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DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.

Tuesday
Oct072014

Déjà vu all over again

It was déjà vu all over again, the feeling I had leaving last week’s “Business of Entertainment” panel at CAA headquarters. Welcome to a media business that seems to be looking a lot like the way cable TV emerged in the 80s as our dominant business model. (Video of the session is here.)

Forget all that talk of “disruption” and “revolution” and just take for granted that we’re living in a world where digital natives rule, watching their content as digital files or streams on mobile devices. 

The event, organized by Tribeca Enterprises and Bloomberg, featured four top exex from leading digital video companies – Disney's Kevin Mayer (re: Maker Studios), Machinima CEO Chad Gutstein , Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor, Funny or Die CEO Dick Glover, ably moderated by Bloomberg’s Katherine Oliver

To state the obvious, these folk all assume that the entertainment biz is all about digital video, and that we’re in an era defined by YouTube. Theirs is a vast ocean within which all fish swim. This panel was about the cross-currents in that ocean, e.g., trends such as: 

  • Diversification of syndication networks for talent, built atop of YouTube (MCNs like Maker and Machinima);
  • Standalone content sites with new strategies for their original content (Funny or Die); 
  • Premium VOD services built atop YouTube competitors (Vimeo); 
  • New forms of longform TV distribution that starts as digital (Machinima). 

Today we have a giant video ecosystem with multiple windows: just more of them, and in ever-shifting order, depending upon the type of talent and the property, as well as variables like length, target audience and budget. 

These are simply facts of life as these savvy operators, all of them with career experience at “old media" firms, are placing bets on how this new order will deliver audiences and profits. It’s a world which proclaims that content is king, but truthfully, what I heard was that the container for that content (distribution) is king. Or the business model that enables somebody to make a buck, that always trumps content.

Which is why I was flashbacking, back to the origins of today’s incumbent media empires, namely cable TV, which married a robust distribution system with a new paradigm for content networks, much of it from startup firms (ESPN, MTV, CNN, HBO). Their growth led to acquisitions followed by tremendous investment by “old” media (networks, publishers), and market rationalization that enabled lots of money to be made. 

And so today we see many of these business patterns emerging among and between the start-ups and the incumbents as everyone is sprinting for the prize in a significantly changed world featuring tens of thousands of creators available worldwide to audiences at the press of a button. 

Some tidbits from the panel:

  • “YouTube is about audiences connecting with talent who create & recommend content... but you start with compelling content," said Disney’s Kevin Mayer.
  • If  YouTube is online equivalent of broadcast TV, Vimeo is "the internet manifestation of .... premium cable," said Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor, who is busy poaching YouTube talent for Vimeo’s new VOD service. 
  • “Seven years ago, everyone needed to be on YouTube. Now everyone on YouTube is looking to build businesses off it, " said Glover.
  • "There are tens of millions of people tuning in to watch other people play video games," according to Machinima's Gutstein, calling it the new appointment viewing (a la Twitch). 
  • “Internet is going nuclear with young audiences, but it is not to detriment of television. The best long form ever is being created on TV,” says Glover.
  • "Content is king, whether snack size to Twitch to thirteeen-hour binge," said Mayer.
Friday
Sep122014

Hope from Ted: The visionary memoir/manifesto from Ted Hope 

Ted Hope sure has the right last name. His has been an always hopeful vision for how the indie film and video movement can remain viable in the face of wave upon wave of massive change – in technology, business models, audience behavior, and social change.

And so his new book, Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions, enshrines the autologically clever title that has graced his very informative blog for many years.

Hope’s activism is unique, bubbling from within a career of more than 70 independent features over the past three decades (which he has described as an addiction.)

It’s pretty hard to be a lover of indie cinema without encountering a Ted Hope film, including films from such directors as Ang Lee, Todd Field, Ed Burns, Nicole Holofcener, Bart Freundlich, John Waters, Mike Mills, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tamara Jenkins, Michel Gondrey, Hal Hartley,Todd Solondz, Sean Durkin, Greg Mottola, Alan Ball among others, whose stories comprise much of this fascinating memoir. These are wonderful stories, and a primer on what an indie producer actually does. Which is a lot!

“We dreamed of art fueled by a love of cinema,” he writes, noting that at the beginning it seemed that this “would be enough to sustain ourselves, both financially and creatively.”

It worked for a while, as the indie film exploded creatively, and Sundance became a household word.  “All of us in the industry were in for a big surprise,” writes Hope. “Entertainment industries across the board were about to face their most disruptive era, and few of us were truly prepared for it.”

Disruption caused by new technologies (in production, editing, distribution, marketing). And, disruption caused by greed, as “independent filmmaking became the business of profit margins rather than the underserved audience.”

Hope jumped on the opportunities presented by digital, hoping that they would help counter what he saw as an increasingly “outdated and unsustainable model.”

“Without a business model fitted for the times we are living in,” he writes, “budgets will continue to shrink, which has a profound effect on the types of stories that are told, and how they’re being realized.” Not to mention the impact on the financial viability of films, filmmakers and those whose investments get them made.

Increasingly, Hope became convinced that the whole ecosystem of indie film needed “a complete systems reboot.” He began speaking and writing and making lists of how to improve the indie business – very specific, very practical, and very necessary --posts with less-than-hopeful titles like: “ 38 More Ways The Film Industry Is Failing Today” and “The Really Bad Things In The Indie Film Biz 2012.” Hope talked about the crisis, and the need for collective action.

As I read these pages, it was hard to miss his increasing disappointment that so few of his fellows, not to mention certain organizations, haven't embraced this path of collective action. 

“At a certain point, living an independent life, you start to recognize how fragile the whole enterprise is. You can’t afford to ignore the big picture. And you can’t do it alone,” writes Hope, as he shifts gears in the final chapters to share the story of how he left New York and hands-on production to focus on that “reboot,” first in an ill-fated stint at the San Francisco Film Society, and now as CEO of Fandor, an indie-focused streaming video-on-demand service, where he’s busy trying to tackle some of the “141 Problems and Opportunities for the Independent Film World,” which is included in this book as an appendix. 

“I hope that by earning a living in a new way, I can start to focus on my dreams more,” writes Hope, and cites uber-producer Saul Zaentz as an man he would emulate.

Myself, I was put in mind of another great film executive/producer, David Picker, whose 2013 book “Musts, Maybes, and Nevers” told the story of United Artists, which, as Picker wrote, “put a wedge in the studio control of content in the mid-twentieth century” to build a home for independent talent until it too “succumbed to the financial support provided by institutions that didn’t comprehend the nature of the businesses they acquired. As delivery methods expanded, soon the very nature of the film business changed.” (My review)

The UA era paved the way for the “new” indie movement -- the classic Sundance era and Ted Hope -- which is now giving way to, well to something different. No question that whatever it is, Ted Hope will be passionate, just as he was in the pages of this important memoir/manifesto.

Thursday
May082014

How digital is helping the world’s largest genre publisher to engage fans

By her own telling, Alison Norrington’s transmedia career really took off when she  figured out how to deconstruct her “chicklit” stories beyond the written page onto blogs, social networks and other digital platforms. Her romance novel fans exploded with excitement and engagement. So did Alison’s career.

Before long she was chair of the influential, if short-lived transmedia summit called Story World, where she harnessed an enviable supply of energy and creativity to showcase nearly every soul in the transmedia field.

So it was no surprise when she was hired by Harlequin, the world’s most successful publisher of romantic fiction, to help them create The Chatsfield, which just launched on May 6th at http://www.thechatsfield.com.

This is a ground-breaking digital series that uses multiple video, digital, social and mobile channels and formats alongside traditional publishing to deliver a unique experience for Harlequin’s gazillion fans.

I urge you to explore the site, create an account, and consume the story as it unfolds all over the web in the next three months – and not only because I’ve been deeply involved in this project on behalf of my client Theatrics.com. Don’t take my word for it: check out some of the press coverage here (WIRED), here (The Telegraph), here (The Guardian) and here (USA Today), not to mention the blogs and trade coverage. It's big news.

Even though my own taste in genre fiction runs more towards hard-boiled detectives and spies, I think we all have a lot to learn from this high-wire experiment in story formatting and fan engagement. If it succeeds, we’re likely to see more deployments with other story worlds, especially now that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation has announced plans to acquire Harlequin. 

The Chatsfield is a story set within the world of a luxury London hotel. “Harlequin has created a luxury hotel, an executive assistant with a bet to fulfill, a gorgeous barman with a dark past, a chambermaid with a side line that brings her huge amounts of cash, a permanent resident in the penthouse who throws the wildest parties to avoid thinking about a sad event from the past. The characters tell their stories side by side, stitching together the bigger picture like a movie but you, as the user, find all the pieces.”

My involvement with The Chatsfield began a year ago, when I began to spend time with Ms. Norrington on her frequent trips to Los Angeles to spitball ideas about various puzzle pieces might be deployed for this transmedia universe, and how they should connect with each other and with fans.

By winter, I had met Harlequin executives Tim Cooper and Jo Kite, and began to formulate different ways the Theatrics platform could help. The key was user-engagement.

In its earliest format designs, most of The Chatsfield pre-written and pre-produced content was to be found and consumed on sites around the web -- YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, SMS, and even phone calls. It would be managed via Robert Pratten’s Conducttr product, a sort of command-and-control system for storing, releasing and tracking content and user data across all the different digital venues.

That also meant that user interaction like comments and sharing would occur on sites other than the story world’s central hub, a beautiful faux hotel web site at www.thechatsfield.com designed by boutique agency BTL Brands.

With the addition of a customized version of the Theatrics platform, the site now has a dedicated location (“The Lounge”) where fans (“Chatsfield guests”) can gossip about characters and their stories as they unfold, and along they way perhaps create their own sub-plots and red herrings. They can post video, images and text, follow and respond to each other, and give a “cheer” to the posts they like – all of which earn points in an integrated gamefication scheme.

To achieve his, Theatrics executed a complete integration with the Conducttr user-management system, including single sign-on, global integration of points and badges, and seamless navigation and user experience.

A tip of the hat to the entire team, especially engineers Alexey Ossikine in Boston and Arif Sayyad in Houston (and his team in India), without whom the project would not have launched.

This project represents a new direction for the Theatrics platform – an application we have dubbed ENGAGE. The traditional Theatrics storytelling format, in which fans create their own fictional characters, is being redesigned as Theatrics STORY. And there is more to come.

We look forward to seeing how The Chatsfield experience unfolds, and some other applications of our platform beyond the storytelling paradigm with which we started.

Wednesday
Apr302014

A New Way to See: Shawn Hardin on Glass & Rift

Shawn Hardin is the cofounder and CEO of Mind Pirate, a tech startup delivering an application and cloud platform for the development and distribution of wearable computing apps, called Callisto. The company is focused on making it as easy as possible for OEMs and developers to deploy great apps across, and take full advantage of, a range of wearable devices. You can follow Hardin on Twitter @shawnhardin. I serve on Mind Pirate's Board of Advisors. This post appeared in today's Venture Beat

 As a technology executive since the early ’90s, I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat to the digital revolution. I’ve observed the meteoric rise of the Internet, broadband, social media, and mobile and watched their consumer adoption soar from 9 percent to 90 percent. Today, we’re on the cusp of a similar inflection point for wearable technology and augmented reality.

We all love smartphones. But it’s not realistic to assume the phones we now carry around in our pockets represent the final form factor for mobile.

In fact, the phone is about to explode. It will evolve into many different pieces, with wearable devices for many different parts of the body, including your wrist, ears and eyes. A couple years ago, an episode ofFuturama joked that the “eyePhone” would replace the iPhone. As we know now, that transition is already underway, as devices such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift demonstrate.

Yes, the devices are different. But they’re also quite closely related. And if you view Glass and Rift as steps along the same continuum, you start to see a very clear picture of the wearable-computing future.

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Apr302014

The Story Cube

Anna Marie Piersimoni has begun teaching undergraduates at the California State University, Northridge, in their film/media program. She asked me to give a talk last week, and I've posted the presentation, which I dubbed "The Story Cube" -- an homage to another mutual colleague from our days at the American Film Institute, namely Suzanne Stefanac, who introduced me to the concept of "story cubed" as a way to encapsulate the multidimensional way we have come to understand stories in the digital era.