Monday, October 26, 2009

The future of film and Pepin WI

I just returned from Pepin, WI the home of the great Flyway Film Festival. It's a small, regional festival with a lot of heart, and I had a great time. I met some great people, mostly filmmakers but also some local audiences and business owners, and saw some interesting films. The festival takes care of you - if you ever get invited, go, as they have great hospitality and it's an all-around good time. I was asked to attend to give a keynote at their opening night, and to speak on a panel. Below is the approximate text of my speech - I use an outline and ad-lib most of this stuff, but I think this text captures it well.

The Speech:

Thanks to Rick Vaicius and all the staff of Flyway for bringing me here to Pepin, WI. I’ve never been here before, and I’m delighted to be here speaking with you tonight. I’d also like to thank the sponsors of this fest, as I know they can never be thanked enough and I’d like to give a quick thanks to all of the attending filmmakers, because if it weren’t for you and your films we wouldn’t be here tonight. I want to talk tonight about the state of the film industry, the changes of technology and how Pepin fits in. I think that if you bear with me, we’ll find that it’s all interconnected.

It may come as a surprise to those of you in the audience tonight who aren’t filmmakers or film “people” but the film industry is in a bit of a crisis. Sky falling, batten the hatches, we all may die crisis. Or so everyone keeps saying. From most regular folk’s seats, that may be hard to understand - what with 500 plus channels on the TV, Netflix, Redbox, YouTube, 3D, Blu-Ray and yes, even Pirate Bay, it seems like a time of plenty for film. But these same things I just mentioned are part of an intricate puzzle and as of this moment it seems that as we add each piece we are slowly seeing the full picture and it spells DOOM.

Briefly - digital has been a disruptive technology that has upended the film world. Everyone knows what has happened to music, and we’ve seen it with print - books, magazines and particularly newspapers - and now it’s happening to film. I don’t need to go into detail - you either know this or you can imagine it. In theory, it is now cheaper than ever before to make a movie, and there are more mechanisms than ever before to get that film to an audience more cheaply than ever before. But it still costs money to make a good film, and someone usually has to buy it and take it to market. And filmmakers, and their investors would like to get paid and make a living. But whether you are a filmmaker or a company the situation is the same - the business models aren’t working anymore.

But the reality is - this isn’t new. The film business has always been a bad business except for a few exceptions. I think the crisis we find ourselves in today in film mirrors the general economic crisis facing our world today. As Warren Buffett has said - it’s not until the tide goes out that you see who is really wearing shorts. Well folks, the tide is gone and we now see that we’d been in a bubble and there was a lot of funny money but no real value. Likewise, in film, the tide is out, and many a bad business model has been exposed.

The old model for film was one of scarcity. For the most part, we watched Hollywood films exclusively because film was expensive and scarce and hard to make. We didn’t have many other options. Even with indie film, it was pretty expensive to make and the marketplace was hard to figure out - in theory, the audience for indie/art films was scarce too, and finding them was expensive. Even with TV and then VHS and DVD, there was a scarcity model - films were still expensive to make, manufacturing and distributing DVDs was expensive. Everything was built on scarcity.

But digital changes that. Everything is ones and zeros and a copy is free. And everyone can make one, and copy it and spread it to friends. Copies are now ubiquitous. Copies are now superabundant, they are no longer scarce.

When content is no longer scarce, we need to look at value differently. What’s valuable now?

Well, my time is much more valuable. I have lots of options. I don’t have to just watch the Hollywood movie, I can watch anything, or a remix of it. What is scarce is my attention. My attention is a new form of value.

Films are everywhere - anyone can make one, copy it, rip it, trade it, remix it. People say there’s too many films, too much to choose from, but back when I used to walk into a record store, I never said, there’s too many bands. So what did I do - I listened to my friends, to my peers, to critics and other musicians. I listened to people I trusted and that’s what’s valuable now - curation from a trusted source. This, to me, is one of the big values of a thing like Flyway - Rick’s curation. He’s reached in to that grab bag of thousands of films and curated something for this community. That curation is now valuable.

What also becomes valuable is authenticity. In a world of abundant copies, free or pirated material and fakes, I value authenticity. Authentic stories, authentic experiences that aren’t duplicable. That’s what we find here in Pepin - real people, watching films, with filmmakers having an authentic experience we can’t get elsewhere. I’ll pay for that, and I’ll value it more than it costs.

Small becomes valuable. It’s easier to find authenticity in small, but it’s also true in life. As Margaret Mead said - “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Well, small films can change the world. The problem is it’s always been difficult to reach small groups with mass media, thus broadcast. Well now, small films can find just the small audience they need online much easier than ever before. And it’s through small fests like this that we can build a new model for support of filmmakers. Everyone talks about DIY today, well the old punk DIY ethic was built on playing in small clubs - not unlike this room tonight, playing to real fans, going around in a van, but by reaching that core audience, one could make a living. I think it’s true again now for film.

Because with small, we can connect. Connection is more valuable than ever before. I’m connected now on Twitter, Facebook and every other social network. This has real value - Rick found me through email, reaches me on Twitter and the filmmakers here started talking before they even arrived. What’s valuable now is this idea of being connected directly to the band, the artist, the filmmaker. I can now support the filmmaker directly, buy their film from them. Through micro-payments, I can become a direct supporter of their film and they can get it to me before it becomes a mass release.

But it goes deeper.

It’s about a participatory conversation. Technology allows this, but I think it’s something audiences have been wanting for a long time. It’s no longer a one-way broadcast to many. It’s a dialogue between the artist and the audience. People can now talk to the artist during the making of the film, during its release or after it is out there. They may want to interact by making their own version, remixing your footage and sending it back, or sharing with others. It’s no longer a one way street. It’s why many artists are working with cross or transmedia - the idea that there story might be bigger than a film and include a graphic novel, or a game, or user-generated content - it extends the story and let’s the audience interact more with the art and at times, the artist. In a simplistic way, it’s also another way to get people to pay for content - they may not want just another copy, but they value paying a price to come here, see your film and hear you in a Q& A afterwards, and maybe meet you over a beer. Conversation makes for a richer experience.

But for many, this is also scary. I used to think filmmakers were afraid of technology, but they’re really afraid of dialogue. Conversation is hard. Being an auteur and having your final say on a story is much easier. But historically, this is an aberration, a blip. We used to have call and response, actors and dancers and storytellers had to react to their audience more directly. The audience reaction and demand informed their art. It was participatory. It was a conversation, and digital allows that. It’s not easy, but I think it is crucial to the art form.

We as artists and audiences need to embrace this new conversation. We’re faced with a lot of possible futures of where media might go. Big media - Hollywood, Murdoch, TV - they don’t like this conversation. They want a fancy one-way TV set where the only interaction is you buying some product they are selling. It’s what we’ll get unless we dream for something better - and to me, if the internet just gives me more things to buy and less conversation, less new story-telling and less access to genuine, authentic voices then we’ve failed.

So that’s how I see the connection between new technology, Pepin and the future of storytelling. In summary -

Curate - Tell others, spread indie culture, be a trusted source and support those like Rick who are;
Authentic - Demand and pay for authentic experiences;
Small - Think local, connect small communities. It’s easier than ever before;
Participatory conversation - engage in conversation, and as artists make this easier for your audiences.

We have more tools to help connect us - to connect our storytelling to audiences and to engage with them in a cultural conversation. These tools are often found online - but they help connect us in the real world, and they can also be found at festivals like Flyway. I believe we can use these tools to build the future of film culture. No one knows where the future of film lies - anyone who says otherwise is lying or wrong - but while we can’t predict the future we can, in the words of Alan Kay, build the future. The best way to realize the future of film is to take advantage of the tools we have available, both online and in Pepin, and start building.


Anonymous said...

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Saskia said...

This is solid gold. Thanks Brian.