Hal Siegal on "Watching Games and Playing Films"

We are at in incredible time in our indie film culture. The distinct poles at which is perceived have never been more distant. Great things are getting done. Experiments are happening. And people are sharing. Whew! Since my initial invite upon viewing his "social" film, Hal Siegal has contributed several times to this blog -- and each time opened my mind up. So what if you think you don't play games. Hal makes a good case of why they are already a part of every filmmakers bag of tricks.

Films are a serious business. Truth, dreams, joy, pain, love, hate. This is the spectrum along which we seek to find our art and our humanity. But we aren’t just the animals that tell stories. We are also the animals that create change. Our stories aren’t changing, but the ways we tell them are.

I The shoddy video clip above is from LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, and the game being played is a variant of an old, classic game called Nim.

Call us authors, auteurs, readers, viewers, participants or just “friends”—what we seek, what we have always sought, is engagement. If the images that flicker across the retina do not inspire, if they are only cause without effect, then we as creators—as filmmakers—have failed. But you know this.

III Nim, although ancient, is still quite fun to play. That is, until you discover that it is a mathematical game. If you know the math, you can’t lose.

Games are many things, but serious is not usually considered to be one of them. We play games because they are fun. Period. Unlike films, games don’t challenge our assumptions, and they don’t make us uncomfortable (except when we lose at them). And yet, if games are fun, then consider: where exactly does the fun happen? Games, like films, are delivered straight to the cerebral cortex. Games and films are ultimately emotional. The mechanics are not really so different.

IIIII Or vice versa: if you don’t know the math, then you can’t win. This of course is one aspect of the symbolism of the game within the film.

I had mentioned this in a previous post: films are like games we play in our heads. Or as David Mamet succinctly puts it in Bambi Versus Godzilla, the only thing that really matters is creating a desire to know what happens next (I’m paraphrasing). In stories, more often than not, we do this by withholding information for a time. There is another, common name for this in the world of game design: a puzzle. (INCEPTION’S ending was so frustrating to many viewers because it was essentially a puzzle with a missing piece, and this drives people crazy). The point is: games may just provide a framework and opportunity for engagement at a level that was before unreachable via a traditional film.

IIIIIII It’s merely a coincidence that the video clip above is originally from a film, which is playing on a television, that has been re-recorded with a cheap digital video camera and then uploaded to YouTube.

Where to begin then? By acknowledging that films aren’t just going digital. Films are going SOFTWARE. This is the next, inevitable step. Once a film becomes software, there are new opportunities for experimentation and manipulation. Software has inputs and outputs. Software isn’t fixed; it can change over time. As a result, we must rethink the role of the writer and the director: where will you give up control? where are the points of input? Where and how and in what new ways will you engage with your audience? Games already do this.

A suggestion: allow yourself to be inspired by games. However: don’t be intimidated by them. Beg, borrow, and definitely steal from them. But DON’T make games. Keep telling stories. Tell them in new ways.

Hal Siegel is a partner in Murmur, a hybrid studio/technology company that creates and distributes social films. He wrote and directed HIM, HER AND THEM.

Guest Post: Hal Siegel "My Film Has a Virus? WTF?”

How do you make your film go viral? That may be one of the questions that filmmakers ask most these days. And today we have the answer for you... sort of. Hal Siegal guest posted here awhile back and today he explains the concept and practice of social loops. If you want people to engage and share with your work, you best read up now.

In my previous post regarding my experimental social film, HIM, HER AND THEM, I mentioned that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about “social loops”. So what the heck is a social loop, anyway? It’s not just an academic or rhetorical question—an understanding of social loops is absolutely critical for any filmmaker looking to build or engage an audience through the use of social media.

The notion of a social loop is derived from the term “viral expansion loop”. These loops or “hooks” are a key driver of the massive growth of many web 2.0 companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and more recently casual game companies like Zynga. However, the concept is not new: Tupperware parties were an early example of a viral loop in action. A viral expansion loop uses specific ideas from biology that describe the spread of viral diseases and combines this with the more generalized concept of a positive feedback loop (compounding interest in a bank account is the classic example of positive feedback: interest payments add to your balance and the result in turn increases the amount of interest).

What does a social loop look like? Consider the way Facebook works. Facebook is absolutely useless to you unless your friends are on it. Once a few friends have joined it is somewhat useful, and as more friends join, it becomes more useful—and the same thing is true for each friend in turn. The point here is not just that this creates growth, but that it can create exponential growth. (Note that this is just one simple example. Facebook incorporates many loops and even levels of loops—a social game like Cityville contains another set of loops built on top of Facebook itself).

It seems that filmmakers are beginning to understand the potential value inherent in social loops. For example, in support of his latest film NEWLYWEDS, Ed Burns held a crowdsourced poster contest and song contest. At their core, these types of contests employ a simple social loop: a participant submits an entry and then naturally encourages all his or her friends to vote for it. That’s the first half of the loop. The second half is where the friends learn about the contest and then submit their own entries, thus starting the loop over again (and this is where this particular example breaks down—the set of people interested in a given film + having the skills to create a decent original poster or piece of music is relatively small. Filmmakers would be wise to consider other types of social engagement that have lower barriers to entry).

Of course, efforts like these still fall into the realm of marketing. With HIM, HER AND THEM, we took the next step and added a social loop into the film experience itself. This took the form of simple text additions that viewers and their friends could add to the film, thereby customizing and altering it. But of course these text additions are only meaningful if your friends can see them. So viewers are encouraged to invite friends to also watch and add to the film, and in turn they invite their friends to watch and add—and there’s the loop.

Since the film was released as a Facebook application, we are able to measure our audience engagement in ways that would be impossible in a traditional film. So how did we do with our first project? Our results were mixed. First the positive:

- We had approximately 6,000 viewers in the first month (with zero marketing dollars behind it) - Of these, 50% interacted with the film socially in some way (by liking, sharing or commenting) - 25% added to the story - Average number of visits per user: 2. We assume that most people were viewing the film once, then returning to see what they friends added.

And now the negatives: - We lost approximately 50% of our inbound viewers at the Facebook Permissions prompt. Ouch. We attribute this to the fact that a large number of inbound links were generated by StumbleUpon where users had no context that this was a Facebook application. This shows the importance of contextualizing your links and marketing. It also shows the hurdle that the Facebook Permissions screen represents—we did predict that this would be an issue. - We had a lowly 3.33% conversion rate of friend requests to confirmations. This was very disappointing. We attribute it to Facebook’s new notification process and the fact that we weren't able to invite friends via status updates on their walls or via email (in their defense, Facebook made the changes because social games were getting quite spammy with regards to email and wall notifications). - Finally, viral growth is measurable as mathematical formula known as the viral coefficient. For growth to be viral, the coefficient has to be greater than 1. Ours was .07. That’s not so great in terms of growth and nowhere near exponential growth. In fairness though, this first project was largely a proof of concept. For our next projects we are thinking about deeper and more sophisticated social loops that will be specifically tailored to the nature of the story.

Social loops are clearly powerful, but the challenge is to use them with consideration and not in an exploitative manner (game mechanics face a similar challenge right now). Designed poorly, social loops will be perceived as a crass and manipulative tool. Designed well, with clear value and meaning for the user, social loops can be a gateway to entirely new kinds of engagement. This is our goal as we explore the possibilities of social films.

---

Hal Siegel is a partner in Murmur, a hybrid studio/technology company that creates and distributes social films. He wrote and directed HIM, HER AND THEM.

Guest Post: Hal Siegel "Virality And The Potential Of Social Films”

It is only through our communal efforts, and subsequent sharing of our processes, successes, and failures, that we will find a way for our creative work to find & build audiences, transform them into communities, and as a result build a new creative middle class that will able to support themselves through their creations, be they of widest, most diverse and ambitious forms, styles, and content. That's the desire right? I was thrilled to come across Hal Siegel's "social film" HIM, HER, AND THEM. I immediately wrote to him and asked if he would share it's inspiration with all of you. He agreed to guest post today. Here's hoping that this is just one of many posts to come from Hal.

The idea of something “going viral” has shifted in our collective conscious from the realm of biology to that of marketing. But unless the subject concerns puppies and kittens, the idea of content specifically designed with virality in mind seems to conjur spooky, Orwellian images of mind control and manipulation. I think it is time to move beyond these preconceptions. Let’s not forget that, from the right perspective, people too can be seen as a viral system: not a plague, but life. And for that matter, so can a film.

First, for the purpose of context, a brief personal history: I ran a small interactive agency for about ten years. For a while it was interesting and profitable, and then for a time it wasn’t interesting but was still profitable, and then finally it wasn’t interesting or profitable. To borrow from the Chinese: double unhappiness.

During that last phase, mostly out of frustration, my business partner and I talked our way into doing some unremarkable commercial video work. And here’s the thing: literally, within five minutes of the first day on set, I was hooked. I loved it. Everything about it. (Full disclosure: getting up the nerve to do this was made a lot easier by the fact that a very good friend of ours was a successful and well-regarded Director of Photography). And so I thought to myself: Fuck. I chose the wrong career. I’m a thirty-eight year old creative director with a wife and daughter and there is no way I can start over again as a film director.

Or could I? Right around the same time, innovative interactive video projects like The Wilderness Downtown and Collapsus were starting to appear. Experimental directors like Radical Friend were doing really interesting, clever things. I looked at projects like these and thought: that is exactly the kind of stuff I wish we were doing. So we started working and brainstorming. We began by thinking about interactivity and Transmedia. But the real “aha” moment came for us when we started to talk about distribution. At some point one of us said something like: well, we could always release it on Facebook. And then we thought: well, what if we integrate it into Facebook?

That was about a year ago. Him, Her and Them was released as a Facebook app in April. We refer to it as a “social film”, in that it is a combination of a traditional cinematic narrative blended with social media functionality. You can add friends (from your social network) and you and your friends can add to the story via simple text additions--much like the way that comments work. Him, Her and Them has a beginning, a middle and end, but viewers are able to make subtle changes to it along the way. You can watch the film here.

Then there’s the sharing. With a traditional video, you have one opportunity to share it—when you’re done. You watch it and, if you like it, you post it to Facebook or Twitter or your blog. Done. But now, with HH&T, every time you add to it is a point for sharing. With this, we’ve increased the potential virality exponentially. And this is just one type of interaction.

Since the release, we’ve come to think of HH&T as a “proto-social film” because it really just scratches the surface of what’s possible. Our thinking has naturally evolved since we began, and it’s fair to say that the next projects we have planned will bare little to no resemblance to Him, Her and Them. So what’s next for Murmur and social films? Naturally we are taking a hard look at social/casual games (Cityville, Farmville, etc) but also user-generated content sites and apps like Threadless and Polyvore. There is a lot here to consider. A few key insights:

  • Virality has to be built in. It’s no longer enough to base the notion of virality merely on the quality of the product. That may sound like heresy to some, but production costs for creating a pretty good looking film are cratering. There is simply too much out there of at least decent quality. Him, Her and Them had over five thousand viewers in two weeks and is growing regularly. Our marketing budget was zero dollars. Sure, some of it was due to novelty, but quite a bit was also based on the way it was designed. And here’s the thing: we didn’t make it nearly viral enough.
  • Social Loops:These two words are beginning to keep me up late into the night. I find myself lying in bed, staring at the ceiling thinking “how can we build in a social loop around that part of the story?” Social loops are the engine that power virality, social games and social media. If you are going to get serious about increasing the size of your audience via social media, then you need to have an understanding of social loops.
  • Gamification:SXSW was all abuzz about gamification. Game play is clearly going to be a major influence on all kinds of entertainment and is going to start popping up in all sorts of weird places. Here’s our take on it: Yes, we plan to draw on game-type mechanics, but that said, our goal is to not make it feel like a game. Also, here’s a thought that might be worthy of its own post: most movies are like games that you simply play in your head. I’m not just talking about sc-fi or mysteries. Your basic romance is a puzzle with two pieces: will they or won’t they? you have to watch to find out (and of course you have to actually care about the characters to want to “play” in the first place. It still comes back to story).
  • A software business model: If it’s not obvious by now, it should come as no surprise that we plan on embracing the “Freemium” model (as in a free “lite” version and paid “full” version) utilized by software and games. Then we will extend it via virtual goods and other “add ons”. Finally, For those of you readers who are sitting there shaking your head in consternation, I will say this: you are right to think that virality or social loops will not improve the quality of your film. Only a better story will do that. But what virality can do is significantly increase the size of your audience and, potentially, the money you earn. I believe that there is tremendous potential for social films, but that’s where we’re at. Potential. Will it be realized? Stay tuned.
  • Oh, and beware: like the transmedia movement, a social film is a complicated affair. It involves nothing less than all the traditional elements of filmmaking plus the production aspects of software development: user interface design, usability testing, programming, quality-assurance and more. Hey, I never promised you a rose garden.

    — Hal Siegel

    Hal Siegel is a partner in Murmur, a hybrid studio/technology company that creates and distributes social films. He wrote and directed Him, Her and Them.