Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who’s not wearing swim trunks, or: Film is a bad business

You can spend a lot of time online and off keeping up with all the changes being wrought by all things digital. You know, it has pretty much ruined the business models for print, music and now film and all that (I’m going to refer to digital as an it for the sake of this post). It’s also been responsible for new production methods, new distribution methods and is likely changing a bit about how we can tell stories. That’s cool and all (or horrific, depending on your vantage point), but to me the single biggest effect of digital has been the transparency it has brought to everything. Warren Buffett has said, regarding the economic collapse, that one doesn’t see who’s really wearing the swim trunks until the tide goes out.

Well folks, digital has behaved like the Moon and brought out the tide in the film world and we can now see that pretty much the entire business is naked as a jaybird. More importantly, however, it always has been this way, especially for indies. As a noted filmmaker once said to me in regards to all of this - well, yes, it’s always been rape and pillage, but now it’s much more apparent.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Selling your film - when is the best time?

The Conversation took place this week in NYC, and while the entire event was great (kudos to the organizers) and I learned a bit, had some great conversations and even found some inspiration, I was also left scratching my head. How can we, as a field, get something so collectively wrong as the notion of film festival premieres and audience awareness? Thomas Woodrow, a producer who I admire, stated on one panel that you needed to sell your film at the point of its maximal awareness, and that for Bass Ackwards, that was clearly at Sundance (paraphrasing). Joe Swanberg said something to this effect regarding his decision to do a simultaneous premiere at SXSW and on IFC. We’ve seen these experiments at multiple festivals now, and will continue to see more. As currently conceived, all of them will fail.

Let me be clear - I am not critiquing IFC, the filmmakers or the festivals for experimenting - we need more of that. I also like all of them. I’m also sure that some of them would argue with me over what constitutes a failure, and I’m sure some of them will make some money, possibly even good money. That said, we’ll never know how much they might have made with a different strategy. My argument here is really with the notion that a premiere at a major festival is your point of maximal awareness. It’s not, never has been and never will be, unless such festivals do a lot of re-visioning of what they are and how they operate.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My conversation(s) at the Conversation

This weekend, I’ll be speaking on a panel at The Conversation, a great event that has apparently sold out. My panel is about new ways of thinking about film festivals, screenings and DVD. The panelists joining me are great - Robert Bahar, Ira DeutchmanBob Hawk and Mitch Teplitsky, and we’ve been emailing and hope to offer some good thoughts on new ways to make all of these work together for greater exposure, impact and hopefully, revenues. I’ll also be moderating a session where four social media experts talk a bit about new trends and then workshop audience member’s projects. I’m looking forward to that, as I think panels should, like culture today, become more participatory.

During lunch, I’ll be hosting a discussion on best practices for building robust audience engagement. What does that mean? This is the brief description I offered the organizer, when planning the talk:

Building robust audience engagement - Everyone is (finally) talking about audience engagement, but how can we enable more robust audience engagement? What happens when we think about engaging audience from the script stage, or allow them to interact at the story level? This discussion will focus on best practices and new ideas for building deep audience engagement.

I’ve been getting frustrated lately that most of our talk, mine included, around engagement has been in limited ways - crowd-funding, audience building (followers/fans) and at times, getting active with some issue in the film, usually if it’s a doc. Some transmedia types go further and try to engage the audience in the story in multiple different ways. Good transmedia types are even doing this from the beginning and letting the audience interact with the story, and maybe even change it. As filmmakers begin (ok, I know a few who’ve been doing this for a long time) to think more about audience engagement, they’ll need to think about this as well. What happens when you let the audience have more control? I’ve spoken to many filmmaker who are horrified at this thought - they want to be the auteur and maintain all artistic control. Sure enough, there’s also good reason to wonder about the aesthetic quality of such projects. There’s also, however, much potentially to be gained. New things might happen that we don’t expect, new story forms might be developed and something creative might take place. It will also likely increase audience engagement and perhaps that in itself will build larger audiences. I’m not sure what will happen, but I’m interested in discussing it, and if you are too, then join me at lunch.

A second part of the conversation is much more basic. If we want to engage audiences more with our projects, what might be some best practices. I’ve been reading a bit of Nina Simon’s book, Participatory Museums (you can read it online free) and she does a great job of analyzing what attributes help make something more participatory. In chapter one, for example, she lays out different types of participants, from those who don’t at all, to the most active ones and gives real world examples of ways to get people to move from “me to we,” or to become more actively engaged with a project. (You can read about it here, I’ll probably blog more in-depth about it later, and that chart above is from her site) I’m hoping to discuss how her ideas about participation in museums might work in thinking about films and storytelling. I’d also just like to hear about successful examples from others at the conference. So, if any of these subjects interest you....join us.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My presentation for BAFTA Scotland

Here's the Slides from my recent presentation in Glasgow, Scotland for Scottish Students on Screen, a program of BAFTA Scotland. For those of you who've seen my other presentations, this one won't be really new - it combines a few things from multiple different presentations, but it does add a few new things near the end. I always post these, however, so that people don't have to take notes on links, etc which are all embedded in the presentation. The entire day was great, with many other good speeches, including one from Anita Ondine and from Peter Mullan.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Re-thinking impact in film

I recently attended a think-tank, strategy session for an independent documentary filmmaker trying to have meaningful impact with his film. He did a smart thing - gathering about 30 really smart people (plus me, somehow) to talk about having an impact with film. This got me thinking about this question generally, and while this filmmaker was coming from the right place on this, I generally have a problem with this whole question. I have been thinking about this sense, and it led me back to a post I made on this blog in 2006. There might be one or two of you who read me now, but I figured most of my readers are new (the rest having left from all these long posts), and I think this post is still pretty relevant.  Plus, I've been busy this month and posting less, so this gives me something new/old. So, with some minor revisions, here’s some thoughts on the whole question of having an impact with film.

Increasingly, the foundation community and other funders of film are asking the question, how can we have more impact with film? Quite often they are focused only on social media, and the implications are twofold: first, that past efforts to have impact through film have not succeeded, and second, that impact means more than eyeballs – in other words, that audience size isn’t enough and that some larger change also must take place. Let us realize from the outset that the first assumption is completely false. The second assumption puts forth a proposition destined for failure, and one that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of media to culture, the civic sphere and social change. That said, as many filmmakers and media organizations rely on support from those obsessed with impact, we must address this concern now, for although grounded in many false assumptions, the premise is ultimately true.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Building a community through Remix

I've talked about these folks from Spain before and in a few of my presentations, and now Riot Cinema is up to more good shenanigans, partnering with The Auteur's Garage, for a pretty cool remix contest.

You can head over to the site, grab their content, remix it however you'd like and upload your new version of a teaser trailer for their upcoming film, The Cosmonaut. They've put up over 30 clips (including clips they've yet to use), CGI sound, voice-over files in Russian and English and just about everything else you need. There's a contest that promises to have lots of cool prizes and in case you doubt these kids are moving to Billyburg soon, they've even got a Cosmonaut branded Lomo camera as part of the mix.

These folks are doing some really cool stuff for their film. They're convinced that by opening up the entire process and letting their fans become participants, they can build an audience for their film before they've finished shooting it. They don't yet live in Brooklyn, but rather Spain, and trust me on this - not many people in the European film industry are rushing to embrace new models, so it's exciting to see them so enthusiastically trying new things. I hope it works for them, and it seems to be doing so already.

For my money, however, the coolest thing they are doing is their fundraising campaign in general. They're doing a whole crowd-funding thing with lots of great merchandise for sale. My favorite are their pencils. The website text describing them is classic, but since it's in flash or something, I can't copy it here (note to the cosmonauts, there is one tiny fix to be made), so you'll have to click through for the hilarious story of technological innovation through NASA spending that they've posted.

I have no idea whether this film will be good or not, but I can guarantee that the cosmon-auters will continue to provide the film world with some great experiments and good ideas for at leas the next several months. That at least gives them some better than average chances of success with their film. I'm a big fan already of their fundraising video, which takes a cue from both Bob Dylan, ok Pennebaker really, and Four Eyed Monsters in strategy. I'm even happier that they've now posted this short, making of video of their trailer. Another smart move. Check it:

Making of Rodaje video Premios INVI from Riot Cinema on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

MLK and Media?

Last night I joined the first NYC Transmedia Meet-up. Sounds horrible, right, WTF is that? It was actually a great little gathering of several people interested in where things are at and going next in film, media and transmedia, or cross-platform (please another word soon) projects (the book on the right is a good place to start learning about this stuff, BTW). While my mental state only allows for a brief visit to such settings before I really want to talk about something else, I had a great conversation with a small group about the difference between transmedia as marketing and as real transmedia. Lot’s to unpack in another post, but I really enjoyed some comments by Jeffrey Lee Simons, who has been doing this a lot, and you can read his thoughts on his blog. At one point he compared good transmedia as similar to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Having had a couple beers, I was ready to pounce on this nonsense, but he might be right.

Among the many great aspects of Dr. King’s legacy was the fact that he empowered his audience. He wasn’t just a preacher, just a civil-rights leader, just a political figure, just an organizer. He was all of those things and more, but he had an uncanny ability to catch the mood of a certain moment and a lot of people and give them a message that didn’t just preach to them or tell them what to do - it empowered them to feel part of a movement, to know they could control their destiny and that their actions were as important as his. You never felt talked down to, or that he was the most important man in the room - you were on a journey with him, and yes he was very important to the movement, but so were you. When he said “I have a dream” it was powerful, for among many reasons, because that dream could become yours and you could add to it and make it happen.

This is simplifying Dr. King’s legacy a bit, but I think it’s a valuable lesson for anyone thinking about transmedia, and actually for anyone making a film generally, be it narrative or (but especially) a documentary. Let’s just call all of you media artists for now. What media artists often do is try to be the master of their story world, and exercise complete control over where it takes you. They tell you a story and it can enthrall, entertain or so many other things, but while it may “suck you in” it rarely empowers you and makes you feel you are as important to the story as the media artist who authored it.  Of course there are exceptions, but this is a generally true point for much media. Jeff’s point, I think (but it’s definitely mine), was that good transmedia goes an extra step. Yes, it gives you multiple story access points and good ones can be quite interactive, but to rise to truly great it must empower the audience. It too should capture the zeitgeist and bring you in to a journey for which you are equally important to the outcome. It should empower you to take action, to join the conversation and contribute to its fruition. Not by telling you exactly what action to take, necessarily, but empowering you to make a choice that could change the (hi)story. The nature of the story, by definition, must change based on how where you, the audience, takes it. Many transmedia experiences today are simply marketing. While they are on multiple platforms, they aren’t doing much more than giving you alternate ways to get to their story and (with some exceptions) they don’t empower you to add to or change the story. I’m not arguing that no one does this, but rather that more should think about this empowerment aspect.

While this clearly applies to transmedia, it also applies to traditional filmmaking. In documentary, in particular, I find a lot of films that tell me some story. It might be compelling, it might be persuasive, attempting to change my mind or enlighten it. They might also tell me where to donate, when to cry, or how to take some action. But rarely do I feel empowered in quite this same way. While I wouldn’t argue that every film should be an exercise in empowerment, I do think it should be explored by more filmmakers, especially those hoping to have a true impact. Plus, I can’t see any harm in trying to put a little MLK in your media making!