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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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Wither the pull quote? On Ratner and Rotten Tomatoes

Brett Ratner hit the news this past week, saying: “The worst thing that we have in today’s movie culture is Rotten Tomatoes, I think it’s the destruction of our business.” He went on to say: “But that number is an aggregate and one that nobody can figure out exactly what it means, and it’s not always correct. I’ve seen some great movies with really abysmal Rotten Tomatoes scores. What’s sad is film criticism has disappeared. It’s really sad.”

Now he’s likely just upset that Batman vs. Superman scores so low on Rotten Tomatoes, which most articles pointed out, but he does raise a valid point about the industry that I’ve been pondering as well, but from a slightly different angle: the disappearance of critical reviews and pull-quotes from the marketing of films to audiences.

Working with Abramorama, I recently released a film I produced called Love & Taxes by Jake Kornbluth and his brother Josh. It’s a little movie, with a small theatrical release, but we’ve gotten amazing reviews. We’re happy to be at 100% for the critic’s scores on Rotten Tomatoes, and have gotten heaps of quotes like this one from the NYT’s Ken Jaworoski:”A Minor Marvel.”

Love & taxes poster

It used to be that distributors would tell you that one of the reasons to show films in theaters was to get the critical reviews, so you can put them as pull quotes on your movie poster and then your DVD case (or way back, your VHS box). And they seemed to work, because everyone did this. And you still see it in advertising for movies in newspapers, etc.

But guess where you don’t see them – online, where most audiences watch these films. Go to iTunes, Amazon or Netflix and look – no pull quotes anywhere. Each of these platforms requires film distributors to remove these quotes from their poster art. Heck, Netflix doesn’t even really show your poster art anymore, mainly using images from your set of film stills. Click on a film on these platforms, and you get some extra synopsis, and some cast and above the line credits, but mostly no reviews or reviewer’s quotes.

Heck, Netflix doesn’t even show the Rotten Tomatoes score anywhere. You have to try hard to even get to a details screen where you can see a few member reviews – and who knows how valid their opinions are anyway. Amazon Prime shows the aggregate IMDB score and customer scores, but you have to link away to even look at IMDB, and there’s no RT link at all.  iTunes does show the RT score and does include the top four critics reviews. But even then, we can see that the majority of the marketing of films on the platforms is very limited.

And that’s a problem for smaller indie movies. If you’re a blockbuster or larger film, you can rely on your own marketing spend to gain awareness for your film. You can run that pull quote thousands of times in print and digital and try to get the word out. But for most indies, the majority of their marketing spend has been around their theatrical release and sometimes the beginning of their digital life. And almost all of this marketing goes into building word of mouth and discovery, so that someone seeks out your film, and perhaps helps it to land on the top ten on iTunes, which makes it get streamed more – because most people look on the home screen for their films.

But we have always hoped people would find our films through browsing as well, and might see the critics reviews, and maybe even a great pull quote and take a chance on our films. But that doesn’t work anymore. And even if they heard about our film from its theatrical release, or elsewhere, they might be further persuaded to take a chance when they read a great pull quote. But that’s not possible if it’s not even there at the buying site. Few people are going to go look it up on your site, or in the NYT or on RT.

Now I’m almost ready to blame the platforms for removing the critics or reducing them to a Tomato score, but… they wouldn’t have done that if it didn’t work. They have more data than any of us can imagine, and if showing pull quotes sold or rented more films, they’d be pressuring us to get more of them, and would be displaying them properly.

Or maybe they do work. iTunes after all needs you to spend money and rent or buy the film, and they make a few of them available. Netflix doesn’t care if you watch a title – it just cares that you keep subscribing. And just by having a good inventory of TV and films, you’ll probably keep subscribing even if you don’t read the reviews or watch my film. You don’t need a conspiracy theory about lessening the role of critics to see why it may not matter to Netflix at all.

But it matters to us indie filmmakers. And it means we have to start re-prioritizing our marketing. Your thumbail images need to be that much better. Your poster design (and its pull quotes) matter less. Your marketing spend, especially on Facebook, should emphasize your best quotes even more. And for some people, they’ll have to debate whether a theatrical run predicated on  getting reviews even matters for their film anymore – perhaps that four-wall or service deal money would be better spent on other marketing. Lots to consider in the digital age.

All that said, I think Rotten Tomatoes is not the problem. If you go to their site, you can access a lot more reviews now. But Ratner is right that our reduction of these reviews down to one score, and even worse – the cutting of pull quotes from online sites – is a problem.

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Sundance Bound

Well, it’s been just over six months since I’ve written a blog post. Been too busy with client work, and I’ve also not had anything interesting to say, I guess. But the annual trek to Sundance brings me back to some thoughts on what’s exciting me about the fest this year, and a little on the state of the industry.

1. It’s a damn good time to watch indie film
I can barely make it through the Sundance catalogue, trying to make my schedule. It will be another impossible year, with so many great films to see. I know of at least ten awesome movies that weren’t taken, and there’s likely thousands more I didn’t see. 2016 was a great year for indie film, and 2017 continues the tradition. While there are many brilliant docs and narratives (and VR, and…) I am most looking forward to seeing David Yow in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. Yes, David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, one of the best bands of the late 80s/90s. I saw them at least ten times live, and he’s got more energy than anyone this side of Shannon Selberg. Hope he does an impromptu show in Park City.

2. It’s a damn good time to sell a film

Buyers galore. Just like last year, you’ve got some deep pockets with Amazon Studios and Netflix on the scene, not to mention the usual suspects, plus you now have Neon, NatGeo upping it’s doc game (competing with Discovery), Bleecker Street, The Orchard, Cohen Media, etc, etc. I could name ten or more hot new-ish companies competing at the ‘Dance. And I hear we’ll hear some exciting news about Amazon Video Direct, and I bet Vimeo as well. BTW, it’s also a damn good time to raise money for films – plenty of film funds in place and launching, and (For some) an expanding economy, plus more people competing to get original content.

3. The Women’s March

The talk of 2017 is going to be all about how filmmakers react to the Trumpocalypse (in fact, the talk started the day after). I’ll likely opine on that later this year, but I’m glad to see a whole gang of bad-asses has put together the Park City Women’s March on Main (FB link). I’ll be there to lend my support, and wonder whether anyone will be in the theaters that morning? All P&I screenings should get a second screening to be safe.

4. Climate Change 

It’s on the agenda in a big way. With a new and much-reported section called The New Climate, Sundance programs 14+ films, shorts and VR experiences tackling climate change. I’ve helped make and distribute 10+ climate change related films in the past year or two (mainly with my client, Patagonia), so I can’t wait to see what everyone else is doing. I’ve also been pretty depressed post election about the possibilities of film changing the conversation at all, so I am hoping to get fired up and energized by these projects.

5. Will DIY die in 2017 (did it in 2016)?

Up until a couple years ago, everyone was speaking about the DIY distribution revolution. Now? Crickets. Sure, I know many filmmakers who hire bookers and do it themselves still, but that’s increasingly when they don’t get many other offers of any significance. It’s much rarer now to see the film that comes into Sundance already announcing they’ll be doing hybrid/DIY distribution. There’s also many fewer aggregator portals to work with (they all seem to want to grow into distributors now, and one’s for sale). I look forward to getting the latest reports from the field at Sundance, but also expect this conversation to continue through 2017.

6. FAANG rules

In the financial world, they refer to the FANG companies – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. I add an initial and say Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google. They rule the media world and are gobbling everything in their path. I don’t see how anyone can compete with any of them anytime soon. With Apple announcing they’re moving into original content, and Facebook rumored to be doing the same, you’d have to raise over 300MM to even begin to compete with them on a platform or film service, or as a content maker. In theory that means it’s a good time to be a filmmaker or content maker – and maybe even a distributor. They need films and content. But look at what they’re making. Aside from Ted Hope at Amazon (who for now is mainly making 15M+ films w/ established auteurs), most are concentrating on TV and original series. Talk in the distributor world is that Netflix is buying anywhere from 50-80% less docs than they used to, as well as indie films, and that confirms what it looks like from the consumer stand-point (I can’t find most of the films I want to watch).  I imagine distributors will see deep pockets ready for their better films, but there’s very few of them who understand marketing, especially in an algorithm world, so I could see them being bypassed pretty soon. It’s going to get interesting.

7. Diversity not so much, but it’s got to change

I haven’t had time to run the diversity ratios on the Sundance line-up, but I don’t blame them for the lack of diversity in the indie film world – they do a lot to try to help in this regard. While this year’s indie film landscape was pretty diverse – with filmmakers like Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay leading a list of great talent – the overall state of things for diversity, and women in film, remains pretty dismal. As Anthony Kaufman reported in July, 2016 in IndieWire: “This year’s first ever Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, for example, stated that ethnic minorities constituted only 12% of film directors and only 9% of broadcast TV directors, while over half of all films and TV shows failed to include a single non-white character.”

This must change. The indie film world can’t continue to look like me (white male), and we continue to need more diverse voices in front of and especially behind the camera. Nearly every film organization has a program to address this issue, something Kaufman explores in his very good article above. But the situation isn’t changing, which probably means we need to hold these initiatives for indie film programmers, buyers, execs and theater bookers instead of for filmmakers. I’m willing to bet the diversity ratios for decision makers in this business is even lower than the statistics above, and that influences what gets programmed. For example, there’s been no room for a black female mumble-core (not that they’d want to make that), because these up & coming filmmakers often don’t feel they can even submit to these fests, programmers wouldn’t be inclined to like them nor distributors to find their audience. Tyler Perry made a fortune making films for the underserved Black Christian audience. Well, there’s many more of these underserved niches just waiting for their films, and many mainstream audiences getting tired of only a few Moonlight‘s per year.

8. Subtitle purgatory

Sundance, and most film festivals, have a great selection of international, foreign language cinema each year. And a few big (Sony Classics) and small (Lorber, Grasshopper) distributors take the bigger ones out each year. But there’s a wealth of great foreign films, especially documentaries, that never make it to US audiences in any meaningful manner. I was once a doc buyer for a TV broadcaster, and was told to just avoid most subtitled films. That might be because 14% of US adults can’t read, 29% read at a basic, 5th grade level, and only 13% read at a proficient level (!). Or because subtitles don’t show up well on your iPhone, where 33% of consumers watch streaming services. Or it could be because so few Americans seem to care about foreign countries (64% of American citizens don’t have a passport). But the arthouse audience already skews towards an audience that does read and does travel, I’d bet, but if we watched these films, Netflix and their competitors would be buying more of them. It’s also not a lack of good content – attend any international film fest, and the American fare is often much weaker. Methinks this means there’s another underserved niche to be served. I know EuropaCinemas has an initiative to bring more undistributed films to the US this year (I consult with them a bit), but we need some more initiatives here too.

9. M&A City

Sundance 2017 promises to be M&A city – but meaning not mergers and acquisitions (ok, that applies as well), but mergers and announcements. Everyone launches new products, ventures and endeavors at Sundance, and this year, announcements should be plenty. I expect some new SVOD services, new original content, expansions of existing players, new film funds (I know of at least 4 in development), new slates, new divisions, new films of course, and mergers. We’ve recently seen the acquisition/merger of Gunpowder & Sky and FilmBuff, and earlier last year was Vimeo and VHX. Gravitas has announced it’s looking for a buyer. And that’s just what’s public info. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this in 2017 while money is flowing, and we might see many announcements in Park City.

10. Virtual Reality and new Media test year

Sundance has what looks to be an amazing line-up of new media – VR, AR, art and panels. I’ve been attending the New Frontier (I think) since it first started, and the past few years it’s been the most exciting and most trafficked part of the festival. I heard a rumor that more people went through New Frontier last year than any other venue (would love to know if this is true). People are genuinely excited about the possibilities when you attend. And of course, billions of dollars have been spent in the sector, with a lot of activity going on. Amazon is moving into the space in a big way in 2017 too. I believe in VR’s long-term importance, but I’ve been unimpressed with nearly every experience I’ve had in VR (but some interesting ones in AR and art), and overall consumers aren’t flocking to it as expected. I think we’ll learn a lot about what’s working at Sundance this year, and 2017 will be a big year for figuring out whether this version of VR will take off or if we need another 5-10+ years of experimentation before virtual becomes reality.

Them’s my quick thoughts heading into Park City 2017. If you are attending, I hope to see you there.

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Hocus Pocus – Know your advertisements from your journalism

I do a lot of work in “branded content” – working with brands making films. Call them what you will, even when they’re great, and even when the brand truly cares about making a difference, or making some good entertainment, you can call them what they also are: advertisements. I can argue all day that if the filmmaker has creative control, it’s not much different than a commissioned piece for the BBC (I believe this to be true, but that’s another post), or one funded by MacArthur (again, I believe this to be true), but regardless, the clients I work with are pretty transparent about their relationship.

Every brand I work with prominently displays their logo at the beginning and often says “Brand X Presents…” so you know that what you’re about to watch is funded by a brand. In fact, we’re all proud of the films we sponsor, and we think they’re great films – that’s what we call them, films. You can quibble with how indie they are, but they’re good short or feature films that happen to be funded by a brand. Some call them films, some call them content, some call them branded films or branded content, but one thing we would never call them is journalism.

Apparently, the NYT doesn’t share this ethical standard. I awoke this morning to read the NYT in print (old habits die hard), and on the back page of the paper was a full page advertisement, congratulating themselves for the Cannes Lion Grand Prix for Mobile for their VR app, and Grand Prix for Entertainment (italics mine) for their VR film “The Displaced.” It closes:”Congratulations to all who were involved in bringing our journalism to a new frontier.” (italics mine again) Here’s a photo:

Ad/Journalism Awards

Ad/Journalism Awards

Journalism? I nearly puked up my breakfast. That’s the hocus pocus I’m referring to in the title, but let’s call it “virtual reality…” The Cannes Lions are awards specifically for advertising. Or as the NYT’s own Jim Rutenberg describes it in the next section: “On the surface, this festival is a great bacchanalia the advertising industry holds with its clients and business partners in Big Consumer Goods, Big Entertainment and Big Journalism.” Nothing celebrated there could remotely be called journalism. And neither the NYT VR app, or this film is either. The app may be used for journalism someday, but make no mistake, their plans for it are mainly for advertisers. That’s why the app’s description is under their marketing URL: http://www.nytimes.com/marketing/nytvr/

And in the case of The Displaced, while you’d have a hard time knowing it from the NYT itself, it is branded content. As Cannes Lion jury president Jae Goodman, chief creative officer and co-head of CAA Marketing so elqouently states (quoted in AdWeek):

“From the beginning, he said, the judges followed these criteria: The work had to be high quality, have a powerful relationship to the brand, attract an audience and not be interruptive, and be entertainment in its form and not just entertaining in its effect.

“The Displaced,” which immersed the viewer in the lives of three child refugees, was extraordinary both as an editorial and a marketing piece, said Goodman. Rather than describe its power, he urged the journalists assembled to watch it for themselves, but he did say that it satisfied one criterion in particular—the brand connection.
“This is a piece of entertainment content that moves the brand and the business that created it forward,” he said.”

Wowza. How’s that for journalism? It is high quality, but it’s branded content, meant to build a brand connection (here with Mini, GE and Google).

Why do I care? Does this matter?

I think it does matter, and I care because the future of our journalism, our advertising and our entertainment (and education, and enlightenment…) are being built now, and when you get your peanut butter in my chocolate and call it journalism, you’ve gone a bit too far. As John Oliver has pointed out, “Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except, it’s actually more like raisins into a cookie—because nobody f-‍-‍-ing wants them there.”

I have no problem with brands making content, obviously, because I promote it all the time. I have problems when this is hidden, or when someone really important (like the NY F-n Times!!!) pretends that it’s just another form of journalism. There’s a lot of ethical standards built up around journalism, and you’d expect our leading US paper to at least pretend to follow them. But in fact, the NYT is probably the most egregious rule-breaker here of all.

As I’ve shown in many of my branded content lectures, the NYT T Brand Studio – a relatively new entity at the NYT, built to work with brands on “native content” has been up to these shenanigans for awhile.

Here’s a photo of one of their earliest efforts:

Early Branding

Early Branding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note that you can easily tell that it’s sponsored content. Well, that didn’t go over so well with advertisers, as was soon reported in AdAge:

nyt2

 

So then they came up with a new format:

nyt3

Note here that the branding is much smaller. You could almost not notice that this great article on women in prison is really an ad for Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, which is how it becomes “native” or icky… Remember, this isn’t journalism. As the NYT T Brand Studio says on their home page: “We create and distribute insightful brand content and experiences that shape opinion.” It may shape opinion, but it’s still an ad.

Now they just come out and say that they’re VR story sponsored by Mini is journalism. But it’s not. It’s an advertisement. It may be cutting edge, and it may be important, and it is likely the future, but can we please just call is what it is?

In the meantime, if you want to watch some good films that are clearly branded content, and not journalism, and are honest about it, watch some of my client’s films here or here. Oh, and that’s an advertisement I just wrote, not journalism.

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Saving Indie Film History – IndieCollect and the Apparatus Films

He Was Once (1989, 16min) via IndieCollect Kickstarter page

Filmmakers – Do you know where your negatives are? Didn’t shoot on film? Do you know how little time digital masters are expected to last if you don’t keep migrating them to new formats? The history of independent film – especially its current history – is in jeopardy. As an industry, we’re always focused on what’s new and what’s next, but our indie history is just as important as what’s around the corner, and the reality is that the majority of independent films aren’t properly stored, archived and indexed (so they can be found), and current indie films are being shot on digital formats that disappear quickly (remember floppy disks?). Sure, it seems like you can find just about anything on YouTube, but actually, you can’t and even those films online are usually not being preserved for the future.

Sandra Schulberg has a solution – IndieCollect, and when Sandra comes up with an idea it always goes somewhere – she founded the IFP, and has been a leading figure in the indie film sector (and is also a filmmaker). She realized that the history of indie film needs to be saved, and she’s gathered up a posse of like-minded people, including me and some others – to help out. IndieCollect is indexing, archiving, preserving, digitizing and making available the history of independent film. They’re partnering with existing archives (such as UCLA, the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress and others) to ensure that indie films are properly stored, and finding homes for those that are in danger. They’re rescuing thousands of films that were close to disappearing, and they’re working on solutions to make sure that filmmaker’s work can always be discovered, and that (whenever possible) filmmaker’s can get paid for that work.

IndieCollect recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to save some super cool films from early indie film history – the Apparatus films of Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes. Check out the Kickstarter page to learn more about what IndieCollect is doing, the Apparatus films they are saving and more. If you want to learn more, read this NYT article on IndieCollect, and if you like what they’re doing, please contribute and/or spread the word.

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Windowing & Piracy

Another year, another bogus analysis of piracy in indie film. The latest is this gem from Adam Leipzig (who I actually like a lot), and Entertainment Media Partners in Cultural Weekly. The report came out just before Sundance, but I was too busy to even take a look until now. Adam does a pretty good job of showing the numbers for indie films at Sundance this year – how many applied, got accepted, possible budget ranges, etc. I like it when anyone tries to explain data in indie film, so kudos for this.

The problem comes when he starts to analyze piracy’s impacts on indie film. He shows a lot of lost revenue, but his calculations are based on a pretty interesting assumption – that 5% of illegal downloaders would have purchased the film at $3 per transaction. There is no evidence, or even theory, presented as to how he arrives at this percentage. But my bigger problem is the logic – let’s just pretend for a minute that 5% of the 12M+ people who illegally downloaded Whiplash would have purchased the film for $3 meaning $1.825M in lost revenue (per the infographic)… well, that assumption leads to another, that there would be a mechanism for them to actually make this purchase. But that wasn’t an option for anyone who pirated Whiplash (he doesn’t offer transaction dates, so let’s assume most of the piracy occurred early in the film’s release). If they wanted to pay $3 for the film instead of pirating it, they couldn’t.  There was no button, no availability, because of old-fashioned windowing practices. This is true of every film on the chart.

What the study actually shows is not that piracy hurts anyone, but rather that millions of dollars are lost each year because of antiquated business practices. If pirates could buy the films for $3 they might, and if 5% of them did, the business would see millions in new revenues. In fact, for the 14 films from Sundance 2014/5 that he studied, that’s over $6.5M dollars lost because of a crap business model. Seems to me that if we studied this a bit more, we might focus less on piracy and more on getting rid of windows.

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Branded Documentaries Workshop at UnionDocs

Branded content has become a big story. I’ve been working for awhile now with many different companies exploring film and new media partnerships, and increasingly, I’ve been working with some of them on documentary films. Most notably, I recently helped Patagonia with the distribution and marketing of DamNation. It was a team effort, and I learned a lot, perhaps as much as I offered in advice. Now I get the chance to share that knowledge in a three day workshop at UnionDocs, and I’ll be joined by several other experts in the space. There’s an early bird discount until this Friday (Feb 27, 2015) as well.

I’ve given a shorter version of this talk at IDFA, Sundance and IFP Week, but this is the first chance I have to spend a few days with filmmakers giving in-depth advice. We’ll cover a bit of everything: what is branded content? How does it work? Are you selling out? How do you keep creative control? What are the pros and cons? Can it help you have a bigger impact with your film? How do I break in to this work? We’ll talk about this and more.

From the UnionDocs website: This seminar is a theoretical and practical intensive course designed for documentary filmmakers looking to develop their skill sets in the emerging field of branded content. Branded videos are on the rise, as clients are looking to engage with their customers through creative collaborations. Filmmakers can learn how to build a sustainable practice for financing their own works.

Designed by UnionDocs in partnership with Mathilde Walker-Billaud, the seminar will explore new business models for documentarians. It will offer technical tools and strategies for working with clients while developing and maintaining a creative voice. The course is designed for graduate students and professionals in documentary and media arts (the audience is limited to 14 students).

This seminar will bring together five guest instructors who are thinkers and practitioners from different disciplines: producers, marketers and strategists, entrepreneurs, documentarists and filmmakers. The goal is to expose a small group to a broad range of creative approaches to branded documentary, including audience engagement, online and cultural marketing, fundraising strategies, digital innovation and production/distribution.

Here’s the breakdown of each day, and guest instructor bios are on the website – and seriously, these are some awesome people. I can’t wait to learn from them as well:

Each day will explore one topic with one or two guest instructors:

Friday – The filmmaker as an entrepreneur
The first day of the seminar looks in-depth at the ways we produce and distribute films. How innovative is the branded documentary model?

Instructors:
AM: Brian Newman
PM: Marc Schiller

Saturday – New strategies for brands
The second day of the intensive focuses on content and cultural marketing. How do the brands implement successful marketing campaign and generate audience engagement with the help of artists and filmmakers?

Instructors:
AM: Adam Katz

Sunday – The final cut
The third day explores the creative execution of branded content. What is the impact of brands on the process?

Instructors:
AM: Harrison Winter
PM: Trish Dalton

Register here.

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Launching the Transparency Project

At the Sundance Film Festival in January, we announced The Transparency Project – a new initiative to shine some light on the hidden data around what indie films are making in revenue from various sources. We can all find box office, but the numbers for what’s being made on VOD, at festivals, in community screenings – all of this is relatively hidden. This project, an initiative founded by Sundance and Cinreach now has multiple nonprofit partners and numerous for-profit partners. I’ve been working as a project consultant on this for over a year, so it was awesome to finally launch it and be able to speak about it publicly.

Want to learn more? I recommend you check out the Transparency website, read this great article from Filmmaker Magazine or this one from Thompson on Hollywood. We hope to launch a beta of our data analytics tool soon, so sign the pledge on the website and get early access to the beta test.

This is an iterative project – we’ll shape it based on feedback from the field. There’s a link on the site to send us feedback, but if you know me, send me your feedback directly, as all of us want to keep making this project better. I look forward to hearing 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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