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.


2014: How (and What) I Read Now

I continue with my series of year-end posts discussing my favorite media experiences of the year with books, my first love. I cannot go to sleep without reading a few pages. I rarely drive without an audiobook in mid-chapter. I never fly without a Kindle-load from my list. The three types of “books” (paper, ebooks, audiobooks) find their way onto my list in various ways.

Books on paper are almost always gifts. Sometimes because of my Amazon wish-list, but rarely any more, since I specify the Kindle edition, and sometimes from the library, especially choices for my book club. Kindle downloads come as gifts now (I’ve trained my friends), but more than anything, they are impulse purchases, usually after reading a rave review or a relentless reminder from Amazon’s collaborative filter. I even tried Hoopla, an app offered via the LA Public Library. (Not so user-friendly.)

As a result, the longer I live, the more behind I get. I just can’t read enough, or fast enough, to get to all those books-in-waiting. Hence, I make no pretense of trying to rank the year’s “best” books as I do with movies and television. These are the titles that brought me the most pleasure in 2014, no matter the year in which they were published. And to which I gave four stars on my trusty Goodreads site, where I review most everything I read. Feel free to friend or follow me there or Facebook to get reviews more quickly.

The Kills (The Kills, #1-4) by Richard House

A war novel with few soldiers and little fighting. A mystery within a mystery. A meditation on fraud and memory.  This and much more, House’s massive story cycle or collection of related books -- shall we call it a quadtych (yes, a very bad neologism) manages despite its 1,000 page length to hold one's attention with a cavalcade of characters, settings, hurling plots and, well, mysteries. It wouldn't work, of course, if the writing weren't so damned good, which it certainly is -- the chilly lovechild of an unholy three-way between Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene and John le Carré,  and maybe a soupcon of David Foster Wallace's brilliance at making the quotidian feel quite compelling.

The first book, in which a military contractor in Iraq escapes from what becomes the central event of the story cycle -- the fleecing of a multi-million-dollar budget earmarked for a brand new secret city in the Iraqi desert . Is our hero a dupe, under the sway of the puppetmaster who hired him, and who runs the Halliburton-like contract firm?  His misadventures on the run in Turkey and Malta with some German filmmakers made me think of Greene, a bit like The Comedians.

By the time we finish the cycle, though, most of the assumptions about who did what and who knew what are brought into question, or at the least, in very high relief. Down in Malta, we have a diplomatic family in disarray, having fled chaos in Syria, cleverly intertwined with a tale of the Russian Mafia, corporate hit men, private language schools and various factotems who are still trying to figure out what happened to those pursuing our original fugitive.

Hovering above both stories is the tale of a bloody multiple murder which imitates a crime in a novel -- this is the subject of the third book, set in Naples. Baroque double switchback would be how I'd describe that plot. Is everyone lying?

Finally, I would not want to leave out book #2, which is in some ways the most rooted in the point of the whole exercise, since it's set in Iraq and involves a range of men, recruited to run a remote "burn site" in the desert, up until the point when they learn that this is to be the site of the new  and secret "Liberty City." Chronologically, its events come first. Gritty, confounding, confusing, maddening, this is the world of military contracting and the time-honored methods of fleecing governments and exploiting the working class.

If you've got the time, this masterpiece is worth the effort.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I want to deliver a breathless rave of a review about this scrumptious novel, coin a blurbable quote about the incomparable narrative thrust, endearing cast of characters, and pristine depiction of time and place, but my words are not up to the wonderful experience I had reading this book, one of the best reads for me of the last few years. I'd not read Tartt before, but compelled by some great reviews and its appearance on the best-seller lists, I added The Goldfinch to my wish-list and got it for Christmas. Boy am I glad!  Slightly longer than typical best sellers at 700+ pages, I found myself racing through the thing, a hundred pages a sitting, often into the night. Tartt has a gift for storytelling, that's for sure, and I'm glad I opened the package.

Police (Harry Hole #10) and The Son, both by Jo Nesbø

Harry Hole snarls more authentically than most angry, brilliant, alcoholic police detectives. He is one angry Mutha, and with good cause. He seems to be the only Norwegian cop who can actually solve complex criminal cases, but the bureaucracy and the criminal underworld just won't let him do his job, and won't leave him alone when he tries to give up. I love Harry Hole, and I love the tales Nesbø weaves for him to interact with. They are, in many ways, the apotheosis of the Scandinavian police procedural, a genre I have been in love with since the days of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (See this year’s New Yorker profile of Nesbø for more back story).

We have here, indeed, another very complex tale of crime perpetrated against cops, and the solution blocked by other cops, all coming together to reveal the motive, and therefore, the criminal. Thanks Harry. Thanks Jo.

Is there a word for the feeling a reader (at least this reader; at least when reading genre fiction) when you cannot figure out why, but you cannot stop reading? Nesbø is that rare writer, right now at the top rung worldwide, whose mastery of the form is so perfect that the strutwork disappears and the reader is left gasping from the combination of perfectly realized scenes, indelible characters, perfect depiction of place, and thematic importance. What makes one gasp is that each of these elements is revealed through the propulsive and accelerating engine of the narrative, the plot, the sheer storytelling power -- what happens next is the itch and the scratch of this kind of reading.

Certainly, it is made easier by Nesbø’s fluency as a writer, but he isn't showy, he's efficient. Which is not to say mechanical or heartless, I hasten to add, since he (and we) are always aware that he's working in a genre which is almost 80 years old, and to succeed, he must advance the form while maintaining its conventions. Which he does better than anyone writing now. He has provided me with many hours of reading pleasure through the Harry Hole series, and of course, the series that centers on a protagonist over time and many novels is itself a mainstay of the genre. Here, Nesbø introduces a new detective whose qualities seem, at least at first, to be a bit more conventional than Hole's. Until we find that, well, he's a compulsive gambler, rather than a drunk, and his backstory plays significantly in the unfolding of the plot. I don't do spoilers, but let me just say, the last ten pages of the novel not only wrapped up loose ends and plot points, but blew my mind in the process. Jo Nesbø, I think I love you.

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2014: The Glorious Bubble of Scripted Television 

End of December, and time to take stock and make lists. Here I go again with a series of posts to discuss my favorite media experiences of the year.

I begin with television, our intimate, ubiquitous, omnivorous medium, which of course now includes digital-native content. (Here are  my 2011, 2012 and 2013 choices).

My focus here is mostly scripted TV, and my, oh my, there is a lot to consider – as many as 350 new and returning scripted series ordered for the 2014-15, and that doesn’t include digital-only networks, which are investing hundreds of millions in new product. Says Variety: “Industry executives are quietly starting to use the B-word” (bubble) with worries that the bubble will inevitably burst.

What’s behind this surge? (besides greed)... well, it’s us – the audience – a “staggering level of engagement viewers now have with favorite programs,” according to John Landgraf, who heads cable’s FX Network. 

Transparent (Amazon Studios) – The irony in this outrageous dramedy of Angeleno family dysfunction is that the most “normal” person in sight is the guy in a dress, namely the divine Jeffrey Tambor, born as Mort Pfefferman, but finally coming out as Maura, a transvestite. His ex-wife, played by Judith Light, is the apotheosis of the Jewish mother, and together they raised a brood of world-class neurotics. Episodes unfold as each of the three kids – Sarah, Josh, and Ali – learn of their father’s new life, and we (the audience) learn via flashbacks of Mort’s journey from college professor with a secret to full-fledged commitment to his emotionally appropriate gender identity. Be forewarned, you have never heard dialog like this on TV, I mean never. Nor had I, at least, ever experienced quite the tone of melancholy, joy, sadness, pain and craziness all jumbled up into a coherent and satisfying package. Bonus: authenticity in the representation of Los Angeles’ many neighborhoods.

The Americans (FX) – Season 2 got even better, as we dive into both sides of the spycraft culture in 1980’s Washington, D.C. under Ronald Reagan. Our KGB agent couple Elizabeth and Philip Jennings and their neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman, are tangled in a complex web of missions and actions, believably tied to the real world Cold War struggle we all lived through, but unable to escape their own personal demons, just to spice up the action. The cast is breathtaking, and so are the wigs. I’m particularly fond of Margo Martindale as the ruthless old KGB handler, though we got much less of her this season. The palpable uncredited star of the show is the deadening suburban culture to which both sides have been sentenced and from which the world of spycraft offers an escape. This is a world of truly harrowing assignments, tarnished ideals, persistent doubts, lies, double- and triple-crosses, and yet, love and an odd, asymmetrical form of beauty seeps into scene after scene. This is spy love without the cynicism. 

Peaky Blinders – Seasons 1 & 2 (Netflix/BBC) – A crime family to rival the Corleones, the Shelby clan are Irish ex-pats living in Birmingham after the first World War, clawing their way up from a hardscrabble neighborhood to London over the course of 12 glorious episodes. Led by Cillian Murphy, a monster mobster with one a beautiful screen face and an awesome haircut, this BBC production is typically pristine, with design and photography that often simply takes away the breath -- perfect for a nice weekend binge, which is what Netflix enabled me to do when I was down with a flu. Performances by A-class actors like Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy and Noah Taylor provide almost as much pleasure as a propulsive narrative tale of intrigue involving British toffs, Irish (both orange and green) IRA terrorists, spies, counter-spies, labor agitators, Bolsheviks, and dueling gangs of Jews, Irish, and Italians.

Silicon Valley (HBO) – Mike Judge nails the geek gestalt of today’s tech start-up culture with laugh-out-loud insanity. Just when these characters teeter beyond the edge of stereotype, we get something so wonderfully specific and crazy that, well, we just laugh out loud. The pinnacle of the season was, of course, the finale, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” which combines so many geek tropes and fanboy obsessions that to simply describe the scenario defies belief, but, believe me, it was delish.

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2014: Thoughts on Transmedia

For the past couple of years I’ve been asked to contribute to year-end round-ups of the year in media, curated by transmedia producer and blogger Simon Staffans. I’ll post the link to the 2014 edition in a subsequent post, but for now, here’s a version of his questions and my answers. Feedback in the comments thread much appreciated.

What were the best parts of 2014, media-wise, for you? You were, last year, looking forward to seeing how the new generation of transformologists were going to put their mark on the world – have you seen anything that impressed you?

I think it’s time for the “transmedia movement” to declare victory and move on. I’m not seeing much evidence that either audiences or those with budgetary or investment clout have much interest in a thing call “transmedia,” per se. Rather, what we have seen, in part because of the efforts by our movement, a gradual incorporation of characteristics and features we felt were powerful cornerstones of transmedia into almost every major media product, even if only as a marketing extension. Preeminent among these characteristics is what I’ve dubbed “Fan-centric Media,” a recognition that fans are almost a part of the media property, not just its consumer. Building fan-engagement sites and using UGC platforms are de rigueur for anyone trying to find an audience for a media brand or property.

That said, major media brands continue to use social platforms and multi-platform story formats as they do other marketing tools, rather than as elements of a truly transformational story format. There is less appetite (and budget) for innovation and experimentation as the number of fan-centric platforms continue to proliferate beyond Facebook, which is still dominant.

The brands where these trends are most evident are those focused on the so-called “Comic-Con” audience – largely genre titles in film, TV and games. It has become critical for these marketers to generate early fan buzz as part of the broader experience of a story world. 

All of this makes sense when you realize just how extreme the stratification of the film industry has become – we had the announcement of superhero movies for ten years out from Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner, and they aren’t financing much else. At the other end, indie film producers are struggling mightily just to get their primary product finished, distributed, and noticed. The indie film world hasn’t moved in to fill the void to create much transmedia content, with a few exceptions of those companies who have tried to make that a core goal – like Submarine in Amsterdam, though not for every one of their titles.

Last year you talked about practitioners of transmedia starting to want to see a financial return on their efforts. Do you believe it has come to pass?

Overall, there has been a general deflation in the market for multi-platform original product, even as overall spending by agencies and brands goes up for bespoke, but derivative multimedia marketing sites and branded content. I spoke with a colleague who runs a leading transmedia production house with a track record of successful international multi-platform projects and campaigns. His company has come up short in pitching its original intellectual property, even though he make a compelling case that a sequential structure that moves the content from one monetizeable platform to another is a better way to create a profitable franchise than to launch the whole thing at once. Most of his revenue is coming from commissioned work by brands or associated with the release of mainstream titles. In other words, work-for-hire without the upside of ownership in original IP.

I have great admiration for Bernie Su and his team at Pemberley Digital, which has taken a very pragmatic approach to the evolution of what amounts to a very tightly defined format. What began as a great experiment with The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, has evolved through Welcome to Sanditon, Emma Approved, and now the Frankenstein update in conjunction with PBS Digital. In all cases, the base-line product is an engaging video series aimed at a clear and definable demographic of young women. A constellation of logical ancillary platforms is deployed for that segment of the fanbase who wants to dive deeper. Bernie is working to monetize as many of those as possible. He also has done a superb job of recruiting sponsors for brand integration, without offending fans. And he has a bounty-based fashion system in place that moves goods and generates another revenue stream. Did I forget the aggregated video via DVD and the books?

What Bernie is doing as a business guy is trying to mimic the successful components of a major studio franchise operation – creating multiple revenue streams that manage to harvest revenues from a very strong fan base, and then to sell that traffic in as many ways as possible. Pretty amazing, given the small size of his team and the MCN he partners with.

The key has been an understanding of fan-management dynamics. His audiences keep building, in large part because the team, especially the writers, speak in the voice of characters across the Internet, and really create a feeling of involvement for the fans. Old media companies have a hard time understanding the different between conversation-based engagement and old-fashioned selling-focused marketing. We found this to be true with The Chatsfield, a very inventive multi-platform story world from Harlequin romance publishers, which I helped launch. There wasn’t much money or human energy available for the actual fan engagement piece after the launch. Digital media is not the place to hope that by building it, they will come. You have to go out to many places and entice them to find your field of dreams.

The real experimentation is happening by original content creators on YouTube – they are the new indies, and it’s because of the audience engagement piece, clearly. I admit, it is rare when an artist in this world really speaks to me, but they speak to millions of fans other than me. I’m an old guy in a narrow demographic, but the YouTube and original online video space overall (Vimeo, AOL, Yahoo, Hulu) is the place to watch.

Speaking of multi-channel networks, let’s not forget that this was the year that the entire business model of the MCN overlay atop YouTube was validated by major media. Disney buying Maker is the standout, of course, but there were many others. We are seeing many permutations of effective business models by YouTube creatives who have built an audience on the video sharing platform, and then worked to monetize that fan base with additional efforts outside of YouTube, including a small number with successful migrations to television.

I have been pretty impressed by “Serial,” the podcast spinoff of This American Life. Here is a compelling storytelling in one of the oldest web formats, though podcasting seems to be experiencing a renaissance this year. “Serial” has gotten a lot of buzz, in part because of its origins, but also because it is damned good.

This has been the year of a broadening of successful programming on the over-the-top networks beyond Netflix. Amazon and Hulu are both investing heavily, with some great results. Transparent on Amazon was amazing, and I predict will win major awards. What I’ve found (and written about) that is odd is that the web-distributed video-on-demand content has even less “ancillary” or digital or audience-engagement content than regular TV or films. When you go to Netflix or Amazon, you might as well be buying a DVD, except that it streams. There isn’t much in the way of “extras”, much less links to fan sites or anything else. I find that odd. 

Kickstarter and IndieGogo continue to provide a key revenue mechanism for the original content creator. However, what was once a simple add-on to a team’s central content effort is now a major activity. We all have crowd-funding fatigue, so it’s harder to win without a truly inspired campaign – which often takes as much work as the IP a team is promoting. The real value, we have seen, is the shift in thinking required by creators as they begin to find and communicate with their audience before, during and after the completion of a project.

We haven’t yet seen the much-anticipated explosion of equity crowd-funding in the US anyway because of a stalled rulemaking for the JOBS Act, but surely next year this will come to pass. There are a host of new entities established to leverage this opportunity. But I would expect only the most commercially oriented projects will benefit, since investors will be expecting a return, unlike Kickstarter, through which one simply gives a gift (generally in exchange for a reward of some sort).

What would you predict for 2015? What are the major challenges and the major possibilities?

Some possibilities:

-- Continued mainstreaming of YouTube stars into movies and TV, not to the exclusion of the original platform, but as a way for incumbent distributors to tap the energy of that platform and its incredible creativity (and audiences).

-- Increased budgets overall for “brand marketing,” by which we would include the range of projects commissioned by product and media companies which have an independent life on digital native platforms. There are a lot of brands trying to be the next Red Bull Media.

-- Original content funded on social media platforms, especially Facebook and Tumblr.

Nick DeMartino is a Los Angeles media consultant, specializing in digital distribution and production strategy for start-ups, nonprofits, and corporations. Find him on Twitter @nickdemartino and on his website and blog at


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.

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.

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