future

We are Fucked, or: Art Films in the Age of the Algorithm

Note: This article/post was originally published in a slightly different form on IndieWire as “Why Netflix and Amazon Algorithms Are Destroying the Movies”

A long time ago, I thought that the worst interface I had ever seen – after most film festival websites, that is  – was to be found on Time Warner (now Spectrum) cable. But today, what could be worse than Netflix and Amazon for finding movies?

Think of any new documentary, American or foreign arthouse film that you’ve heard of recently and go look for it, but don’t search for the title. Browse, you know, like 99% of customers do when they turn on their internet connected TV. Odds are good that you’ll not find that film until you’ve swiped, or toggled or (depending on your device’s interface) clicked through 10-20 screens.

Last night I decided to look for the Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip, which Amazon released last month.It was an acquisition; the company wanted to make money from it. It was a long, strange trip indeed (sorry), as it took me 20 screens or so of swiping before I came upon the movie. I came across numerous older documentaries, a shit-ton of crappy docs about blenders, ex-porn stars and other junk, and then the Dead.

In fact, if I wasn’t dead set on finding it, I would have given up and ordered something else. And that’s a problem for any video/film content that isn’t a blockbuster or a TV show. This doesn’t bode well.

Whether it’s Netflix or Amazon, the problem is the same: It’s the algorithm. Silicon Valley will tell you the algorithm is god. Bullshit. Amazon knows my entire purchase history — not just films, but books and, well, everything else. But none of the titles their algorithm was pushing at me had any relation to anything I’ve ever watched or wanted to watch. (There was a documentary about a stand-up comedian; I’ve watched one of those.)

But the algorithm is supposed to be smart. It’s supposed to know what I want before I want it. But it never does. Same with Netflix. Judging by their algorithmic offerings, I only like TV shows, stand-up comedians (ok, I’ve watched at least two), and I don’t want to go anywhere near subtitles, documentaries, or american indies.

But it isn’t true. Not only is that what I like to watch – I’ve watched them more than TV shows on Netflix unless they count every episode of House of Cards as separate movies (actually, I bet they do).  iTunes isn’t much better, although if you type a genre into them (instead of browsing), you do get some diversity, and I think more people go to iTunes with a film in mind,while people browse more on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Vimeo’s discovery interface is horrendous too, but I won’t pick on them because they’re way smaller and they also just have more indie content by the nature of their business model. I’m not mentioning other VOD services because, well, no one uses them.

Shut up, old man, you might say. But this is a huge problem for quality films whether they’re docs, indie, foreign, or classics. If the algorithms can’t serve these up to me, I guarantee they aren’t serving them up to anyone else. Netflix, in particular, seems to be pushing them further down the list — and, in the process, making it hard to find movies at all. As we all know, arthouse films, especially docs, are bombing in theaters if they make it there at all. Many go straight to digital, maybe with some touring. But most film watching these days is online, and if you can’t be found there, well, you don’t exist.

Sure, you can do your own marketing, send your fans there, and they can find you via direct link. But most humans sit down, scan and buy. And they tend to watch what’s on the home screen or within a few clicks. I know this because I’ve spoken with staff at some of these places off the record, and they admit that their data shows that people don’t search too far (they also barely use their queue, and tend to put aspirational films there that they hope to watch but never do).

Setting aside the fact that Netflix and Amazon are buying less films overall (that’s a problem too), and less documentary and arthouse films every year, as told by every sales agent, these guys aren’t even trying to push the ones they do buy. And when the algorithm buries those films,it becomes a vicious cycle, with Netflix deciding they don’t work and let’s buy even less of them. As filmmakers and film lovers, we end up just where we were with cable pre-Netflix – the illusion of choice that is so vast we don’t realize how much we’re actually missing.So, where I used to always worry that this whole net thing would end up with just giving me a better TV, now I’m worried I won’t even get that. Forget jet-packs…

Last week, I posted about the need for more funding around discovery. Kent Bye, a very smart man who mainly works in VR now, posted this comment, which I quote in full. It’s about YouTube, but it’s interesting for this too:

YouTube has 300 hours of video uploaded every minute, which amounts to about 49.28 years of new content per day. Here’s a really insightful video from a popular YouTube creator breaking down the recent changes of the YouTube algorithm to preference new daily videos over older and more higher quality ones. Content creators who depend upon that algorithm for revenue are at the whims of YouTube’s changes, and those who create content optimized for the algorithm produce shoddy, low-quality, clickbait that has a monetary incentive to figure out new ways to game the system, produce glossy and deceptive thumbnails, and keep people hooked in a loop of the latest drama. The current system is producing a lot of empty calories.

As Ken points out, we are fucked, we are fucked, we are fucked (WAF). WAF1 is superabundance. Your film is not just up against other films. It’s up against every video being uploaded. Heck, if we stick just to film, there are estimates of 50,000 unique titles (or more) being submitted to festival submission sites annually.

WAF2 is the algorithms are not set up to help me, or you, find the content we want; it’s designed to glue us to each service. House of Cards is great TV, and Netflix knows snacking on that addictive in-house production will bring you back more often than The Turin Horse.

That’s WAF3: Expect more episodic TV and less worrying about quality films (much less esoteric films). Another time, we can argue about how episodic series have supplanted film in the public conversation and whether that’s a good thing. (I watch a lot of it too.) But WA4 is we can’t sustain independent or fringe voices if the only two buyers who matter anymore aren’t buying our films. The problem will move from one of discovery to one of absence.

That’s why I think we need to focus more money on discovery now, and less on creation. This is some dire shit, and my hunch is that solutions have to come from outside the system. The disruption won’t come from a competitor to Netflix (you’d need a billion dollars just to begin to compete). Just like the indie doc world has built a support network for funding (Britdoc, Sundance Doc Fund, Just Films, pitch markets, forums, etc.), we need to come up with solutions to help curate better, help people discover and remember films (since they often hit Netflix 90-180 days after theatrical), and help them to find a diversity of films.

I hope to have more thoughts on that soon, and hope to hear them from you.

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Predictions for 2016

Every year I send out my predictions for the New Year, and I have to be honest, I don’t have the best track-record. Sure, I was correct last year that it was an important year for Net Neutrality, but no, Chris Dodd wasn’t forced out of the MPAA, and Facebook didn’t launch original content (not to the extent I meant). But I do think I predicted some trends, so I guess I’d take this list more as some predictions for the future, but they might not happen in 2016. Gotta be ahead of the game!

  1. This will be a boom year for indie films, especially for documentaries, but…it will also presage a major crash. Gotta take the good with the bad. First, the good. With Amazon, Netflix, the Orchard, CNN, AJA, Broad Green, Gravitas… and my Grandmother … all funding original content and buying up indie films like crazy, it’s a great time to have an indie film for sale. We might see another year where almost every Sundance film gets distribution, and regardless, I bet Sundance sales will be gangbusters. This is great, and I hope it works for everyone. So what’s the bad? I don’t think it’s sustainable. We have more distributors and platforms than ever. And sure we have more content for all of them,but it’s a crowded market-place and they can’t all make a return on their investment. Amazon and Netflix can wait it out and keep building their base, but a lot of others can’t. So while I think we’re safe for 2016, I am willing to bet that by 2017, we’ll start to see some major flame-outs among distributors. Until then, Party On!
  2. Virtual Reality will also boom and bust. I’m not the only one saying this, but we’ll see more VR companies and products launch, and people will snap them up like crazy. But when the nausea sets in, and customers get bored with most of the actual experiences (yes, once you get over the hype, most are pretty yawn inducing), we’ll see a major back-lash. Probably not enough to kill it, as so much has been invested already, but there will definitely be a dampening. This will lead to a few people/companies going back to the drawing board and coming up with some amazing shit, so it’s a good thing. Plus, it also means there’s never been a better time to build a VR company, get funding and/or sell it and make a fortune. That’s what I’d do if I could.
  3. There will be an ongoing explosion of branded content. I am biased here, as I work almost exclusively in this arena now, but it’s booming and it won’t stop anytime soon. Every day another company launches a new division to make films, or a major initiative. Here’s just a sampling: Levi’s, Patagonia, Starbucks, Marriott, The North Face, Red Bull Media House, GoPro, Timberland, Pepsi, Nike, Chevy, GE, Yeti are all doing some serious films now. Many are actually quite good. This doesn’t even count all of the branded content being made by places like T Brand Studio (the NYT), Conde Nast, etc. Or the Foundations and major nonprofits making content. It’s now a major competitor to other films and TV for at least our attention, and this will only grow as more people come into the space. And brands know marketing, so they know how to build an audience. I suspect we’ll see even more of it in 2016, if not a major push by someone into fiction films as well.
  4. Theatrical will gain in importance. There’s been way too much hype about the death of cinema. Force Awakens proved people will still go to the theater. But more importantly, everyone is realizing that save for a few instances you simply can’t get the buzz and attention you need unless you have a theatrical. This is partly because of the way critics and the press work – they still pay undue attention to theatrical releases over online – but it’s also because it reaches the core audience who then spreads the word to those of us who might not go to the theater and will wait for the digital release. Yes, windows should usually keep shortening, but theatrical remains a crucial part of the pie. Plus, I am coming around to believing that as people begin to find the cacophony of online overwhelming and too much more of the same, they’ll keep seeking out more genuine experiences. I expect we’ll begin to see a small uptick in younger audiences over the next few years as more of them seek something more rewarding than their cell screen or VR goggles. Luckily, here in NYC we have a few new theaters opening, like the Metrograph, so perhaps this prediction will come true, at least here.
  5. The end of aggregation options for filmmakers or The Death of Aggregators or The Death of DIY Distribution. Ok, this one has really already happened. Just two years ago, I could steer filmmakers to half a dozen or more aggregators who could help them get their films onto iTunes, Netflix and other platforms. But now, most of those places have become distributors, and they are increasingly turning down a lot of indie films. True, a couple still exist, but options are thinning. On top of that, most of them now demand to take your direct-to-fan sales through Vimeo or VHX as well. Why? They claim it’s competition with them, which it utter bullshit – if someone finds your film on your site, it’s because of your work and they wouldn’t have found it from The Orchard’s work (or anyone else), so why give them a cut? Because they need it? From my perspective, it’s never been a worse time to be a self-distributing indie, unless you already have a massive fan base. The partners you used to have are disappearing, becoming distributors or becoming much less friendly. That said, if you need someone good, try Quiver.
  6. Facebook buys Vimeo. Ok, this one is a stretch as supposedly Vimeo isn’t for sale. But Barry Diller has thought about it before, and while Facebook can clearly build the system themselves, they would gain an easy path into owning their own set of channels, with a very loyal customer base. They’d gain a mass of quality content that comes cheaper than Youtube or Yahoo, and with much better brand value than the latter. They could turn the VimeoPro features into Consumer-Pro features and have a subscriber base, and they’d automatically have a home for quality video. Facebook will become a network – they are one – so something like this is coming, and it may be the best possible exit for Vimeo anyway.
  7. Video Start-ups die or are acquired. There’s a lot of tiny video sell-through, rental and SVOD sites out there. They’ve been plugging away for years, but none of them have come close to the user base they need to survive in today’s VC investment environment. I think many will run out of cash, and a few will be acquired. I have some thoughts on who these might be, but I’ll keep that to myself for now, but I do think this is their year of reckoning. That said, we’re long overdue for a well-funded Netflix competitor, so perhaps someone will launch one this year as well?
  8. HBO is spun off from Time Warner. Everyone else is predicting this as well, so perhaps it won’t happen just because everyone thinks it should. But HBO would arguably be much more valuable that way, and hey, I need at least one of these predictions to come true.

That’s it. I’ve only got 8 predictions for 2016, but I’d love to hear some predictions from others. Send them my way.

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The Coming DSM Wars

The DSM wars are coming! WTF is that? Digital Single Market. The European Union is proposing new rules to create a single, unified market for the selling of goods, and that includes film. For consumers, this is a no-brainer – I should be able to buy a film in Paris and watch it in Berlin, no matter what service I’m using. For platforms, it’s much easier as well – Netflix could license titles for all of Europe instead of doing individual deals for every territory. As a film industry person, I’ve also been hampered by the current territorial system when I’ve been sent screeners – as a judge for a film fest – but couldn’t watch them because the DRM (digital rights management aka bullshit tech) wouldn’t allow me to view the content based on the country I was in at the time. From a business perspective, anything that makes it easier for consumers and new businesses to operate easily should win, but…it’s not so simple.

As Variety and others have reported, and most in the industry know, the film business is built in myriad ways on territorial licenses. A producer might raise money to make a film by pre-selling rights in certain territories. Sales agents make money, and this flows back to filmmakers (in some dream scenario) by selling licenses in different territories. Many films wouldn’t make back their budget, not to mention any meaningful profit without this system. There’s also a cultural argument to be made – this would mean only big players (Netflix) could afford to license titles for all of Europe, and that would decrease competition and likely decrease the diversity of content offered. The fight is shaping up now, and promises to be interesting. Of course, the whole idea could collapse with the entire EU the way things are going lately in geo-politics, but this is an important thing to watch for American indies as well – at least those lucky enough to make foreign sales.

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More on Blockchain and Film/Arts

My last post on Blockchain and the future of content led to many interesting exchanges – people emailed, people scheduled meetings, and many of them were way ahead of me in terms of thinking about how blockchain, the technology underlying Bitcoin, might be used to change various cultural industries, especially music and film. While there are still some problems with this theory, I’m increasingly convinced that blockchain could completely revolutionize the business models here, just as it might in finance and other industries. There are a lot of vested industry players that will fight this tooth and nail, but I think it’s worth exploration. Here’s some of the ideas I’ve learned about, and what I think is needed.

Perhaps the most interesting take on this has come from the musicians Imogen Heap and Zoe Keating. No surprise there – I feature Zoe in almost all of my lectures, and Imogen has been very tech savvy. Imogen Heap proposes a new service she calls Mycelia, which would be a blockchain based digital eco-system for the connection of artists and fans, eliminating many of the middle men. She explains it on her site (note, it seems to work best on Safari, not Chrome), but the best summary of this comes from George King, who has been writing a series of posts about blockchain and the future of music and the arts on Forbes. I recommend reading all of these articles. Among other things, her system would use the blockchain to tie-in payment info, artist info (who played the bass on that song, how do I find their other music?) and track derivative works. It would eliminate many middle-men and allow for much greater transparency in how the money flows – something Zoe proposes as well. Using blockchain as a way to track derivative works is precisely what is most interesting to me – in theory an artist could embed how much you must pay for using a sample or a film clip in the actual source file, and you could complete this transaction without any lawyers, agents or even an email, as it would all be handled on the blockchain. As a leader in the transparency movement, I am all for the idea of using this for greater transparency- in theory, an artists could see every way their work was used and accessed and payments could go directly to them (and sub-artists in the contract as well, such as your actors). But Imogen’s idea is even bigger – I think of it as a Library of Alexandria, mixed with Wikipedia, Kickstarter, Amazon, Creative Commons and the ledger of blockchain. Mycelia would feature all music, and all aspects of that music in a giant interactive database that allows for artists to set transaction rates, give you more data about their project and anyone involved in it, and trace its evolution, so to speak.

The idea of blockchain revolutionizing music and arts has gotten enough traction that Billboard has written a must-read article on how bitcoin/blockchain can change the music industry. A few businesses have launched specifically around this idea as well. ProMusicDB is proposing a system for better tracking of credits on music, and Ujo (no active site yet), is building an open source technology for tracking rights-holders and payments to artists. Because it is open source, it could also be used for film or any other art form. The Billboard article explains it a bit more. I also suspect many more businesses will launch as a result of Richard Branson’s blockchain summit, which Zoe attended, and I’ve had meetings with at least three other companies that are building businesses in this area (but who want to remain confidential for now). If you really want to get wonky, read The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto. While the book is ostensibly about why capitalism has worked in the West but not so well elsewhere (it comes down to how we build property systems, but read it), it has become the new blueprint/Bible for those thinking about how property changes in the future, perhaps under Blockchain, and its extremely relevant to the future of intellectual property (I found the book by way of Zoe Keating’s writings).

To my mind, all of these ideas are great, but we need to combine them to make it work for film and other arts. Perhaps this could be built as part of Ujo, since it’s an open-source project. Artists and organizations supporting them should be getting behind these ideas, as they have great potential to help build a better business model for artists and to bring more (real) transparency to the financials. Here’s just a few of the things I’d like to see in this space. If done properly, it should include (at minimum, and here for film, but you can see how it works for other fields):

  • Deep rights agreement tracking systems: track all artists/people involved in a film and any payment agreements, license agreements, etc with them, as well as other agreements such as locations, music licensing, clip licensing, releases, etc;
  • Allow for micro-transactions with them – set how each of the people involved get paid;
  • Expanded linking to items/artists involved in a project – allow you to connect to these artists involved in any project in other ways – see a dress in the film, know the designer and also see her info and not just buy the dress but also commission a design for your film, etc (and trace the history of this engagement);
  • Micro and advance Licensing terms  – license a clip with a compulsory license, pre-paid – down to the clip level; You could agree in advance to pay an amount based on the future views of your subsequent film. Payments can go back to the source film and any sublicensees/artists, etc. What I pay back varies based not just on total views, but what type of views, whether they were at a nonprofit, theater or other venue, or person at home, etc.; This is essentially the same as the derivative works proposals from Imogen Heap and Zoe Keating, but for film, and would allow a whole new business to be built upon sampling, mash-ups, remixes and bring greater ease to clip licensing. A work-around for fair-use would need to be developed, but that should be technologically possible;
  • Expanded, artist-centric payment schemes & term setting – facilitate payments directly to the artist, but not just for this film – I can pay for the film, or for the song in the film, or can subscribe to the artist’s future work, make donations, or whatever else the artist has set up, and the artist not only sets the terms but can see how the money flows along the way. For example, the artist could set what iTunes must pay them as a percentage of any sale, and know how many transactions there were, or even turn them down if they don’t agree to her terms;
  • Permission levels, so that I can share work privately and authenticate who watched it, for how long, etc, as well as share contractual information, fee payments etc based on various permission levels; This should include permission based data sharing as well – perhaps I want to share how many downloads I had publicly, or from what regions, all of this could be shared via this system;
  • Authentication of originals vs copies, etc. Consumers don’t care about originals vs copies, but it would be a way to combat piracy, as well as to assign value to the original work; One could theoretically build a system as well that allows for only authenticated devices to play content, meaning that I could share a rough cut and if it’s pirated, I would know where it leaked (this has major DRM implications, I know);
  • Usage tracking and types of usage (not just for payments, but to see impact, subsequent uses, what types of eyeballs watched my film, etc);
  • Ancillary content – version tracking, ancillary materials access (poster, etc), unlocking of bonus content, etc.

Some of this is blockchain related, some is just stuff that we need that can be done technologically now with or without blockchain, but the ideas represented by blockchain could help build a smart eco-system for film. These are just some preliminary thoughts, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that blockchain has relevance for the film business in myriad ways and is worthy of further exploration. Care about this at all? Send me your thoughts.

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Ten Predictions for 2015

It’s the year to year transition favorite pastime of nearly everyone, so here’s my list of predictions for 2015. You can look at last year’s list here, and while I didn’t get everything right, by my count I was correct on 6/10 so that’s not too bad. Up for 2015:

1. Branded Content will spread into Fiction Feature Films: Last year I predicted a flood of branded content, and I was right. I also participated in this myself, helping Patagonia with DamNation. But most of these efforts have been around short form narrative and documentary content. I think this year will see many more brand attempts at feature fiction films. It’s been done before, so this won’t be new, but I think we’ll see some new distribution models tried out as well.

2. More VC money for quality content: VC’s and investors generally have stayed far away from content. It scares them and they’ve been ripped off by it too many times. But in the past year, we’ve seen a lot more investor activity around content, and while most of this has been around what I’d loosely call “new journalism endeavors,” I think this year will see more activity around creative videos, documentary endeavors and even fiction narratives. There’s a lot of money out there looking for a home, and I bet some of it lands in content soon.

3. Facebook will launch original content: I’ve been saying this for years now, and some people seem to finally agree with me – Facebook is a network, and eventually all networks need content. While they did pull out of the Newsfronts, ending a lot of speculation, I think it was just about timing. My hope is that they’ve looked at all the competition out there, and how much of it is just more crap, that they decided they need to come out in a big way and do something different. I have some thoughts on what this might be, but that’s for another post. For now, my bet is a big push in late 2015.

4. Someone will launch an (attempted) Netflix killer: And it won’t be any of the existing players in the current video space. If you’re a film fan, Netflix pretty much sucks now. Tons of great films have been dropped, many great films don’t even get licensed by them at all anymore, and there’s a serious need in the space for a good Netflix competitor for films. There are many people attempting to do their own SVOD plays now, and many others doing well with sell through and rental, but I don’t think any of them can really compete. But lots of people with deep pockets see the need, and someone will move into this space this year. My bet: someone buys an existing platform that isn’t doing so hot and throws a few hundred million into ramping it up quickly.

5. We’ll see the first real global ultra-VOD release: I would’ve expected this last year, or the year prior, but this industry is slooooow. But this year, someone will buy global rights to a film, figure out how to market it to its audience globally and will launch it digitally around the world day/date and prior to any theatrical release. They’ll probably have to skip places like France, where this is pretty much illegal (really) and many countries won’t make a dent in revenues, but it will work well enough that others start to try it. But for this to work, prediction 6 has to come true.

6. We’ll figure out film marketing in the digital age: We’ve pretty much figured out how digital changes film production and distribution. Go figure, just 10 years ago, people debated this shit on festival panels regularly, but it all came to pass. What we haven’t figured out yet is how it changes marketing, and how to do it right. Yeah, we’ve got social blabbering covered, and plenty of people ruin my web video experience with pre-roll crap ads, but we all know – none of it is working. But we’re starting to see some good examples out there, and someone will put a few of them together and figure out how to make this all work to build enough buzz for a film that it can enter the cultural conversation the same way it used to in the (probably mythic) past. If they do, then we can stop relying on four-walling the Quad just to get a NYT review, and that shit can’t end soon enough for me.

7. Chris Dodd will be ousted from the MPAA: I have nothing against the guy personally, but I can’t imagine you can fuck up as bad as he did this year on the Sony debacle and keep your job. As I said on Facebook earlier this month: Jack Valenti would have never let this unravel so poorly. As soon as the Sony case started spiraling into Korea land (and this may not even be true, but the perception was all that mattered here) he should have been acting like the ex-government official he is and jumped on the phone with government and heimat-security officials to avoid giving in to this threat while remaining safe; he should have coordinated with NATO (theater owners, not the other Nato) to avoid this disaster in advance; he should have been doing diplomacy between the studios to avoid having one of them screw it up for all of them. Just a top of my head list for any qualified person in his position. The exact threat might be “new” but the problem was obvious for months if not longer. To my mind, the top Sony execs got blindsided but are getting too much blame, when it should land right at Dodd’s feet.

8. Life Itself will win the Oscar: Oscar predictions are tricky business, and while I’m not going out on a limb with this one (I am picking a favorite), it’s a chance to be unequivocal in my support. While I’ve always been a fan of Steve James and Kartemquin, I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. It’s not even my favorite documentary of the year, which is Particle Fever, but I was completely swept into the story, and think they’ve not only made a great film here, they’ve made the one film that might overcome the old Hollywood prejudices against Ebert (see the film) and actually win. It should. There are many great contenders, but this film was one of the few that made me think hard about my life, and think harder about how film encourages empathy (a subtext of the beginning of the film)., which we could all use a bit more of today. I hope this prediction is spot on.

9. This will be an important year for Net Neutrality: We had a lot of attacks on net neutrality in 2014. While those were pushed back, many of the lobbyists are now pressing the same issues we killed at the federal level down at the State and municipal level. With a presidential election coming up, the Republicans and Democrats will both be pressing their versions, and given that the Republicans are better at (Evilly) crafting the issue under new terminology that resonates with voters even when mind-numbingly wrong, we can expect them to gain some ground (They’ve been generally anti-net-neutrality). Meanwhile, all of the filmmaker support organizations are asleep at the wheel, so our voices won’t likely be heard on this issue, and literally nothing else could be nearly as important to the future of how our films get seen. Let’s hope we can at least follow the leaders in the tech space and help keep net neutrality alive a bit longer.

10. The Interview Experience will Boost Calls for Sharing the Numbers: I’m biased here as many know I am working on a film numbers project now, but among the many things that came out of The Interview disaster was that it became glaringly obvious to many more people that we know almost nothing about what’s being made on VOD. Mainstream press started to comment on this, the public started wondering why the heck we don’t know more about what’s being made on which platforms. I suspect we’ll see even more industry, press and public calls for bringing more transparency to the numbers, and it’s about time.

Those are the ten things I see in store for 2015. I suspect a lot of other things (privacy, hacking, world politics, etc) will see many more important developments, but that’s what I see for film. What I’d like to see happen probably won’t: To my mind, there hasn’t been a single invention that has changed culture the way Kickstarter did since the time of their founding. Literally nothing. I’d like to see someone launch something equally game-changing in 2015. It wouldn’t be anything to do with the crowd, but rather something that takes advantage of the net and the zeitgeist in a similarly game-changing fashion. I hope someone launches whatever this is in 2015, but I won’t be holding my breath, and I have no idea what it could be – or I wouldn’t be working in film!

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Blockchain and the transformation of the ownership of digital culture

blockchain Now that’s a title I’ve been waiting to use for awhile! I’ve been thinking a bit lately about how Blockchain might transform industries beyond finance, like film, for example. If you don’t know what the f I’m talking about, you’re not alone. While many tech people know Blockchain as the fundamental technology behind Bitcoin, few of the rest of us know much about it, and I’m not calling myself an expert, but many people believe it is as transformative as anything to have come around in quite a long time – so one has to ask, will it transform multiple sectors, and if so, will film be one of them. I think….maybe, and Monegraph points towards that future.

Quickly and grossly simplified, Blockchain is the technology that allows Bitcoin to work – it’s a way to ensure that when I pay you with Bitcoin, I am using a real Bitcoin, that I haven’t also sold the same Bitcoin to someone else. It’s like a virtual ledger that can show the history/ownership of any file (not just Bitcoins, it could be a media file for example) and allows for a decentralized mechanism to trace ownership. If you want to really understand it read this or this, but importantly, the technology allows one to authenticate the a certain file is a unique, true “original” file. It also allows for many other complex interactions, including interfacing with devices. This solves many a problem when you’re trying to trade money and buy/sell things, and it might also solve the question of authenticity in a digital world. That’s where Walter Benjamin comes in (again) to the conversation.

As any (poor-out-of-work) liberal arts major knows, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction summed up what happens when mechanical means make it easy to copy pretty much anything. The aura of an artwork is lost – what’s the value of an original when anyone can access a copy? Well, you can read that again to find out what happens (politics) but we’ve been wrestling with the nature of ownership in a digital world for a very long time, and Benjamin is a good reference point for the conversation.

Monegraph is a novel attempt to restore the aura of originality to digital artworks. It uses blockchain technology to authenticate an original work of art. You can watch this presentation on Monegraph, or watch the founder speaking about Monegraph for more details, but essentially you submit your work to Monegraph using your Twitter handle, the NameCoin client (you’ll spend a few pennies to get some NameCoins) and then you can create a Monegraph for your digital file. This is kinda like an interactive digital stamp that says: this here is the original artwork as created by the artist on this date. Yes, people can still make copies (legally or illegally), but only those created through a blockchain type transaction are “authentic.” The copies coexist, but if you want to buy and “original” work, you can do so through Monegraph.

As this same technology can be used for any file, it could be used to authenticate films, books, music, pretty much any digital file. In theory, it could be used to sell artist “special editions” of films, but it could theoretically be used instead of technologies like Ultraviolet, de-centralizing the control of the files, but allowing for authentication of “real” copies. Doing research today online, I found a writer, Ken Tindell, who has even proposed that the blockchain could be tied to your digital device, allowing it to read whether you have proper ownership of the file. So a Studio could sell you a film and you could own it and not have to worry about that file disappearing should Amazon suddenly stop carrying that title (which has happened). As Tindell proposes: 

“The full features of Bitcoin transactions could be then used, enabling a movie to be rented, sold, re-sold, loaned, and so on. The issuer of the coloured coin for a movie would be the movie studio and they would control the terms of the market for their own movies (perhaps demanding a ‘droit de suite’ fee when it was transferred). Because the rules of the scheme would be open and transparent and the ownership rules (such as requiring the issuing studio to countersign transfers) embedded directly into the blockchain it would then be possible to define just what ‘ownership’ of a movie means.”

That’s pretty cool, and is probably just the tip of the Iceberg, because we’re at the beginning of this revolution. But as an indie producer, I could sell my film and control how you share it (giving various permissions or charging certain fees based on my proclivities) without using iTunes or Netflix or Amazon. Sure those services still help with discovery, but a blockchain powered VHX could be pretty cool. It could also be used to make a better system of copyright registration, so we don’t have to send VHS, beta tapes or film to the Library of Congress (though film is a great storage medium).

In theory, I could also tie the blockchain at the clip level of my film, enabling me to share the clip with another filmmaker for “free” up-front, but then demand payment based on how that subsequent film is bought and sold. This would revolutionize the clip licensing business, letting me pay based on how successful my film is instead of some theoretical price paid up front before I know if my film will even be seen. It could allow for remix in new ways as well, perhaps allowing effective monetization, while retaining some artistic control and de-centralizing the authority (go direct to the artist instead of some agency). This could work not just for films, but any digital artwork, meaning a(nother) transformation of the relationship between artists and audiences, as well as a transformation in the concept of ownership of culture.

Importantly, it’s also a move towards de-centralization of the ownership and trade in culture. As Taylor Davidson has written elsewhere, there’s a big trend online now towards decentralization as people start to realize the problems we’ve got with so much power being held by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix and the NSA. Peer to peer transactions, like Bitcoin and Monegraph, among others, put more power back in the hands of people, and in this case give more power to artists connecting directly with audiences. As Taylor writes:

“But it’s possible to see how bitcoin, as a leading app for the blockchain, and a wide range of other peer-to-peer apps built on top of new mesh network technologies, could create unique, valuable, distributed alternatives to centralized approaches. Alternatives, not complete replacements, but viable alternatives could create knock-on effects at how the stacks do business. And the time for it could be now, as people are beginning to see the broader implications of the centralized Internet, and it’s feeding a burgeoning appetite for alternatives to the stacks. Bitcoin, multipeer connectivity, and mesh networking may seem far-fetched, but they could be signals that the next movement is already here.”

I’ve not given enough thought yet to figure out all of the potential uses and possible futures this affords, but that’s a panel/conversation I’d like to attend at some film festival (instead of another transmedia panel).

Got any ideas on how else this might be used?

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End Of Story, panel today

I’m speaking today at the Webvisions conference on a very exciting panel called End of Story. Love the title, but we’re not talking about the end, but perhaps the future of story. I’m late to announce the conference here, but I’m very excited to join two people I admire on stage – John Carlin of Funny Garbage and Casey Pugh of VHX, and for this panel most importantly, of Star Wars Uncut.

Here’s the panel description:

Join in a lively conversation that explores how technology is expanding and challenging our ideas of narrative, authorship and community with a panel that features Brian Newman (Sub-Genre Media), Casey Pugh (Star Wars Uncut), moderator John Carlin (Funny Garbage) and other special guests.

The panelists will discuss ways technology and digital media have empowered creative people to do new things over the past decade – rather than just distribute and market linear content. They’ll also talk about the challenges to some of our most cherished ideas about authorship, content and how art should provoke, engage and amuse us. They’ll share and critique some of the most well known (and obscure) examples of emerging interactive media, as well as what might be missing and how that will change over the next few years.

Finally, the panelists will publicly imagine the kind of digital culture we would like to see and how that will transform creative and commercial work around the world by the end of the decade.

The conversation promises to be intriguing and enlightening (thanks to the other two panelists), and I hope to post an update about it here next week. John is also leading a keynote on the future of Interactive Culture earlier in the day, which also looks pretty awesome. Here’s some Star Wars Uncut:

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Ten Predictions for 2014

Tricky business, these predictions, but I’ll try once more to get something right here.

  1. This will be a deciding year in the film tech space. We’ve got a lot of platforms in this space: Vimeo, VHX, ReelHouse, Fandor, IndieFlix, Snag, Mubi, Distrify…the list of platforms is long, and I didn’t even mention the gorillas in that room. We’ve also got lots of competition in the discovery arena: MoviePilot, Letterboxed, SeenThat and Flicklist (which I’m still struggling to launch). Then we’ve got the tools like Assemble, MoviePass, TopSpin, Tugg, Slated, Seed & Spark, and more, all helping with various aspects of the film business. I won’t even begin to list the numerous online news and review sites. I don’t see many of these companies existing in 2015. I think 2014 will be the year where we figure out who is going to grow up and own this space (or, these spaces, these companies represent a lot of different business models). My money is on ReelHouse at the moment. They’ve just launched a partnership with Warner Brothers that is pretty interesting. If they can navigate the waters and merge indie, arthouse and studio discovery, viewing and engagement right, they could own this space. But there’s an equally good chance that someone new will launch and eclipse all of these guys, or that Facebook just launches better versions of their services by close of the year.
  2. Branded Content Explodes. I hate every word I just typed, but it’s a better short hand than: Smart companies with a powerful relationship with their consumers/fans will realize that they can and should make smart films and other video content to better engage with them, and it will expand dramatically this year. I am biased, as one of my clients is in this space, but two non-clients are doing it best now: Red Bull and ESPN. I think we’ll see many more doing it soon, and indie filmmakers should watch and learn…and debate what indie means, because many of these companies will want to work with you soon.
  3. Data finally taken seriously in this space. I remember roughly five years ago when Lance Weiler told the crowd at Sundance that data was the new oil. Everyone ignored him. I too have been preaching this for quite some time, and now everyone has woken up and is exploring data in the film world. I am consulting on one project in this space, and I know of many others. I expect we’ll see several amazing data projects in the film world this year, and we’ll learn what more we could know as a result, meaning 2015 will see some longitudinal studies and more people opening up their data as they see the value in sharing it.
  4. Changing of the guard. We’ve just seen three or four major institutions in the film world lose their leadership, for various reasons. There will be some new leaders announced, but I think we’ll also see more shake-ups at a few more. I don’t have any feelings good or bad about the changes, but I am excited to see who takes the reins at these institutions, and what next steps they will (or won’t) make.
  5. Direct Distribution Backlash. I’m already sensing this on the festival circuit and think it will become a more open topic of conversation. 2014 will be the year where everyone starts to dis direct distribution. Many will think I’m crazy for saying this- in a world of unlimited new tools to reach your fans and distribute your film right to them, how can I make this prediction? Because it’s hard work, and it doesn’t often pay off any better than going with a distributor. It’s a tough business whether you do it yourself or go at it with partners. Not everyone has the stomach for it, and everyone is starting to realize it works well for certain types of films, but not every film. I am not saying direct distribution will die, or that certain filmmakers shouldn’t try it. I am also sure we’ll see at least one project a month that nails it – does it right and makes bank. But many people are starting to realize that we’ve not gotten rid of the middle-men here, we’ve just made more of them (aggregators, bookers, marketers, etc) and that sometimes you just want to make the next movie instead of becoming a carny for 18 months.
  6. That said, direct distribution will make someone a millionaire this year. Who will it be? Probably a film to be discovered at Sundance in January. We’ll see.
  7. Distributor Shake Out. There’s too many players in the space. In the documentary world especially, it’s leading to unsustainable prices being paid to acquire content (good for filmmakers in the short term), and when that money isn’t made back, heads start to roll. I predict we’ll see some consolidation here, and several burn-outs.
  8. Episodic Content Will Rule. It already does. It will explode even more this year, and my hope is that more indies will learn from those leading in this space. Six million subscribers is more valuable than a film fest laurel, or even an Oscar.
  9. Online Episodic Creators will roll out more feature projects. As Freddie Wong has already done twice, more creators will launch feature projects, and many of them will do it through crowd-funding direct from their fans, turning those millions of followers into real gold, and making the most exciting, truly independent work out there.
  10. More investors will lose money in film than ever before. Thanks to the JOBS Act and the upcoming expansion of crowd-funding and crowd-investing initiatives, more people will get the chance to lose their investment on crappy film ideas with no business plan, and no chance of success. It will make it harder for the rest of us with good ideas to get funding, because we’ll find more burned investors in the pool.

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