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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.

Monday
Sep242018

CAN THE BLOCKCHAIN DISRUPT ENTERTAINMENT AND MEDIA

 Blockchain is a technology invented to serve as a transparent public transaction ledger for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Its design has inspired the creation of hundreds of other distributed applications (dApps), often backed by their own Bitcoin alternative currencies via Initial Coin Offerings or ICOs. In 2015 the value of ICOs was in the $5-10 million range, growing to around $5 billion in 2017. This year to date it’s around $10 billion. The global market for blockchain is projected to reach $60 billion by 2024.

Beyond this new way of raising capital, many entertainment and media entrepreneurs see the blockchain as a way to disrupt a broken media ecosystem deformed by immense centralized power, secretive dealmaking, complicated and unfair rights and payment systems, and poorly structured incentives for both artists and consumers.

I spoke to the founders of some of these businesses to understand why blockchain may enable better business models than other startups in the entertainment sector.

Documenting the Creative Process

Sendergram​ provides a blockchain-enabled file sharing, review, delivery, transaction and payments platform for digital media such as fine art, photography, and video. I spoke with cofounder Andy Rosen, who started his career as a rock photographer covering the punk music scene in London before moving to LA to build companies that produced music videos, web design, and then database software.

“There are two sides in our business,” said Rosen. “Pick your side – screwing the artist or not screwing the artist. I always want to protect the artist. So two years ago we set out to build a ledger for the creative process from the artist’s point of view. The creative business is quite abstract, things get lost in translation, are often subjective.”

Sendergram offers a blockchain registry for creative work, a function which is offered by other startups; but then, it tracks every contact, email, discussion, contract, update, and payment with its own communications system that records it all on the blockchain. Sendergram also aggregates a user’s media files whether they are housed in various cloud storage systems or even on their own hard drives, allowing users to easily find and safely share files. Sendergram can be seen as a cross between email, Slack channels and file sharing --- all tracked and secured by the blockchain.

Rosen is especially interested in the growing class of creator/prosumers, as well as distributed creative teams, agencies, and corporations with multiple vendors contributing to projects. Right now single accounts for the Sendergram beta are free, with business subscriptions paying a fee based on number of users on the account. The company is preparing for a funding round.

The Business of Film

Gjain seeks to use the blockchain’s distributed ledger to bring greater transparency to the financing, contracts and payment systems required for media content. Gjain will offer a suite of business services built on smart (self-executing) contracts from inception to distribution, investment to profit disbursement or tax write offs.

Co-founder Vlad Lodzinski hopes to position the company between the different players within the film finance and ownership value chain with a reengineered model that eliminates the secrecy and contractual opacity that characterizes many film finance deals.  

Gjain won’t replace legacy players, just make the process more efficient, cheaper, and fairer. He sees Gjain as part of an emerging global digital economy that will be powered by new technologies like blockchain and which will transform the way business is conducted. As he sees it, blockchain and artificial intelligence will help reduce risk for investors and improve financial returns for creators.

Gjain’s client base includes filmmakers (individuals and studios), investors (institutional, high net worth individuals, retail) and service providers (finance, distributors, legal, auditing). Lodzinski and his team of six based in London, New York, LA and Poland plan to launch in summer 2019, though tests are already in development with key partners. There will very likely be versions for different territories like Europe and North America to reflect different regulatory and finance factors. Gjain financial backing is targeted at traditional sources like private equity, and not a cryptocurrency.

Democratizing the Digital Studio

Crowded Cloud is an ambitious reinvention of the content production studio that uses the blockchain’s decentralized governance model to attract working professionals who want to have a say in new projects, as well to share in profits they help create with their creative contributions.

Lead by a former aerospace engineer and digital media services executive Javier Benavente, Crowded Cloud’s studio model reflects the distributed and global character of the media workforce. But unlike legacy legal and production models, in which all decision-making is held by a centralized corporate entity, Crowded Cloud embeds democratic decision-making into every phase of production.

Benavente will seek to raise $100 million in conventional funding by year’s end, with as many as ten shows going into production next year. Most of the cash raised will convert to Crowded Cloud’s own HAVI token and held in a Project Development Pool that can be applied to projects voted upon by token holders.  As with other tokenized systems, its market value increases as its use cases generate successful projects. Benevente plans to focus initially on catalog content that is ripe for conversion for multiplatform distribution, especially AR and VR.

His passion for building a democratic studio stemmed from Benavente’s own history in Hollywood, where he came to blows with a major studio over control of software his company developed for use in a motion picture.

A Studio in the Cloud

To execute on the distributed content production model, Crowded Cloud is partnering with MetaPipe, an existing virtualized visual effects and animation studio infrastructure.  I met CEO Aaron Estrada two years ago as the company was completing ABQid, an Albuquerque NM-based seed accelerator.

Estrada and his team will be customizing MetaPipe’s production pipeline to Crowded Cloud’s project needs. Eventually, he sees a future in which every frame can be registered on the blockchain and can be integrated into conventional production management tools to form the backbone of vendor payments, change order reconciliation and other business sticking points between different participants in the workflow. Blockchain technologies could enable a new kind of multi-company software for ERP (enterprise resource planning).

Tracking of every change in massive, petabype-scale production files on the blockchain may be a ways off, if only because blockchain platforms like Ethereum, upon which many distributed applications (dApps) are built simply cannot handle the volume. Which is why Estrada and his team are looking at newer blockchain platforms like EOS that claim greater speed, scalability, and flexibility.

Video Explosions on 5G Networks

I met Yves Daost at the TV of Tomorrow Show last June where he was touting IVEP, an Interactive Video and Experience Protocol designed to support AR and VR experiences. Turns out that IVEP is a proof of concept for a much larger vision from Montreal-based 8xLabs has developed to securely manage the distribution of video over new 5G mobile networks, which will begin to become available in some markets as soon as early next year.

The Internet is already straining as consumers continue to move away from conventional cable and satellite vendors to digital services like Netflix that use the Internet. New 5G networks support greater bandwidth needed for video and with computing intelligence across these networks, they can support peer-to-peer and edge distribution architectures so long as security can be assured. Blockchain tracking and verification will provide authentication and trust between and among every computer and server and piece of equipment processing video files from origination to end user and back again.

If a verification layer is proven to work, not only will distribution speeds and network efficiencies increase, entirely new capabilities such as user interactivity, real-time ecommerce, and verified advertising (no bots, no fake news) can be created on top of the verification layer.

8xLabs’ blockchain blockchain solutions will part of two trials --  Encqor, a testbed of 5G technologies in the corridor between Quebec City and Waterloo, Ontario; and in Open Air Smart Living Laboratory in Montreal. 8xLabs is raising traditional capital, rather than a cryptocurrency offer and will earn revenue from licensing its solution, as well as sharing in commerce and advertising.

Video Consumption Rewarded

TaTaTu is a new media platform on the blockchain that rewards users when they watch content. A social layer will also allow users to invite friends to the platform and earn additional rewards when their friends watch. TaTaTu is the brainchild of Italian-Canadian film producer Andrea Iervolino, head of AMBI Media Group and Toronto’s AIC Studios. The beta version of the viewing platform is live now in five countries – U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy, and will roll out globally within the next year.

In June, TaTaTu’s private initial coin offering (ICO) raised more than $575 million of its TTU tokens, the third largest round ever, raising eyebrows and much attention.

According to Iervolino, the platform already has 500,000 users and expects to launch 30 original productions in the next year, many in collaboration with his AMBI Group.

TaTaTu is one of many crypto-powered competitors to Netflix and other video on demand platforms (see chart). The platform will feature movies, games, celebrity profiles, music and other content formats. And advertising as well. In the TaTaTu model, according to Iervolino, advertisers buy access to users using either currency or TTU tokens at a cost-per-thousand calculated by the market value of the token. Users receive a portion of this ad revenue. This activity increases the market value of the token, and therefore the rates and money going to users. Iervolino believes that rewarding users for their consumption is a key element of a business model that is better than existing on-demand subscription-based services or ad-supported social networks.

Back to Earth’s Down-to-Earth Story

22-year-old game developer and crypto entrepreneur Clay Space had a dream to build a multi-platform transmedia game powered by crypto tokens. His company Blockspace Media teamed up with veteran transmedia producers from NoMime Media and other talent to create “Back to Earth,” a sci-fi experience that includes a graphic novel, web series, and interactive gameplay.  The project is scheduled to launch in October. $100,000 worth of tokens will be offered to early users to jumpstart the platform, a kind of crypto freemium model. 

If Back-to-Earth succeeds it may give a whole new meaning to the concept of ‘speculative fiction’ --- their financing efforts were caught up in the speculation inherent in ICOs. In April 2017, Blockspace’s ICO raised more than $1 million. The ICO did not go well.

As Space has written, “we started to get reports that people were unable to access their tokens.” Apparently the company hired to manage the offering misallocated an estimated 10% of the offering, and according to Space, refused to remedy the problem. It took three months to validate every investor and reissue the entire token. Space still worries that the experience may have jeopardized his reputation. 

The presence of scam-artists in the ICO market has been widely reported, with up to 80 percent of the ICOs in 2017 analyzed as outright frauds, not counting those companies which failed to reach their goals due to mismanagement or other problems. Another report found that over 1,000 crypto projects have failed so far in 2018, leading some to see the ICO frenzy as just another financial bubble filled with fraud and greed. It is indeed a gold rush, with many of the same risks.

Wither Blockchain and Entertainment

It’s still early in the life cycle of these and many other blockchain and crypto companies in entertainment. Many have yet to launch and none has yet to prove out its model or scale to mass success. The legacy entertainment giants are hardly in danger of imminent collapse from the disruption inherent in many of the core values of the blockchain like transparency and trust.

But we do see evidence that the major media are paying attention.  Sony has been seeking patents for blockchain-based solutions for user authentication and digital rights management. In May it was reported that Facebook is looking at blockchain solutions in a new startup headed by a group of its senior executives. Variety reports that Comcast Ventures has begun investing in blockchain businesses.

The sheer number and scope of new blockchain businesses being developed suggests the emergence of a genuine ecosystem that can grow into a force to be reckoned with as new companies grow and prove their viability.

To check out these and many other Blockchain Entertainment Startups, please enjoy this clickable Infographic, provided by Brian Thomas from Enlightened Digital:

Sendergram — Blockchain IP registry and creative trail for content makers
Gjain — Finance and payment system for the business of film
Crowded Cloud — Democratizing digital production
MetaPipe — A studio in the cloud
8xLabs — Verification layer for 5G video distribution
TaTaTu — VOD platform that pays users to watch
Blockspace Media — Transmedia using crypto currency in game play
Alpha Networks — Netflix-like experience on the blockchain
White Rabbit — Coordinates payment between film owner and end users
Cinezen — Buy and sell films online
MovieCoin — Partial ownership of movies for investors and consumers
SingularDTV — Rights management, funding and distribution
FilmChain — Film finance and payments to all participants in a project
Ujo Music — Music self publication
Steemit — Social media network that pays its community
Ethereum Movie Venture — Crypto crowd-funding platform
Consensys — Development incubator for new apps
Civil — Crypto backed development environment for journalism and publishing
Binded — Copyright and IP registry
YouNow — Props decentralized video apps
Flixxo — Community-based video distribution
Thursday
Aug092018

Hollywood & AI: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

“Hollywood and Silicon Valley are in the same business: producing algorithms,” writes AI pioneer Yves Bergquist, one of a new breed of data scientists focused upon the entertainment and media business.

These scientists believe that to survive and thrive, the media and entertainment industry needs to embrace cognitive science, if they hope to compete with tech companies and address its failing business models.

They use a cluster of technologies generally called artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning – such fields as big data analytics, deep machine learning, semantics and natural language processing, visual and auditory recognition, prediction and personalization, conversational agents among others.

They are creating software that can be taught to learn and program itself – to automate repetitive tasks and to provide insights that were never before possible.

Tech-assisted content development

One active area is content development. A studio-funded think tank, USC Entertainment Technology Center, where Bergquist leads an AI and neuroscience group is mapping box office returns against elements of the film narrative. Bergquist is working on data breakdowns of movies, as shown in this demo, the work of two Bergquist AI startups Corto and Novamente.

Greenlight Essentials, a member of IDEABOOST Network Connect, has broken down decades of film screenplays into 40,000+ unique plot elements and has analyzed over 200 million audience profiles to help filmmakers improve scripts, target audiences, and improve marketing.  The product’s Analytic Terminal allows users with neither programming nor mathematics background to explore and discover repeatable patterns from decades of film data.

Scriptonomics is an ML application that breaks down movie scripts by scene, character, location, and other components. Writers and producers can leverage insights and comparisons that the tool extracts from its massive database of past successful movies to improve subsequent drafts and to aid in pitches and audience targeting. Here is an example of Scriptonomics breakdown for Titanic.

Founder Tammuz Dubnov says that Scriptonomics generates a geometric model of a screenplay – its DNA if you will -- in order to compare and improve elements as compared with financially successful films of the past. Dubnov believes that this data-driven, quantitative filmmaking process will give rise to a new generation of data-assistant content studio that will help create more hits and fewer flops.

RivetAI offers Agile Producer, a pre-production platform that automates script breakdown, storyboard, shot lists, scheduling and budgeting. Before RivetAI Toronto native Debajyoti Ray built two earlier AI startups. Video AMP, an AI-powered video advertising solution helped him to understand how much commercials owe to storytelling. So he decided to build an AI engine based upon thousands of movie scripts, both produced and unproduced that became RivetAI. 

 

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Sunday
Jul082018

What Ever Became of the Transmedia Movement?

Remember “Transmedia”? At the beginning of this decade ‘transmedia’ was a buzzworthy catch-all term describing an emerging group of media formats and practices that seemed poised to become a major force within the entertainment business.

I found myself pondering the fate of transmedia after participating in three events in California that had once been hotbeds of the movement:

  • StoryWorld 3.0, a scaled-down edition of an event that, as much as any, showcased the theory and practice of transmedia when it premiered in 2011;
  • Digital Hollywood, now in its 24th year, a sprawling array of media, business and tech sessions that closely track buzz and trends; and
  • San Francisco-based TV of Tomorrow Show that has been tracking interactive and advanced television developments for 11 years.

Transmedia became a handy and very elastic term for the kinds of content powered by the rapid adoption of mobile devices and social platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Stories and entire story worlds could be consumed across multiple media, and could invite direct audience interaction. Dozens of format experiments by producers from around the world began to coalesce into a movement that some called “transmedia.”

Even as movie studios, TV networks, game companies and brands began to underwrite projects that they eagerly labeled “transmedia” in order to catch the buzz, there was a less commercially oriented group that resisted, preferring small-scale efforts like “alternate reality games.” These folks pushed back when the Producers Guild of America designated an official credit for “transmedia producer,” igniting a war of words, as I reported at the time. Indeed, my own work as a consultant and observer was fully caught up in the movement during its heyday.

Today, we rarely hear the word “transmedia” when trying to describe the contemporary media production, distribution and consumption landscape. And so, yes, “Transmedia” per se is dead, victims of what transmedia producer and author Andrea Phillips called the transmedia diaspora. Name-brand leaders of the movement like Jeff Gomez and Lance Weiler, both of whom presented at StoryWorld 3, are still in the field, but like the movement they helped spawn, focus upon the mechanics of story, not the nomenclature and categorization of the movement.

The truth is, the principles championed by the transmedia movement can be seen everywhere today across dozens of programs, platforms, formats, entertainment experiences, and media types. The reality of our media ecosystem and audience behaviors have demanded that all media is, without much fanfare, transmedia storytelling.

Here are some features of today’s media ecosystem with roots in the short-lived transmedia era.

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Tuesday
Jan162018

The Year in "Now Media" - 2018 edition

Finnish media producer and commentator Simon Staffans provides a lovely service at the end of each year by interviewing a range of thinkers via email regarding their thoughts on what he now calls 'now' media, with a review of the past year and predictions for 2018. He formats those responses along with a selection of his own posts from the year for a nice and varied read about our industry. The entire property can be viewed on his website. Here is my contribution. Simon Staffans, the emoji

What have you seen in the world of media in 2017 that has made the biggest impression on you? What do you feel it signifies?

In 2017 I’ve focused even more intensely on early stage companies and the world of startup accelerators. I continue to advise at IDEABOOST, a Toronto-based accelerator focused exclusively on media/tech startups. This year I visited seven accelerators in four Chinese cities in May, and am developing a first-ever media/tech accelerator in Los Angeles in partnership with Startupbootcamp, the largest innovation network in Europe, where I have also visited several programs. 

Accelerators provide a unique window into innovation, in that we analyze the potential of founders, the technologies and products they see coming in the future, rather than mature products that took years to reach scale. That said, in order to help these fledgling companies find their place in a very complex media landscape, we must constantly assess developments within today’s markets and audiences. 

More than ever, the media business is a story of platforms dominated by GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). Their Internet-enabled delivery systems and devices have spawned thousands of products and have enabled new business models that are displacing traditional media.

Meanwhile, the tech world is obsessed with the next big platforms that can deliver growth and disruption on the scale of the Internet – machine learning/AI, cryptocurrency/blockchain, autonomy/robotics, and mixed reality (including AR and VR).

Among these, only MR/AR/VR would seem to be a “media” business, but in truth, all of these underlying technology layers will have dramatic impact on humankind, requiring new formats and metaphors that deliver stories, images, content and context – e.g., media -- to serve as gateways for entirely new applications and experiences.

In 2017 we’re beginning to see signposts of these new media forms.

The House of VR is a Toronto-based consumption venue for VR, AR and related content. Their viewing environments feature blue screen capture so that a user can be composited within the environment s/he is exploring, and then displayed on a screen that others can watch. This shared viewing model helps create an easier way to participate in this new medium and will spread. Earlier this year I got a demo of a multi-user distribution network for VR content at Two Bit Circus, a cool LA-based location-focused company started by Nolan Bushnell. Other VR venues like The Void and IMAX VR are growing.

Content discovery is the goal of another Canadian company, this one from Vancouver called Northway Games  , They demo’d the alpha version of a VR Museum app that featured some 80 independent VR projects, a very interesting type of aggregation channel that curates 3D VR content inside a navigable VR space that looks like a museum. I spent an hour tooling around inside the museum and saw only a fraction of the content. He has the idea of wanting to create a coop payment system that provides economic support for indie VR producers, which I of course found interesting.

I keep coming back to your contribution from some years ago, where you stated you’ve not encountered any “new media” content that would have been able to move you to tears, the way a brilliant movie for instance can. With the advent of the new wave of VR, plus a number of other projects in other fields, have you found anything like that yet? If not, why do you think that is?

“I’ll believe in ________ media when it makes me cry,” I think that was my snarky one-liner. This is a preposterously high bar for media that is less than three years old, when novels have been around for 400 years, cinema more than 100, and TV more than 50. Traditional narratives satisfy because of dramatic compression that enables Identification with characters journey over time. Interactivity disrupts this dynamic, in large part because the user/player gains direct agency within the story world. No longer is there an omniscient storyteller shaping the story for maximum dramatic and emotional effect. Instead, the viewer/user/viewser controls the flow of the story, and with VR, even where s/he looks.

Emotional involvement in VR to date seems to be sought by placing the user inside environments that evoke feelings – Chris Milk’s famous “empathy machine” theory. An interesting one this year was Autism Simulator, which allows the user to understand what it might be like to have symptoms of that disease, like earlier VR experiences that turned the user blind or put them into a prison.

 

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Tuesday
Oct172017

AFI & the Digital World - Excerpt from new book, 'Becoming AFI'

This post is an excerpt from chapter 7 of the book "Becoming AFI: 50 Years of the American Film Institute" by Jean Picker Firstenberg and James Hindman (Santa Monica Press), which I authored. Jean Picker Firstenberg, who was President and CEO of the AFI from 1980 to 2007, will be featured October 26th at a Writers Bloc event in Beverly Hills, in conversation with former AFI trustee--and ex-Monkee, Michael Nesmith. More information on the event, including how to buy tickets, can be found here.

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THE VIRTUAL AFI

It’s difficult to recall a world before the Internet, even for those of us who were there when it started. Just as AFI was setting out on its own digital journey, the Internet emerged from its academic and technical cocoon to take flight as a new and all-pervading data net- work that would soon transform all aspects of culture and business. In its infancy, the Internet was simply a marvel—a miraculous new utility that fostered community and created much beauty, rather than the corporate battleground it would become.

My Internet life started with AppleLink, a private email ser- vice for companies doing business with Apple. Logging on with a squawky dial-up modem, I felt like a member of a secret society of digital somebodies at a time when just having an email address seemed cool. Soon, we built AFI’s first campus email network.

Some in Hollywood heard about the World Wide Web—the graphical component of the Internet—at an “Information Super- highway Summit” in January 1994, organized by Rich Frank, an AFI trustee from Disney, who also chaired the television academy. (Rich Frank’s role on the AFI board, serving almost continuously since 1991, has been extraordinary. His Frank Family Wines have been served at many Life Achievement Award dinners, and he con- tinues to chair the TV jury for the AFI AWARDS every year.) Ev- eryone was there: Hollywood moguls like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barry Diller, and Rupert Murdoch, as well as FCC chairman Reed Hun- dt and Vice President Al Gore, who would subsequently overstate his role in the invention of the Internet.

AFI’s first glimpse of the World Wide Web came a few months later during a campus tribute at AFI to Wired, the magazine that gave voice to “digital lifestyle” before anyone even knew what that was. After entertaining the audience with the magazine’s ground- breaking graphics and McLuhanesque content, Wired founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe blew everyone’s minds with a sneak preview of the web’s first commercial magazine, HotWired, which they were preparing to launch in a few months. Projected onto AFI’s movie screen using the Mosaic web browser, HotWired whipped us from one page to another—from words to images to video and back again—with a simple click of a mouse. This was something completely new, a revolutionary way of publishing, communicating, and connecting, and I knew that AFI had to be part of it.

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