In 2006, novelist and blogger Cory Doctorow described how ‘technology giveth and technology taketh’; that for every hopeful revolution brought by our networked world there’s a downside, and for every peril, there’s potential. A nice illustration of the idea: running a search to find the article where I first read this quote gives me page after page of results linking to a no longer existing MP3 of Cory's talk, mistaken by a web-bot for a pop song, and I’m invited to send a ‘Technology Giveth Taketh Doctorow’ ringtone to my phone. So while it’s wonderful that the Internet allows you to find – without leaving your home – a recording of a lecture from years ago; it’s not great that the search is full of spam. Conversely, the issues raised in my previous blog – Peak Eyeballs and the Scarcity of Attention – at first glance are quite troubling. They suggest that not only must the independent film sector deal with the collapse of pre-sales and bank financing, with increased piracy and considerably reduced buyouts from distributors and lower acquisition prices from TV – but there’s more filmmakers competing than ever, all trying to communicate with an audience who has far more things hustling for their attention.
But in spite of this, the global market for filmed entertainment is set to continue to grow by over 3% a year to $100bn in 2016 (PWC), and most of the challenges of the web are come hand-in-hand with benefits. So working back through some of the challenges raised in that blog post:
No limits to platform size
While there is much more competition on digital platforms, the barriers to market access have almost vanished. There is no artificial shelf space limit that prevents Amazon, iTunes, Netflix or LoveFilm from offering your film. One of the biggest frustrations for independent producers throughout the 20th century was the challenge of getting a film into a video store or cinema. In turn, the web has a potentially infinite ‘longtail’ distribution curve where hundreds of thousands of archive, niche and minority interest films combined can outperform the top 50 blockbusters at the head of the curve. (There was some academic research looking at 2000-2005 to suggest this may not apply as well to film as to books but this was done before subscription digital services like Netflix and LoveFilm took off.)
There are only so many hours in the day. Take a look – if it’s not etched already in your film business memory – at the graph of cinema admissions in the UK following the launch of television. TV's arrival, peaking in the 50s, did not herald an end to people engaging with mass-market moving image – but it dramatically changed the platform and format for where they did that.
This impact of TV on cinema, which cut admissions by some 3000% from the peak in 1946 to the very bottom in 1984, left much of the industry terrified of new distribution technology, leaving them erring on the side of caution henceforth. Indeed the first video-on-demand system running over a phone line was Zenith’s PhoneVision and was unveiled back in 1951. It aimed to offer Hollywood films direct to people's homes for a $1 a time, but in a pattern that many start-ups today could sympathise with, it never got the studio support it needed. It's understandable the majors were scared: thousands of cinemas had closed and laid empty or were turned into bingo halls and night clubs. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs. But the appetite for great films didn't decline, it just moved to a different space.
The graph is significant as it not only shows how dramatic an impact such a new ‘empowering technology’ can have on a business model, but also how slow adaptation allowed for the recovery of some lost ground. With the TV-saturated market of the 1980s and the threat of multi-channel TV and cable, cinemas began to split their screens into smaller spaces so they could show a wider range of films. It was a step backwards for the architecture but a jump forward for audiences and producers. The rise of the multiplex in the 1990s, a further unfortunate footnote in the history of architecture, helped to drive a resurgence in film-going that has not abated since, with admissions rising more than three-fold since the mid-80s and continuing to grow through recent recessions. In these adaptations, the cinemas had found that they could keep their base costs of running a building and box office roughly the same while offering more films to attract wider audiences. In other words, cinemas (eventually) evolved, much to the benefit of producers and filmgoers – and the cinemas' survival.
"Reclaim the Vision" was the title of one of the DOK Leipzig industry talks Sonja Henrici attended recently – and also the festival's overall motto. The debate got Sonja thinking about branding, the market vs the public, and how we stay relevant in what we do.
Media academic and creative director at Exozet, Friederike Schultz kicked off with a keynote summarising the big technological and behavioural changes under way. Producers will have to learn to provide for an audience that likes to "lean smart": "lean forward" when we want to engage, and "lean backward" when we want to view in a more traditional way. A world in which we can watch and interact, as Schultz calls it: "any place, any time, any line."
A world which is becoming more complex, app-ified and controlled in 'user-friendly' walled gardens. Even Google fears we have reached "peak search" – much like peak oil – which could threaten its entire business model (see Guardian article), as browser search is on the decline. Multi-screen is already commonplace – who doesn't use their mobile or iPad as their 'private' secondary screen? Brands – from broadcasters down to individual productions – are becoming de rigeur: How will you otherwise stand out in a post-broadcast era without schedules; how will you be found online or in the app shop?
"Ask yourself, what do you stand for?" Schultz says. To communicate this, is your brand.
Simon Kilmurry from POV emphasised the need for public broadcasters to keep championing diversity of opinions and culture, and to resist the simplistic measurement of audience ratings. In an increasingly self-curated media schedule, how do you ensure that you don't just watch films and news which confirm your already-held opinions? How do we expose ourselves to a multitude of opinions? (I'm sure an app is already on the way for this.) Public broadcaster brands still have a really important function to uphold. But once you're into branding, how can you stand outside the market to provide for 'the public'?
Gargi Sen from Magic Lantern in India said wisely: "The market doesn't see the public – only consumers."
In my eyes, most of us see no difference between the public and the market – no doubt, a neoliberal legacy. Perhaps we should debate the difference between the audience or user and the public more? In all our thinking about new business models I believe this question is rarely addressed. In a world where we're jointly scrabbling for scraps of money, we've resigned ourselves to the market model.
As explored in part one, Popcorn.js and timed metadata are ways to bring the rich interactive and interconnected web into video and audio. As audiences increasingly 'dual-screen' – surf the web and social networks while watching TV or a video in the background – connecting this extra information to a film in a way that is coherent with the look and feel of the film, has lots of potential.
1. On-screen notations
Inspired by the pop-up info panels that would appear on some music TV shows, pop-ups let you provide text-based commentary during a video and can be styled and coloured as needed – and placed anywhere on screen for as long as desired. Because these aren't encoded into the video, they can be indexed by search engines, translated by screen readers – and changed and added to during the life of the video.
This weekend at Ravensbourne College on the Greenwich peninsular, over 1,000 of the world's leading web makers and digital innovators have gathered for MozFest, Mozilla's annual get-together for a weekend of idea-sharing and web-making. One of the big announcements at the three-day event – which spans from gaming and learning to digital media and collaborative creativity – is the arrival of version 1.0 of a tool called Popcorn, which could revolutionise the way we watch and interact with films and video online. Nic Wistreich, tech consultant on SDI's Virtuous Circle initiative, is on location.
Photos from MozFest 2011 by Jonathan McIntosh (Creative Commons)
It has been suggested that the most innovative aspect of the web was the hyperlink, as it gave the ability to connect one page or item to another without needing the permission of whatever you are connecting to. An article is no longer limited to just reporting an event or idea but can connect directly to the sources, discussion, points for further reading, means to share more widely, and suggestions for taking action. The invisible threads between ideas and debate that once could only be found in the indexes of books and journals could begin to be connected, building an ever-growing tapestry of knowledge and ideas.
But while this has been liberating for text, images – anything that could be printed onto paper – it falls flat (quite literally) when applied to time-based media. You can link to a video file, but the mass of information within it and related to it is mostly lost.
Metadata is the addition of data to data, and for films has traditionally dealt just with the sort of info you could find in IMDb: the credits, technical details, synopsis, rights holders and so on. But a blog link and biography for the person speaking at 24 minutes and 03 seconds? A map reference for the breathtaking cathedral during the opening scene? The latest news stories around the topic at the heart of the film? This sort of metadata has until recently been kept quite separate from the time-based media itself.
Ben Kempas, SDI's Producer of Marketing and Distribution (PMD), shares his Top Ten Tips how to get the most out of Distrify, a key tool for "selling movies socially" across the web.
At the Scottish Documentary Institute, we've been using Distrify for over a year now as part of our Virtuous Circle initiative, testing it thoroughly and creating innovative connections with other tools.
First and foremost, it's important to understand that Distrify are not here to go out and sell your film for you. That's still your job. They're just providing you with one of the best tools to do so. Distrify is used by self-distributors and distributors alike, and its effectiveness is determined by the overall effort you're putting into a campaign around your film.
1. It's about engagement, not just sales
Start using Distrify for initial audience engagement while you have nothing to sell yet, as it will allow people to sign up for your email updates.
Make sure all your allies and outreach contacts will embed the Distrify player rather than a YouTube trailer. I find it debatable whether you really need a trailer on YouTube or Vimeo to begin with. These may reach more people – but they only allow for simple likes or comments. You won't ever be able to contact those people directly later on.
Launching Future My Love at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, we were pushing hard for everybody to embed our Distrify player, and it ended up being the most-watched of all EIFF trailers hosted by Distrify. Between the programme launch and the end of the festival, our player counted six times as many previews as the next best trailer.
2. Use the player to announce screenings
List your upcoming festival, cinema, or community screenings in the player. Not only will it draw attention to those events, more importantly, it will make potential audience members elsewhere want to know when they can see it where they are. The "I want to see this!" button is invaluable for gathering email signups.
3. Connect it to your database of followers
We tend to get more signups through a film's Distrify player embedded in various places than through a form on the respective website for that film. Make sure to export lists of your Distrify followers and import them into the general database you're using to reach out to your audience. It's absolutely crucial to have such a central place, as you can't rely on social media alone to gather your followers (remember how restricted and expensive it has become to actually reach all your Facebook fans).
In our case, the central platform is a NationBuilder community organising system. Upon import, we automatically tag people with the film they signed up for and any products they accessed. The file from Distrify will tell you who agreed to receiving email blasts and who didn't. It is paramount to respect these choices.
But don't just think about mass blasts. The more individual your emails are the better. For example, you could contact people just after they've seen your film on Distrify and ask them for their thoughts, and maybe to share their feedback on your website?
4. Connect it to automated DVD fulfilment
Distrify does not only sell streaming rentals (TVOD) or downloads-to-own (DTO). You can offer any product through their store, be it a DVD or merchandise such as posters or T-shirts. Up to now, this meant the order was processed by Distrify but it was up to you to fulfil it and send out that DVD in reasonable time.
As part of our Virtuous Circle initiative, we've partnered with Moving Targets, a Scottish-based knowledge exchange project exploring new media audiences. We recently tested Visual Engagement, a tool for developing innovative approaches and strategies for audience engagement. The tool has been developed by Angela Fernandez Orviz.
So what's this tool good for?
Visual Engagement is a brainstorming and planning tool to be used at the beginning of a project. Supported by the visual representation of a variety of engagement forms, it helps creators to map out their audience engagement strategy while keeping the big picture in mind and aiding formulation of an action plan.
With the aid of the visual cards we brainstormed how different groups of audiences could be involved at various stages in the creative and production process.
Although this headline may sound like it, this is not really a post about the independence debate in Scotland. It's more about what independent filmmakers can learn from politicians when it comes to nation-building.
I explained in my previous post about the Virtuous Circle why it's particularly important for documentary producers to take their audience with them across projects, rather than starting from scratch with every film.
It was during last year's election campaign of the pro-independence Scottish National Party that I first came across powerful software called NationBuilder, geared towards political use but flexible enough to be used for all sorts of campaigns, including outreach to those niche audiences of documentary films...
It was 1997 in a Wired magazine when Nic Wistreich first read about "virtuous circles". In an article about the "New Rules for the New Economy", Kevin Kelly had come up with this law:
"In networks, we find self-reinforcing virtuous circles. Each additional member increases the network's value, which in turn attracts more members, which in turn increases value, and so on, in a spiral of benefits."
This is what Kelly's circles looked like at the time:
Yet it would take another 14 years for this concept to appear in documentary production.
Fast forward to 2011, and Nic Wistreich has become the tech consultant on an audience engagement project of the Scottish Documentary Institute, aptly named the Virtuous Circle. What is it all about?
Stem Cell Revolutions is an independent, feature length documentary exploring the history, development and ambitions of this fascinating field - from the first discovery of stem cells in the body to leading current clinical and scientific developments.
The result of a close creative collaboration between scientist Clare Blackburn (University of Edinburgh) and filmmaker Amy Hardie, Stem Cell Revolutions features eminent international figures in stem cell research – including Nobel Laureate Sir Martin Evans and Sir Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the sheep – as well as acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood. Beautiful hand-drawn animations bring science to life on the big screen.