Our Indie Infrastructure Limits The Menu Of Our Content Consumption

Not only are you what you eat, you are what is on the menu.  It’s not just what sells that people buy, it is what is sold.  The March Hare Syndrome indicates people don’t demand the truly tasty until it is delivered to them.  Market forces are not the be-all or end-all – a little intervention can be a game-changer.

If you want movies to be able to change the world, sometimes you have to change the world first.  In pivoting the film infrastructure from a mass-market focus to that which can serve niche audiences, we have to observe who it is that is setting the menu.  Not much of a surprise there really, it is once again the Old White Guys (and yes, I am one).

Film will – thankfully -- always be a passion industry.  People work on what they like.  Yes, money and profit drive behavior more than people or promise, but taste is still a deep influencer.  When a major demographic is the predominate decision-maker on what is brought to market, we get a limited diet.  The curators for the end-users are only provided a limited set of ingredients to cook with.  Who green lights?  Who chooses what to offer to foreign buyers?  Who represents the film to US buyers?

Sure, there are many exceptions, but for the most part, it is the Old White Men at every step of the chain that drive the decision making on what gets made and sold.  We need to actively recruit a far more diversified decision making team if we want to be able to stop trying to sell our work to everybody and instead try to bring it to the special somebody that will respond most positively.

When a fraction of the population cares about film, and a fraction of that cares about specialized films, AND we have a surplus of content competing for the forever more limited attention of the film-loving community, the emphasis should shift from reaching everyone to hyper-targeting the right people.  The beauty of this shift will be a more diversified stream of work will be able to find success in the marketplace, even if it may not have mass impact.   Yet, before this change will come, we have to first change who sets the menu.

Okay, I don’t have hard data on this, and there are many, many exceptions, but I feel it to be generally true: women like different films from men, and people from different backgrounds like different things too.  Race, class, orientation, creed, and gender influence our taste.  Granted, great art unites us all, and all art crosses boundaries in a way that even a passport can not provide.  Yet, if we want to diversify our offerings, we have to diversify who makes the decisions and who encourages others to make decisions.

I’d find it really interesting to look at the catalogues of the sales companies that are owned and operated by women vs those that are done so by men.  It is often said that urban (i.e. African-American & ethnic) films don’t travel, yet race does not seem to be any issue in music.  Why is that?  There are certainly a wide number of executives of color in the music world, but still very few in the film world.  I was taught to love sushi by a chef who patiently worked to expand my palate.   If the same people set the menu tomorrow as the ones from yesterday, our tastes won’t change.

To shift our industry from mass market to niche, we have to change who sells and who buys.  Yes, we have to provide opportunity to artists of diverse backgrounds, and we have to make sure they have the proper support, but change is not always obvious either.  Opportunity is never the same as outcome.  Influence, and even revolution, can be subtle.

Capital that wants to facilitate necessary evolution would be wise to look closer at the keepers of supply and demand.

Who Really Wants To See Cinema Nowadays Anyway?

I had the pleasure of participating on a panel at  17th Europa Cinemas Network Conference  in Paris last month with Saskia Wazel, the policy manager for Consumer Focus UK.  What follow is Saskia's presentation "Cinema as the Essential Link Between Film and Audience" .

 Saskia used herself as a case study and did a very good job also articulating why she did not want to see most movies.  When I complemented her on her frankness, she responded:

"Someone had to tell them that they are having subsidised acid flashbacks since 1968.... it’s not real you know!"

When Did I Sign Up For This “Audience Development” Thing?

By Chris Dorr

Peter Kafka of the WSJ recently interviewed Robert Kyncl, the man who heads up the channel initiative at YouTube.  Robert was asked what he had learned from his experience at YouTube thus far.  He states:

“Lesson one: Audience development is equally as important as great content. By creating fantastic content and spending zero time on audience development, you are certain that you will not succeed on YouTube. You have to focus on audience development as much as you focus on creating content.”

Kyncl goes on to discuss how the task of TV programming and marketing have to be combined in the new world of on demand content viewing. Kafka then asks who is supposed to do audience development, the content creator or YouTube. Kyncl responds:

“The content creator… As things go more and more on-demand and less linear, the prime-time flow expertise is less needed. You have to learn how you program in an on-demand world, which is a much different skill set.”

What is remarkable here is that Kyncl states that this new category of “audience development”, which was the responsibility of the TV channel, now resides with the content creator (and not with YouTube).  Imagine you have just created a prime time TV series and the network  informs you that you are responsible for getting your audience to show up. You would think they had lost their mind.

Yet here it makes total sense.

You see, YouTube, as well as other Internet services, are built on a distributed network.  They are not mass media networks built on a centralized model.  On a centralized (mass media) network, a passive consumer is constantly being reminded what shows are coming up and when to watch. On a distributed network (the Internet), an active viewer grabs what she wants, when she wants it, from a large constantly changing selection. On a platform like YouTube, the service may not be even aware of everything that is available at that instant, let alone what will be available tomorrow.  The platform brings you access to the whole globe in an instant.  But you have to get the people of the globe to take notice and take action on your behalf.

Thus, it falls to the content creator to take up the task of gathering and holding onto her audience. The good news is that content creators can have a direct relationship with their users on YouTube.  The bad news is that it is their responsibility to create and maintain those relationships.

The necessity of audience development falls upon larger companies like Machinima as well as any small team that creates an original web series or individual film. Now everyone can become a creator, a publisher.  But they also have to become programmers, marketers, and experts in “audience development”.

This is a whole new world for people who have previously concentrated on creating great stories. Now they need to entice people into their stories, get them to stay around and get them to come back.

This will be a very difficult transition for those who have worked within the legacy mass media business of networks and studios.  It will require the unlearning of accepted practices as well as learning new ones. It used to be that great content from creators and great promotion and scheduling from the network brought success. No more. Now the creators have to do it all.

Who will successfully navigate these uncharted waters?

Chris Dorr  consults with media and consumer electronic companies on digital media strategy and business development. His clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media, Accedo Broadband, Beyond Oblivion and A3 Media Networks.Chris created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca, and worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact Chris at chris@digitaldorr.com or follow him at @chrisdorr

This post originally appeared on DigitalDorr on October 11th, and is reposted by permission of the author.

Ted's note: Tribeca just did a post on 10 Filmmakers Who Use Social Media Well (to engage and develop their audience.  You might want to check it out here.


Ed Burns On Learning To Love To Engage With The Crowd

I have truly enjoyed my collaborations with writer/director/actor Ed Burns. We started working together on his first film and did the next two together. Although we didn't make a movie together after that, our get together share-sessions over beers have always been both fun and informative. It's been truly inspiring for me, to see how he keeps learning -- and having fun doing it.

In both watching, working and hanging out with Ed, you quickly see that he really enjoys and respects people. He knows everyone's name quickly on his shoots and never forgets he too was once a production assistant who never knew if he'd have a shot at making his own movies. It is not a surprise that he has not only embraced social media, but found excellent ways to integrate it into his creative process. I reached out and asked him to share a little bit of how he learned not just to love the crowd, but to embrace them as a community that he is but one part of.

At Ted Hope's suggestion a few years ago, I started using Twitter to engage with my audience more directly. Ted spoke to me originally about the idea of cultivating 500 true fans...and then quickly amended that to 5000 true fans. The thinking was if you could amass an army of people who enjoyed your work, they could serve as connectors and influencers on your behalf. With my last film “Nice Guy Johnny”, a great part of our success had to do with my Twitter followers getting out there and spreading the word. In fact, when I asked them to help get “Nice Guy Johnny” to the iTunes rental chart "top ten", we immediately saw a spike in rentals and drove the title to number 6 on the chart over the course of 2 days.

When I sat down to flesh out my next script idea (which eventually became my movie, “Newlyweds”), I immediately put it out on Twitter, to gauge the interest of my followers. Given the positive response, I then asked them a number of questions during the writing process. I asked for suggestions of character's names, and funny or interesting scenarios that happened in the first couple of months of marriage. We asked them to write one of the last lines of dialogue in the film. While I didn't end up using any specific line, their ideas shaped the final scene. Lastly, I then asked their help in coming up with a title of the film. I had come up with a title, "Newlyweds in New York", and we had an alternative title, "Triangles Below Canal" and asked the Twitterverse which they preferred. "Newlyweds in New York" won, but a few had suggested to drop the "of New York", which my producer Aaron Lubin had been fighting for as well.

Given what a good time we had in engaging the audience, when we were in postproduction, we wanted to do something that might help reward "the true fans" and we decided to hold 2 contests. The first contest was a song contest. We asked unsigned artists to submit a song that we would place in a scene. We received over 250 submissions and eventually my producer and my editor Janet Gaynor and I picked the winning songwriter, Patrick McCormack, an unsigned 22 year-old artist from Philadelphia, who was then invited to the Tribeca Film Festival closing night premiere of “Newlyweds” and got to see his song used in front of an audience of 1000 people.

The next contest we held was our poster contest. We needed a poster we were going to use at the Tribeca Film Festival. So again I went out on Twitter and made the request. I only told the audience a little bit about the movie and asked them to submit any poster ideas they had and post them on my website and let the fans vote on which one they liked the most.

We had a few dozen submissions and David Ayllon, a 20 year-old artist from New Jersey, won with his clever image of 1950's car leaving a wedding, trailed by the tin cans strung to the bumper....as well as the newly wedded couple, tangled in the web of string, a hint at troubles ahead.

-- Ed Burns

I asked Ed a few questions as I not only want to learn from his practice, but want to share it with all of you. Did you use the poster it generated for your primary poster? Why or why not?

The poster for Tribeca was used just for the Film Festival, but also has been made available to purchase on my website (www.edwardburns.net). But we always viewed this poster as a teaser poster, knowing that whoever purchased the film for distribution would have their own ideas about how to market the film and what the one sheet would look like.

How did you use the other posters?

There was a second poster that I personally fell in love with, that also happened to be in the top 5 vote-getting posters, but we made tee shirts of that poster, and they are available on my website as well.

Did you use other services to announce or host the poster contest? Were you satisfied with them if so, and then who?

Indiewire helped announce both the poster and the song contest. The contests were also picked up by a number of indie film blogs

Did you supply fans with scenes from the movie in advance?

No, we only gave them a 140 character description of what the film was about.

How long should the contest be open?

We didn't enter this with any real plan or structure in place. And quite honestly, we were surprised by the number of submissions and the quality of the work. So we kept the contest open for as long as the followers seemed to want it. And then the voting stage was a couple of weeks.

Would you do it again?

Not only do we plan to do something like this again, but we have plans with the next film to try and engage the audience even more in the screenwriting process and even casting and location scouting and wardrobe as well. We are thinking about contests in all of those areas.

What would you do differently if you were to do it all over again?

Not a thing.

A Public Discussion On THE FUTURE OF FILM With You, Me (Ted Hope), & Brian Newman

Brian Newman and I are headed towards the Czech Republic this holiday weekend in order to have a very public discussion on The Future Of Film with the filmmakers and audiences at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. Yet, you too can join in even if you can't make your way to this wonderful festival. Neither Brian nor I are great fans of panel discussions these days; they fail to mine the great knowledge or passions of the community. So in contemplating how to get something done in the time we have allotted, Brian and I decided it would be good to get the conversation started a bit early. Below, Brian and I put together a focus on what we think are the key factors shaping the greatest and necessary change to the way films are made and consumed. What's your opinion?

The Future of Film - Joint Article by Brian Newman & Ted Hope
Prognostications about the future of film have been pretty easy to come by lately – it will be digital, it will be everywhere, it will be 3D, it will be expensive – but while everyone talks about the changes to come, very few people are actively addressing these changes head on. We believe “the future” is already upon us, and there are five key trends to address.

As we put our thoughts out there for you to consider, ask yourself: “are these the trends that will most effect content, production, and consumption?”. Did we leave something out? Is one not important? Is something else more important? Join the conversation and let us know below.

Similarly, these five suggestions may be the preeminent factors in shaping the next few years, but the real question is always “how?” As creators, facilitators, and consumers, what must we do to confront these issues? Are there models and best practices already emerging? Have there already been noble failures and/or arrogant efforts attempting to address these factors? What would a vision look like that might address these key elements? We all must share our thoughts, our hopes, our failures, along with what we learned from our successes if we are going to build something new, something that truly works for everyone.

1. Super-abundance: Historically, the film business has been built on the model of scarcity. It was expensive to make, distribute and exhibit (or broadcast) films, and it was equally expensive to learn the craft. Our entire business model and assumptions about what works and what doesn’t were built on this idea of scarcity, but digital has changed all of that.

We now live in a world of super-abundance. Thousands of film school students graduate annually, joining tens of thousands of self-taught others, many of whom are far better than amateurs. According to our talks with festival submission services, somewhere near 40,000 unique films are submitted to film festivals globally each year. As an audience member, we now have access not just to the films playing on television and at the theater, but to the entire history of cinema through services such as Netflix, Mubi and LoveFilm. We can experience the global cinema of 1968 better than an audience member who lived in 1968 could, and these films are now competitors for our viewing attention versus the newest films from today. 1968 was a pretty good year for film, it’s tough to decide to watch something new instead.

In a world of superabundance, you have to do a lot more to stand out from the crowd. Luckily, technology is also giving us tools to do this, engage with audiences more directly and develop new creative business practices to raise the attention level on our projects.

2. New Audience Demands: The audience didn’t use to have a lot of choice in what it saw, but now that choice is plentiful and we’ve entered an attention economy. Audiences now have access to mobile devices that connect them not just to one another, but to the content they choose, immediately and engagingly. Weened on social networks, instant messaging, gaming and touch screens, the audience now not only expects, but demands an interactive, participatory experience.

While many an audience member is content to sit back and relax in front of the television or movie screen, a significant portion of the audience expects and wants more. For some this means engagement through transmedia – using the full range of platform possibilities to interact with a story not just in film, but through games, ARG, graphic novels, webisodes or other experiences. At minimum it means being in touch with your audience, giving them the means to engage socially around a film, even if that’s just more easily sharing a link or a trailer, or engaging in a dialogue on Twitter or Facebook.

Some argue that artists shouldn’t be marketers, but this is a false dichotomy that actually only serves middle-men, distancing the artist from their most valuable asset (aside from their story-telling abilities), their fan base. Engaging one’s audience doesn’t mean just marketing. In fact, marketing doesn’t work, whereas real conversation, or meaningful exchanges does.

In addition, the audience is now global, diverse, young and niche. It demands its content to reflect these realities. Younger creators are addressing these changes, through the content they make, but the industry must do more to address these new realities and incorporate these new voices.

3. Audience Aggregation: In the past, we had to spend ridiculous amounts of money to find, build and engage an audience. And we did it, from scratch, again and again each time we had a new movie. Thousands of dollars were spent telling Lars Von Trier fans about his new film, but then we let that audience member disappear again, and spent more thousands finding them for the next film. We now have the ability to engage directly with our fan base, be it for an artist, a genre or the output of an entire country. We can aggregate this audience, keep them engaged and more easily communicate with them about what’s new or what’s next. Unfortunately, however, much of the value in this audience connection/data is accruing only to social networks and platforms and not to the industry, or more importantly, the artists. 4. Investor Realities: While public subsidy remains a vital strength of the industry outside of the US, the current economic and political climate is putting strains on such support and more producers are having to look fresh, or more strongly, to private investors. Up until now, however, it has been the rare investor who sees much of a return, and with the global market for art, foreign and indie films declining (in terms of acquisition dollars), this situation is worsening. To maintain a healthy industry we must build and support a sustainable investor class. The old model of financing one-off productions, limited rights ownership and closely guarding (or even hiding) the numbers needs to change to a system of slate financing, more horizontal ownership of the means of production and distribution and more open sharing of financial data. This is technologically easy to do now, but it will require a sea-change in our thinking about openness to ensure implementation.

5. A New model for Paradigmatic Change: All of this points to building a model for real, systemic change in the near future. Bold visions for a new model are needed, before someone from outside the film industry, in the tech community for example, launches this disruption for us. Entrepreneurial business leaders need to put forth new projects. Government agencies need to increase and shift funding to support these endeavors and traditional gatekeepers need to embrace these changes.

Experimentation requires limiting risk. Risk is usually defined in the film business by the size of budget. A devotion thus to micro-budget films should also stimulate experimentation on how they are released. Experimentation also requires an analysis of the results. Presently, the film business only likes to discuss its successes, but we need to get over the stigma of "failure" and recognize the brave and selfless qualities inherent in it so we all can learn and stop the repetition of processes that don't work. Experimentation is also a process; it is not a series of one-offs like the film business is today. We need to demystify the process from top to bottom and encourage sharing of data as well as technique. A commitment to a series of films is an experiment – one film is not. Experimentation requires opening one self up beyond a safe environment. The film business has remained a fairly hermetically sealed world. We need to collaborate with other industries, and form alliances that benefit them as well as us. New technological tools can help audiences discover work, allow artists to create work in new ways, and enable entrepreneurs to better distribute this work.

We’d like to open the discussion to others. Let us know in the comments here whether you agree with any or all of this, whether you have other ideas for addressing the future of the field, and even your strong disagreements.

If you’ll be attending the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, we invite you to also email us at industry@kviff.com to be considered for a slot during the panel. Slots will be delegated by a festival representative at their discretion. Selected responders will have three minutes to put forth their ideas, questions and/or statements during the festival panel. We’ll try to respond our best, and open it up to the audience for more input. We look forward to hearing from you.

Problem #25: Know The Audience

Brian Newman has a good response to #25 of my current 38 Ways The Film Industry Is Failing Today. Brian recommends some good specific action to start to solve this issue (how the film industry does not know its audience).  He sums up the situation well:

I understand the whole “I’m an artist, not a marketer” thing, actually, but in this day and age, to not think about your audience in advance is not just poor business, it ignores the fundamental changes that have hit every business and every art form - that audiences are more participatory, so you can’t just try to engage them with a product and no conversation.

But read his post and get the whole thing.  He's a smart guy and worth your time.