In this post I want to address the events of the past few days: the publication of this Power to the Pixel (PttP) report, Henry Jenkin’s interview in the LA Times and things I learned from The Futures of Entertainment 4 (FOE4) conference at MIT.
I want to make it clear that I’m a hugely enthusiastic supporter of audience collaboration, transmedia, DIY distribution, crowdfunding and so on. And I’m very grateful to PttP generosity in making their report publicly available. But…
In all the movie industry turmoil amongst the explosion of free content and the theft of paid content, I’m worried that many independent filmmakers have a vision of the future blinkered by optimism and a fetishizing of the new. They see the world as we’d all like it to be and not the way it sometimes is.
That’s certainly not to say that I agree with Henry Jenkin’s comment in the LA times that our grandest ambitions might not be realised. (Surely he didn’t really say that, did he?) I believe they can be realized if we find the right approach and the right attitude of mind.
Where I agree with the PttP report is that we have to look beyond piracy and accept it as a way of life. That is effectively what the report is saying. All the nice words about the audience demanding content on their own terms is another way of reminding us that we’re powerless to stop them taking what they want. Piracy, shmiracy - I’m over it. It’s like losing a loved one – first the anger, then the depression, then the acceptance. You have to move on before you can see the opportunities. Outrageous government intrusion into our lives and infringing our civil liberties is definitely not the answer. We have to discover ways to survive in a new environment.
So here are three balancing ideas for indie filmmakers trying to make sense of the future:
- don’t let the tail wag the dog
- the audience relationship is only one of many
- it’s always numbers game.
Don’t let the tail wag the dog
Collaboration with the audience does not mean loss of control, quite the opposite. Allow the audience to collaborate and participate on your terms: you decide the rules of engagement and you set the tone and flavour of that partnership. Don’t limit your concept of “collaboration” to production of the content – it can also be collaboration in the experience of the content.
If you find it desirable, ring-fence your script or parts of your storyworld and say “this belongs to me”. Then steer the audience to a new part of the storyworld: give them their own avenues for creative expression that don’t impinge on the direction you want to go.
Even contradictory narratives and opposing, perhaps malicious mashups of your video, say, will not damage your original content because they serve to show your ideas in relief. But for this to be true you have to be clear about your content, what it stands for and where it’s going – if your idea is wishy-washy and open for interpretation then sure you could run into trouble.
The audience relationship is only one of many
Have you walked into a bricks-and-mortar retailer recently and seen a straight-to-DVD sequel prominently displayed on a shelf? That loveless filler is there because of business relationships, not audience relationships. The people that made it couldn’t care less about the audience and nor could the retailer: it’s nothing personal, just business. It’s made-to-order fodder and it happens with books and all kinds of other content.
You’ll also find that behind many, supposedly “viral” YouTube video sensations is a seeding company or PR company paid to push content to popular blogs and destination sites. It’s another kind of business relationship you should not ignore. If you think that your fan base can be relied on to freely distribute your trailer and your widget… just take a deep breath and ask yourself “why will they?”
Here’s a final example of a different kind. I bet I could make a home movie with Tom Cruise, advertise it on billboards and buses around London and make a profit from theatrical distribution. No audience relationships, except Tom’s popularity I guess, but no social media, no forums, no collaboration, no transmedia; just brute force, old fashioned advertising. See, the old model isn’t dead.
The problem for the independent is the cost of hiring Tom and hiring the advertising space: which is why audience relationships are so important for the indie. But don’t discount the power of business relationships, the power of money and the power of key opinion formers.
Which I’m afraid also means that one future scenario missing from most indie conversations is the one in which big companies with deep pockets and entrenched relationships find a way to reinvent themselves and preserve the status quo. It happens.
We’re not entitled to the future.
It’s always a numbers game
One of the key take-aways for me from FOE4 was that fans are nice but the crowd is best. It came up several times on different panels in different guises: your idea/storyworld/product has to scale. Please don’t take this to mean that I’m saying fans are not important, absolutely not. But conversations often turn to Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans and it tends to imply that casual, fleeting, one-off interest is not important: it is.
The importance of understanding this can be felt when you’re asking yourself, do I make something that appeals to a hardcore audience or a general audience? You’ll always make more money and have an easier ride with the general audience. Will it be as creatively rewarding? Well, I guess that depends on your definition of hardcore vs casual. But you can appeal to both and one way is to do it is at different times: first the hardcore (they’re the most receptive) and then the broader audience. With transmedia you can do both.
A major strength of transmedia is that you can offer different experiences to different audiences and operate different business models - maybe at different stages in the evolution of the project. I agree with the PttP report: you should look at your movie as a process and not a product.
I’m very positive about the future and I think transmedia storytelling will unlock many untapped revenue streams, business models and opportunities for creative expression. And we will realize our greatest ambitions.
But please be mindful and think cautiously: don’t be blinded by the bright future and throw out the baby with the bathwater.