not wed social and content together may speak of the resistance to change, but also of the tidal wave that will one day hit us. That all said, I think that all of us -- creators, appreciators, entrepreneurs, & passive audiences members, are going to truly be best served by another aspect all together.

If you ask me, one of the big next changes and TGHFTFOC (see title) is the end of the dominance of the feature film form. Now don't get me wrong: I love feature films more than any other manufactured entity. I have devoted my labor to the creation, enhancement, and appreciation of the form. I just see many trends leading to feature-length linear-narrative passive-engagement work's decreasing relevance, along with many indications that it won't be a bad thing when all participants in both the film industry and culture look at a far widening realm of creation, participation, and consumption.

Perhaps though it is that the end of dominance of the feature film form is a symptom of something even greater. Or maybe it is just another chicken vs. egg paradox. Regardless, the industry and culture are both waking to and adopting a move from a one-off paradigm where each new creative work requires reinventing the wheel and instead embracing both a business model and community focus on an ongoing conversation between the story world initiators and those that engage with it. This abandonment of requiring each new tale to be able to not just stand but forever sprint on its own two feet is not only logical and practical but offers many new opportunities.

I eventually will go in to far greater detail on this (particularly when I can find the time to do so), but want to get this conversation moving forward. I wonder why it is still only the outliers who are in this discussion.

Still for now, we can surely see the benefit of expanding our scripts to include a series of narrative & character extensions. We recognize that each work represents an opportunity for collaborations that we have yet to dream of. We can empower those without traditional access to work with us on building previously neglected connections and launch pads. Our stories and fantasies do not need to begin or end with our renderings but can foster new works and continual creation. We can combat the challenges of living in an era of super-abundance and non-filters by championing greater value in community focus.

The easy way is a path to irrelevance. Temporally manipulative, crowd-based consumptive,  audio-visually focused content stopped long ago as being both the art form and entertainment outlet most indicative of our time. The new form is all of that and more. It won't only reflect our era, but lead us into a better world. And it starts with saying good bye to the cultural & economic dominance of antiquated concept.  

Guest Post: Rodney Evans on "Building Communites & Embracing New Models"

Why do we wait so damn long for our projects to come together? Do we fetishize "permission"? Is it akin to waiting for Prince Charming or the like? Is patience really a virtue for creative endeavors? Have we fooled ourselves into thinking we can depend on anyone other than our family, friends, and collaborators? In telling how he is putting together his latest project, filmmaker Rodney Evans sums up a feeling many filmmakers know too well: "Enough of the bullshit, the jig was up."

I have never been big on career strategizing. I tend to follow where my passion leads me and trust my gut instincts. After several years and endless meetings on a larger period film ($1.5m – larger in my world) I started to crave the idea of doing something contemporary on a really small scale with the minimal resources that I had immediate access to.

This idea was also sparked by my experience at the Binger Film Lab’s Director’s Coaching Program in Amsterdam (binger.nl) where I managed to shoot a 10 minute short film in 8 hours with a 3 person crew and 2 actors. This short BILLY AND AARON, part of the larger period film DAY DREAM, premiered at Tribeca last year and has played 25 film festivals since then. It was a startling reminder of how little was actually needed to make a good film that you could be proud of.

Coming from a documentary background where I was used to working as a one man band it felt very natural to be working this way and would be an asset to certain types of stories. With the experience of shooting the short fresh in my mind I had been back in NYC for a couple of weeks in the summer of 2009 and was invited to a production of a play called THE HAPPY SAD by my friend Ken Urban. I had seen an earlier reading of the play at Playwrights Horizons and found it genuinely funny and profoundly moving while also dealing with topics like open relationships, internet hook-ups and fear of commitment that I saw playing out around me in so many of my friend’s lives (and my own). These issues seemed so prevalent within my circle of friends but were so rarely dealt with in films in any kind of realistic or meaningful way. I immediately saw its potential as a film and when I mentioned that to Ken he told me he had already begun adapting it into to a screenplay. After reviewing each draft and giving my feedback, the third draft really struck home and I knew I had to direct it. It would still need focusing and more revisions to fully transform from the stageplay into a film but the essence of it was there.

With the finished screenplay in hand it became time to think about how we would raise the necessary production funds to get the cameras rolling this summer. After a great info session hosted by Yancey Strickler at the Kickstarter headquarters the idea of crowdfunding started to feel like a viable option for starting the fundraising process. As I walked to the subway with a filmmaker friend we discussed how difficult it can be to ask for the resources that you need to make work and that for artists at a certain stage in our careers (beyond emerging but not yet mid-career) we both had the feeling that we should be pretending that there was enough support from grants, foundations and traditional industry resources to make our films. We needed to get over the shame about the fact that these resources were not forthcoming and start pursuing different models. Enough of the bullshit, the jig was up.

I think for filmmakers of color who are not interested in doing genre material but more focused on pushing aesthetic boundaries while still also being emotionally engaging, the deck was stacked even more against us. Instead of going to the same doors over and over again only to find them closed for the umpteenth time I decided to utilize Kickstarter to reach the communities that tend to embrace my finished work and actually see it as a reflection of a personal experience that they rarely get to see on screen. In short, I was going where the love was.

It is now day 8 of our 30 day Kickstarter campaign and we are 25% of the way there and it has been a lot of work to get this far. (Ted: I wanted to post this last week but was in Beijing -- so now the time is even shorter!) It’s taken 3-4 hours of email outreach per day plus the help of friends and supporters in spreading the word virally. My laptop and I are closing than ever before and we still have 22 more days to go! I see this effort as larger than myself though and it points the way towards more community-based models for filmmakers to use in order to get work produced and distributed.

A great source of inspiration over the past few months has been the distribution efforts launched by Ava Duverney with her first narrative feature, I WILL FOLLOW. Here was a self financed, microbudget feature with impeccable writing, acting and directing from an African-American filmmaker who decided to stop waiting for someone to give her permission to make a film. The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement or AFFRM (https://www.facebook.com/affrm) is the distribution model she created with much success by pooling the resources and organizing power of the largest African-American film festivals in the country. It was great to witness the large turnout on her opening weekend to support an independent filmmaker’s vision all fueled by grassroots, inexpensive marketing techniques. It’s a new successful, community-based model that works. It got me thinking about how so many of the sources and inspiration for the stories that I tell come from relationships and experiences that I see around me on a daily basis. How could those communities be brought into the filmmaking process to tell alternative and original stories?

As an educator I worked at a non-profit organization called Reel Works (www.reelworks.org) from 2009 to 2010 where I taught a documentary lab for at-risk teenagers. I currently teach in the Film and Media Arts Department at Temple University in Philadelphia 3 days per week. Over the years I have been greatly inspired by the process of helping young people to tell their vital stories and by the bravery and daring they exhibit during the process before anyone tells them what they can and can’t do. These are qualities that I absorb from them and also try to nurture as I help guide their films to completion.

With my microbudget feature THE HAPPY SAD centering on alternative, risk-embracing twenty and thirty-somethings looking to expand “proper” notions of romantic relationships it seemed like a no-brainer to incorporate these students into a collaborative filmmaking process since they showed similar traits and qualities in their own lives and artistic practice. It seemed like a natural extension of the dialogue that had begun in the classroom with students able to receive course credit for hands-on experience in feature filmmaking. It’s a model that merges my roles as an educator and indie filmmaker while also providing students with their first foothold in the industry, working side by side with experienced professionals. It seems like the right production model for this film and exemplifies a lot of the ways that I have been rethinking the means and methods of filmmaking.

I used to pour all of my passion and energy into one project that I would focus on for many years until it got done. As I evolve, I have learned the value of not placing all of your eggs in one basket but having 2-3 different projects of different size and scope so that I can continue to make work under different circumstances. I think directing skills like most other skills atrophy when not put to use so this is a way to stay nimble and keep exercising those muscles while providing opportunities for emerging film professionals as well. I mentioned this new project and its trajectory and production model to a filmmaker friend. His email response (posted below) made me feel less alone in my quest for new models in the face of an industry that has collapsed but also never functioned as a support mechanism for our work in the first place.

“I think we came to similar moments, as I’m planning to shoot a lower budget film this summer also, and I just had to put the long simmering project on the side for the meantime. We are too old to wait around forever, and I think we have to be creative daily as filmmakers to figure out how to keep making films.”

So here’s to an adventurous summer of collaborative filmmaking. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To support the Kickstarter campaign for THE HAPPY SAD go to:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1309653304/the-happy-sad-from-the-director-of-brother-to-brot

-- Rodney Evans

RODNEY EVANS wrote and directed BROTHER TO BROTHER which won the Special Jury Prize in Drama at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The film was nominated for 4 Independent Spirit Awards in 2005 including Best First Film, Best First Screenplay and Best Debut Performance for Anthony Mackie.

Peter Dekom on The Reality Of Creator/Distributor/Audience Relationship

Collen Nystedt of MovieSet pointed this lecture (2/7) out to me via Facebook.  It's not a pretty picture. You have to skip the 4min corny intro, but amidst the doom mongering, Peter Dekom puts an interesting position out there. He describes the current industry situation as the "antichrist of independent filmmaking" (end of pt.3). Unfortunately he's not referencing Lars VT either.  Dekom doesn't put much stock on the long tail, but illustrates how the industry is built around movies that do well theatrically (pt.4).  Without theatrical success, there's not much else that can happen from a business perspective with a film these days, he says.  So much for the hope of a VOD salvation...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_5lCDiDsOs

The main thrust is that our industry is in a serious disconnect from our audiences. It is clear that the model consumers like least is pay per use -- yet Hollywood is still dedicated to this.  Dekom argues that we have to wake up both our business models and our copyright laws (and I wish he explored this latter part more) to adjust how people actually behave.  Embrace reality! Wake up and smell the instant coffee!!

Along the way, Dekom takes the time to make a few keypoints to make sure we understand how we got here.

  • He explains we're not a world practicing multi-tasking -- but rapid focus shifting.  It's not multiple things we are doing, but one thing after another and then back and forth;
  • He de-emphasizes our industry's need to focus on distribution solutions; for Dekom the real film biz comes down to creativity, deal-making, and marketing.  That may not be ground shaking news, but it does call attention to how much time everyone spends on the question -- and perhaps how misguided we are at times just worrying about if we are going to get it up and out.
  • He encourages us to recognize we live in a world of hyper accelerating change.  And to ask ourselves what does that do to us as consumers of entertainment?  We are living in the world of The What's Next Generation.  People are no longer interested in What Is (and thus why the Star System is over - pt2).  Audiences have moved on.
  • For Dekom there are four key components of mass-entertainment movies these days : ride, moments, character, story.  Very few Indie films can offer ride (thrills), but we can certainly offer moments (think YouTube). And we can always do better by thinking earlier what those moments are going to be, what we will want to put in the trailer.
  • Since 9/15/08 when the economy tanked, people over 30 have gone to the movies 46% less whereas kids have gone 24% more.

Dekom makes a lot of points.

H makes it clear that there is no traditional indie market to build a business plan on -- then or now.

Film subsidies help develop artists, but don't develop markets traditionally.

Dekom puts some hope on the use of psycho-graphic focus and metadata to help market films (pt.4).  Granted this stuff is very personal ... and private data -- and, in my opinion, should stay that way .  But he does spell out how none of this is truly private anymore (pt.5).  Once again:  wake up to reality.

Dekom does recognize the marketing benefits of piracy and probably could have spoken up more about piracy's ability to deliver to neglected markets.

He criticizes how the film industry knows less about it's audience than any other field.  If this doesn't change, we are doomed.

He points how library value has completely eroded (this is the foundation of most studios) and you can't borrow against it.

Dekom explains that it NOW comes down to the primary event for all entertainment industries.  After that, there is just "the other", no ancillary.  Indie business has, unfortunately, been built on "the other" and only the old "other".  And there now is no "other" -- in Dekom's vision.  The primary event is very much big screen theatrical now -- just like it was in the '50's.  Without theatrical, where is the business?  There's been a lot of good discussion on what people are willing to pay for, and we need more of it.

The hope, in Dekom's vision, is to learn how to listen to the audience. We need to focus on finding the audience, determining who the audience is, and how to reach them.  Each film (unless it is a sequel) is a brand new product line worthy of the same creativity in the marketing that gave rise to the film in the first place.

Check out all seven clips.  People pay this man a great deal to have him speak.  He's worth your time.

New Model: Bit Torrent Fee Sharing To Content Creators

Scott Macauley of FilmmakerMagBlog tipped me to this.  He writes:

Peter Sunde, one of the founders of the torrent site The Pirate Bay, has launched his venture, Flattr. Basically, on a monthly basis you commit to an amount of money that you'll disperse to content creators. Then, as the month goes by, you click on their Flattr buttons and at the end of the month the service divvies up your funds and gives an equal amount to each person you've clicked.

Flattr.com - How Flattr Works from Flattr on Vimeo.

This Is How I Would Like It

But alas, I think I have to move to Brazil to get it.  I was reading in Variety, how a distributor (Rain) there has gotten all their art cinemas to go digital and use the same software management system, enabling them to get their films via satellite.  They then allow the audiences to organize themselves via a social network platform and select what films they want to see where and when.

Rain's COD will allow moviegoers, grouped in online MovieMobz.com film clubs, to recommend what films play when and where over Rain's digital cinema network.

Once exhibitors slot a film, virtual cinema club members can buy tickets, refer further wishlists to friends and, exploiting MovieMobz's social networking system, let other people know what films they're attending.

"For the first time in the market, we are offering new opportunities for the entire cinema chain: Consumers can choose their content; exhibitors can more efficiently program their screens; and content licensors can more easily find their audience," Lima said.

MovieMobz will book film screenings of new and old features as well as niche content.

Ahh..... one day soon, maybe America will catch up.

Competition Is THE Problem

Lance Weiler gave an excellent presentation at Power To The Pixel in London a few weeks back.  As he points out: competition is the problem.

He boils it down and provides the antidote (collaboration!) in a short powerpoint presentation here:
From Here to Awesome
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: models new)

And if you want to hear and see it all with Lance actually presenting it, catch it here -- he provides a great context for it all: