Thursday, December 30, 2010

What I want for the New Year - AddArt for internet video

Here's a simple idea for an entrepreneur to make a few bucks and disrupt the heck out of the business - design an Add-Art that works on internet video watched through a browser (or any internet connected device) that takes over whenever there's a pre-roll that I can't skip on a video online. Except instead of static art, which would get boring during all those pre-roll ads and trailers, pull in pre-curated artistic videos from Vimeo or YouTube (or Mubi, or....). I'm sure a widget could be made that could do this without the content distributors and/or device makers knowing about it, and it would save me from watching a bunch of crap I don't want to see. Or hearing it, if you made it work with Pandora. It would be a great bonus if the program also added witty one-liners, perhaps from Mark Twain, in place of those annoying text ads that can still be found running at the bottom of certain videos.

Please someone, make this, please.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

11 Things on My Mind for Twenty11

Thinking... please waitphoto © 2009 Karola Riegler | more info (via: Wylio)
It’s that time of year when everyone makes their top ten lists, and I’ve done it before and am adding my 11 cents here now. I could just paste in last year’s list below, as all of them are still relevant, but that’s too easy...except for number 1, policy. Unfortunately, this one is much the same as last year, so to make up for this repeat, I’m giving eleven thoughts here. Most of these aren’t predictions, but are instead just a few things I’m thinking about as we head into the New Year.
  1. Will the film industry start to take policy seriously? I doubt it. Policy turns people off, but if we don’t pay more attention and get active in these debates, the possible future for indie film might get turned off. It’s hard to imagine a world where the internet no longer works like it does now, but take one look at this graphic of what the industry wants and you quickly get a sense of what could become of the internet. This will be the year that this story gets framed to the public in a big way. The Right is already trying to paint the FCC’s recent ruling as “regulating” the internet. Filmmakers are story tellers. We need better stories about why this issue is important. There’s quite a role here for creatives, and I hope a few of them take this issue head-on in 2011.
  2. Will Apple become a rights-broker? When talk turns to Apple these days, it’s usually about the Ipad, and when it might come to Verizon. What interests me more is this excellent interview with Michael Whalen about their purchase of a huge cloud computing facility down in NC, and what it might mean for the future. It’s becoming increasingly clear that ownership of content isn’t as important as controlling the experience around content. Apple is already doing well with consumers accessing content. They could also handle rights licensing pretty well - imagine if any artist could post their content (film, music, writing) and set terms and publishers and others licensed that content through a system built by Apple - in the cloud. As Whalen says in the article about their possible plans "What if iTunes or whatever AAPL calls their new streaming service is broken into TWO parts - the actual delivery and streaming of the programs, etc. and on the other side - - the administration of the copyrights in the digital realm including collecting fees and licenses from OTHER PLATFORMS." While this isn’t talked about much, it’s an interesting theory and worthy of some speculation.
  3. Which indies will embrace the prequel? I’ve been speaking for a long time about how filmmakers can use short video as a way to build interest in their films before the film is released. Karol Martesko-Fenster has put a name on it with the idea of the prequel, and you can see a great example of how it can work for a documentary film with Bengali Detective which is premiering at Sundance. Lots of room here for other formats - building up certain characters or plot points in a narrative film, for example, and a great way to build audience.
  4. Which indie transmedia experiments will succeed? A lot of indies are starting to experiment with developing their story across multiple entry points. Lance Weiler has a transmedia project premiering at Sundance and another in the works (or maybe several). Liz Rosenthal and Tishna Molla are pushing the field forward by holding excellent conferences and labs with Power to the Pixel, and rumor has it some other big entities are getting into this soon. Wendy Levy at BAVC is helping filmmakers learn more about it as well through the BAVC Labs. I don’t think 2011 will be a big year for transmedia - it will probably start gaining more momentum in both indie and Hollywood circles (and elsewhere), but it will probably be 2012 at earliest before the “big embrace,” but maybe I’m wrong.
  5. Who will figure out mobile, social, check-in, rewards and indie film? There’s a few companies operating in this space, but no one has put it together well yet. This will be a gold mine (or three) someday and I can’t wait to see what launches and develops in 2011.
  6. Will YouTube figure out what it’s doing? If any company could use a strategy, this is the one. I could give them a million ways to do what they’re doing better. I’m sure you could too. They obviously have the whole mass adoption thing down, but when it comes to working with long form film and changing the distribution paradigm, they need some work. They ran some half-assed experiments in releasing films last year, and have been making some interesting moves lately, but this is probably the year when they need to put up or ....
  7. Will film festivals figure out social? Yes, they are all on Twitter. Marketing themselves constantly. Oh, wait, sorry, just constantly as the festival approaches or to hit me up to support some fundraising campaign they’re doing. Film festivals, through their curation, are better positioned than almost anyone to build a better relationship with audiences and help change the indie film paradigm. But only if they take social media seriously and start using it to help me (as an audience member) discover films year-round, and not just the ones they programmed. There’s value in the opinions and curations of your programmers. Lots of value, but only if you get smart about social (hint: see 5).
  8. Which trades will die? The last couple of year’s have brought us a whole host of new trades - almost completely online - and some new business model experiments. The problem is, we’re not getting any better information. In fact, if you put a bunch of random people who use the Net in a room and asked them to list the top 100 worst ideas for a film trade journal, you’d find all of them represented somewhere in the mix of Variety, HR, The Wrap, Deadline Hollywood, MCN, etc. (I am missing many here, I know). I imagine Variety will survive, if only because enough of Hollywood will pay for it behind their pay-wall, but it’s long been irrelevant. I actually think the HR strategy to become more consumer focused could have worked, but as it is being executed it’s like they are aiming for Delta Sky Magazine level work. That said, they have some new advertisers that might keep them afloat. IndieWire is in good hands now with Dana Harris (Eugene, who did an amazing job, recently left), and she, and the good crew there, might turn this into something even more interesting. At least one of the others will die - that’s one prediction for this year. I was speaking with a media investor the other day, and we both agreed - this space is ripe for some disruption, and I hope someone launches something new (or redirects course), because man, we need something better.
  9. Could someone start a fund for creative storytelling? Yes, I know there’s things like Creative Capital, but what I want is an IMPACT Partners for narrative films with no redeeming social value. Okay, just kidding, I know that all films have social value, and I actually believe that narrative storytelling is a better way to have impact on social issues than through docs, but you get my point. We need funding for narrative filmmakers with good ideas.
  10. Who will be the new filmmakers who break through and reach an audience? Who will tell the best stories? While most of this post is about business stuff, what I really like is discovering a new voice, or seeing an established artist go in a new direction, or just stay in a tried and true direction with a great new story. Many of these films won’t make it to a large audience, so I’m also interested to see which ones can break through enough to enter the cultural conversation. From what I’ve heard about many films in development or even premiering this January, we might have a great year ahead of us.
  11. Who will launch the next big thing? There’s a lot of people at work behind the scenes trying to build new film companies, transmedia companies, tech companies in this sector and similar new endeavors. I feel like I meet with someone about to launch the next big thing almost every day. Here’s to hoping that 2011 is a successful year for all of them!
note: I corrected the title of Bengali Detective (I had it wrong, as Bombay Detective....oops) and fixed the links.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How not to crowd-fund

There's a lot of buzz out there about crowd-funding, and I'm a big fan of the practice. I think there's a lot of hype, and not everyone can raise funding for their project this way, but it's also more than just the funds received - it's just as much about your connection to your fans. When I've donated to a project, it's about more than the money. I feel a direct connection to the artist and know I am supporting their work. This is also true if I support a micro-lending program for an individual in need, a charity doing good work, etc. It feels good to know that while you may only be giving 10 bucks, you are giving it directly to someone who needs it (for survival or for art) and helping them accomplish something.

I often support such projects through Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a for-profit company. They take a small fee for their service - five percent, plus a small credit card processing fee added on by Amazon's payment service. This is pretty transparent, and it also seems fair and reasonable. I know Kickstarter gets a cut, but it is small and not dissimilar from what most nonprofits charge when they fiscally sponsor an artist, which can run as high as ten percent but is generally 5%. Take IFP for example. If you are fiscally sponsored by them, people can donate to you on and IFP takes a sliding scale fee - anywhere from 3% to 6%.  Kickstarter works pretty well too, so I am fine with them charging for their service, even though they aren't a nonprofit. IndieGoGo is a similar site, and it charges 4% (which raises to 9% if you don't fund your project in its entirety), plus a 3% third party transaction fee.

That's why I am more than a bit perplexed that United States Artists (USA) is charging a 19% fee to those who donate to artists through their site. Wow. Really? Yes, really. That's 1% higher than what was reported in the NYT today, but it's what is quoted in their terms of use. There is no reason that any artist should participate in this scheme.

Now I have to give a little disclaimer before I continue. I have never been a fan of this organization. It's a long story, but when it launched I was one of a group of arts organizations that protested that instead of starting a new nonprofit to distribute grants to artists, the Ford Foundation (who started this) should have given grants to those organizations that were already supporting artists. Like the one I was running at the time (yes, some self-preservation was involved), but also like many other arts organizations. While I still believe this would have been a better path, I finally decided that even if the way it was being done was wrong, I would support the organization because artists were getting more money.  I've recommended artists to them for support (it is a nomination process, not an open call) and I've been thrilled for those artists who receive their grants.

In fact, I recently read (in the Times again) that USA was launching a crowd-funding initiative, and I was very happy for them and the artists. Many artists reported that new donors were finding them, and they were getting more support for their projects. Some, while skeptical at first, were happy to report that donations had exceeded their requests. I planned to write up a blog post this week to highlight this great new initiative, as well as a proposal from Ian David Ross and Daniel Reed for a new way of crowd-funding philanthropy in the 20 Under 40 book that I've been plugging here. That post will have to come next, because I've now learned about the bad part of this initiative.

Look, as I said above, I have no problem with nonprofits taking a cut on donations to individual projects. This is fair. I would even support them adding a check box where I could add an extra gift to the nonprofit. Something like "help us support more artists like this, add an extra gift here." That approach was also mentioned in the Times story. I would even go so far as supporting a nonprofit that just asked for a donation to help support all of their work in support of artists and not single out an individual project (old fashioned donation style). I understand that USA has helped "curate" these artists, and for some people (not me) that might be a symbol of quality. I also see that some of them get matching funds from a donor, that's great, but it isn't worth taking 19% of my donation to the artist. Perhaps you should get matching funds for your organization so you don't have to take it from me!

The NYT story suggests that making a donation to these artists would otherwise be difficult. I'm sorry, but that's just not true. Any of them could sign up with Kickstarter, Indiegogo or any other service and accomplish the same thing. Sure, a nonprofit might be helping an artist get their stuff up online, and many artists aren't good at such tasks, so I can even support a small mark-up, but 19% is insane!

Not to mention....hidden. If the NYT hadn't reported that amount (they said 18%) most people wouldn't know. When you click to support an artist on the USA website, it mentions that you should look at the terms of service, but unless you do so (and they know 99% of people don't do so), you aren't told anywhere else about the 19% fee. There's another golden find in their TOS statement too:

You understand that your contribution is being made to United States Artists, that United States Artists has exclusive legal control over all donations and that United States Artists is under no obligation to use your donation to fund any Projects recommended by you for funding.


While United States Artists intends to take into account donor recommendations with regard to funding recommended Projects, United States Artists shall have exclusive control of your donation and is not obligated to use your donation to fund any particular Project.

Translation - we don't have to give your funds to who you select. We don't have to follow your intent. What, did the City of Philadelphia write this up? Okay, I am sure they will likely give my donation to the artist, and are likely saying this in case the artist breaks their contract, but in my view, that should mean I get a refund not that they keep the dough. (I have a few other problems with their terms (especially as it relates to privacy), but that's the norm these days with website, so I'll stick to this one quibble.)

This goes against the entire spirit of crowdfunding. It goes against the entire nature of what it means for artists to build a direct relationship with their donors. I have no idea if the artist gets my contact info, as perhaps I'd like to fund them again, directly, in the future. I'll likely get hit up by USA again if I make this donation, as they surely keep my email address. I also can't be sure that the artist will definitely get my donation either. But, I can be sure - if I read the NYT, this blog or the TOS - that my donation gets cut 19% if I make it through USA. Really. This is what's astounding - more of my money supports the artist if I make my donation through a for profit company than a nonprofit. Something is wrong here folks.

We need a better system for supporting artists. USA was supposed to be part of that answer. I'd be much more likely to support both them and the artists they have funded if more of my donation went to the artists directly. I'd support their system if the 14% mark-up over most fiscal sponsorship charges was plainly shown, or better yet, if it was optional. Heck, I might even donate more, if it was a choice. I don't like slamming any nonprofit for trying to raise money for artists, but this isn't the way it should be done. Unless something changes, I can't support this program and recommend that you don't either.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Panel proposal for Sundance - Brands and Indies

This coming year's Sundance Film Festival will feature numerous panels in addition to the usual mix of films, new media and limos stuck trying to turn corners in the narrow streets of Park City. They usually announce the panels early in January, and tend to focus on things like creativity and distribution, but sometimes branch into other arenas of interest to the field. Here's one I'd like to see:

Indies, Levi's and Wal-Mart:
Indie filmmakers have always been desperate for cash, and increasingly there's talk of a new wallet in town - funding, partnerships and marketing support from brands. Shane Meadow's funded his entire feature film Somers Town through a partnership with Eurostar, and even little indies like Hunter Weeks have used branding partnerships to get their films made and seen. Branded entertainment is a buzz word, with some people suggesting it offers the perfect compliment - consumers/audiences getting content how they want it (free), filmmakers making a living and companies extending their brand. Even documentary filmmakers are now engaging with brands - with the Good Pitch leading the way. This could be great for everyone involved, but does it go against the "indie spirit" to which we're accustomed? What are the ethical issues to be debated? What are the best practices? How do I get in front of marketers? How do I protest this if I hate it? And is anyone actually getting their film made and seen this way? Come join a marketing executive from our major sponsor, Morgan Spurlock (whose film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is in the fest), Jess Search of the Good Pitch and a rep from AdBusters in debate about this emerging trend.

I'd go to that panel. I'd moderate it. I'd be interested in the debate. I am not against this practice either - as I've said elsewhere, I just think that as this trend continues, it would be good to have a discussion about it publicly - at one of the biggest film fests in the world (and one nearly synonymous with branding in the indie world). A quick aside though - actually, I hate panels. I'd prefer to see this as a debate between two people with a moderator, but you get the point.

Edit note - I added Morgan Spurlock's name after Sheri Candler reminded me that his film was in the fest, before I just said an indie filmmaker.
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Monday, December 06, 2010

A new role for the film trades?

Earlier today, I was reading my Twitter feed and noticed that Sundance had announced their short film selections. I had an interest in this news, because several of my clients and friends were awaiting announcements (ok, those accepted already knew from the programmers) so I clicked through and read the press release. All the news I needed to know was there on the Sundance site for me - info on the films, the directors, how many had submitted, etc.

Within 30 seconds, I received tweets from all the film trades that I follow, as well as from nearly every film blogger on the planet that yes, indeed, Sundance had announced their selections. None of them seemed to add any news to the, uhm, news. If we can even call it news, rather than PR - there's an old saying that news is what someone doesn't want published, the rest is just PR, but that's another post.

This makes me wonder a few things. Since Sundance, and any other film festival, film organization, film company, etc. can reach me directly now, is there any need for the film trades to report this news? Especially if they aren't adding much in the way of analysis? I can actually see the argument for the regular press to publish it - readers of the NYT may not follow Sundance, but surely, anyone in the film business who needs to know about Sundance can hear it from their Tweets and doesn't need Indiewire (or Variety, or...) to relay that info anymore.

Does this news merit being the headline of your daily email news? Probably not anymore. Should it possibly be moved down to an "as noted" column at best? Probably so.

Does this give you, as a reporter and you, as an editor, more free time to devote to other stuff? Yes! There's a lot of news out there not getting reported by any of the trades. All kinds of info it would be good to know. Some real reporting could be done. Some digging, and even some making people angry for being a ....journalist. You know, the kind that digs for hidden stories, now apparently only done by Wikileaks. Come to think of it, since all of the trades seem locked in a battle to become less relevant by the minute, perhaps we just need to start a wikileaks for the film business. That would be news.

Now, I know many of the people at the trades, and most of them are good people. I am not attacking any particular trade here, or any reporter, nor am I arguing that all of what they do should be muckraking. But if you take a look at pretty much every trade on any given day, you quickly notice a lot of PR and not much news. We could use a balance between the two. Just a thought.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

So now you're in.....

So, you were accepted into Sundance. Congratulations! Now what?

Here's some Sundance advice that you won't hear much from others. It applies to those who will get into Slamdance in a few days as well. This is not for the established filmmaker with a lot of experience, but for those new to the scene: 1) don't rush things, and 2) look out for yourself.

If you aren't one of the films that comes to Sundance with a professional team behind you already - ace producer, top attorney, producers rep, agent, publicist, etc. - then you've probably just started getting emails and calls from all of the above. You've probably heard something about how happy they are for you, how they've been following your trajectory for years and now they want to help you find success in the marketplace of Sundance.

It is flattering. It will make you feel great.

It will also make you forget any business sense you ever had before and make you more vulnerable to exploitation than ever before.

Odds are good that their interns are robo-calling everyone else accepted as well, telling them all pretty much the same feel-good story. So, beware. There are great producer's reps, publicists, agents, consultants...insert job title here....out there. You may end up hiring some of them. Your primary concern, however, should be you, your career, your film and getting your film in front of its audience. Now is the time to slow down a bit and analyze your situation.

Whatever you do, don't sign up with whoever calls you first. Talk to them. Have them tell you about other films they worked with. Ask them how they work. How many films will they be representing? What will their strategy be for your film? Can they send you references from other filmmakers? How do they handle expenses? Do they fly first class or coach (if they bill expenses to you)? There's more questions to ask, but the point is - you are the hot property here, not them. Don't let them make you feel lucky to be speaking to them - they should be lucky to help your film. Some will walk away, huffing that you are too much trouble for them - good riddance.

They likely haven't seen your film, so make sure they see it and then ask them what they thought about it. Listen to their voice. Did they love it? Or do they just see it as something to sell, represent, publicize? Sure, a good, talented person can sell/pitch/market anything, but even these will work harder for you when they love your film. (A quick side note - Generally speaking, you don't want to show your film to distributors at this point, but that's another post). Very few filmmakers ask this. It is uncomfortable. Ask them what their favorite aspect was and listen to their voice (or if you meet in person, look directly in their eyes). Working with someone who loves your film will be much easier than someone who just sees it as business.

Take a read of your gut. Consult with other filmmakers and friends (for free) and also shop around - there are many people to work with, and even those people who everyone tells you is the best ____ in the business has some competitors who are less well known and who are equally talented. Who you pick to work with you is one of the more important decisions you will make. It is tempting to say yes, scream for joy that so and so hot stuff wants to work on your film, here comes success! But don't. That success likely won't come, but it surely won't come if you don't strategize your next steps as much as you planned all the ones leading up to now.

You did plan all of this, right? No? Here's some quick advice - 

1. Define your goals. Think about your goals for the film. There can be many, but you need to decide what is important to you. You need to think about what will be the best strategy for your film. As a filmmaker you have more options than ever before, and as Jon Reiss argues today, you don't need to think about the old paradigm(s) for success in today's marketplace. There is not one single answer here, so my hope would be you've already thought about this, but you likely haven't. So, you need to....

2. Read. A lot. Quickly. Sure, you can pay someone to help you build a plan, but you can also learn most of what you need to know by reading free stuff online. I could mention lots of resources, but here's just three: Look at the sidebar of Ted Hope's blog. He links to numerous online, free resources. Read a few of them quickly. Second, buy and quickly skim read Jon Reiss' Think Outside the Box Office. Even if you don't decide to follow his lead in the DIY mode, he mentions just about everything you need to know. Pull an all-nighter with this one. Can't pull an all-nighter? Here's a quicker read: Eugene Hernandez's two year old but still largely accurate advice about festivals, whether you got into Sundance or not.

3. Talk. Speak with other filmmakers who have been there before. Get their advice.

4. Build your Plan A. Whatever you end up doing, it's better to have options. Determine what you are capable of doing on your own. What can you do on your own - given your resources in time and money? Plot out what that would look like. You now have a Plan A. Pick any potential team mates (publicist, etc) based on this plan, but go in with an open mind. If you do get an offer, it is Plan B. If Plan B is better than your Plan A, then you might take it. You also now have something to negotiate against - if they aren't going to do something you can do on your own....carve out those rights. You can only do this, however, if you actually have a plan.

5. Take a deep breath. Consider all of those phone calls seriously, and then ....

6. Make an informed decision. Trust me, whatever happens to your film from here on out, you'll feel much better about it if you've taken the time to make the best possible decision for you and your film.

Now that you've eaten your vegetables, feel free to resume your celebration!

Video of my NYFA Lecture

I recently spoke at the New York Foundation for the Arts or NYFA, a great artist support organization in New York City. They've posted the video of my presentation:

Reinventing the Arts Through Technology from NYFA on Vimeo.

You can also check out and download the slides from Slideshare