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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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