Cool and Hot Media, and Me

13 10 2008

There has been a decided lack of activity on this blog in the last two months as I’ve been in the home stretch on a few projects–all of which seemed to come together at once. One of them, my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is about finished (the last big chapter went out this past Saturday) and I’ve begun to stick my head up and look around at the roiling landscape.

With the crumbling stock market, you’d think I’d take a look at that. But, the reality is for me is that (since I’m just an editor and a teacher) I don’t have millions in equity and, therefore, it’s all paper money for me. In other words, what interests me most right now is not what’s happening right now, but what’s going to be happen in a few years — when the rest of the world decides they want to start spending some money again.

The major studios are betting the bank on several things, all of which involve technology, so that’s not bad for people like us, who get it. As they did back in the Good Old Days when television threatened, they are looking for the flashy baubles to interest the audience into coming into the theaters. For now, they’ve decided on 3-D, which has me checking the calendars to see if we’ve flown back into the Fifties.

I’m not going to disagree with those people who actually have the ability to influence the direction of these major companies, by dint of their being on the board of directors. They obviously think they know where they’re going. But I see 3-D as a mere way station along the way to immersive entertainment.

Remember Marshall McLuhan — cool and warm media? McLuhan, a media theorist from the 60s and 50s, described in his book Understanding Media, the concept that some media are inherently more focussed than others. If I remember my theory correctly, film, he said, provides a more complete experience and, therefore, demands less involvement from its audience than others, like comics, which demand that the reader fill in more information. The media which demands less of you is said to be “hot” and comics would be “cool” .  It has to do with the amount of sensory perception that is required of an audience.

3-D is an interesting attempt to force the audience to participate more in a visceral way, but it’s nowhere near as complete as a complete immersive experience, such as a VR booth, or even a simple Game Boy.

I sat in on a class the other day, at USC’s Interactive Media division. I had spoken there several weeks ago about shaping story, in a linear sort of way. The students went out and shot a film, which they assembled in the traditional straight-line form. Then, after getting a critique, they had to reassemble it and introduce the elements of game-playing to the story. Many of the students created simple trees — at a certain time you could choose between having the character do one action or another. In one case, the lead character could wake to his alarm, or press the snooze button and go back to sleep.

You get the idea.

By far, the most interesting re-construction involved a story about a young woman who, depending on the order that you made your choices, left her apartment with a toy under her arm, met a man on the street who was drawing a boat, was either followed by him or not, walked past another woman who was sitting in a park, or was passed by that other woman on another street. The material was, often, introduced by quotes that crawled across the screen, or by the young filmmaker herself who shot herself in a bathtub (the theme of the piece was water, I should say) saying the quotes.

There was more to it, but one of the thoughts that I had coming out of the screening was that this was a complete example of cool media, using McLuhan’s vernacular. My mind kept on making associations between each decision tree there. It hungered to create connections and ranged over a wide range of them as I thought, processed, accepted or rejected them. The face of the woman, as she stopped to take a phone call, seemed different when I didn’t know that the second woman was around the side of the park building, compared to when I had already seen that other woman. Was the performance different, or did I just feel that?

I began to pay attention (to “lean forward” to use my vernacular) in different ways, and I got involved.

Many of the other films simply repackaged the linear content and paused, old PC game style, at places to allow us to make a binary choice. The works that involved me more, were the ones that did not try and tell a linear story in a non-linear way.

So, how does this overlap with the 3-D issue? Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Simply making a movie in a cool and groovy three dimensional process is only going to hold my interest if 1) the story is good enough so it would have worked in 2-D or 3-D, or 2) it uses 3-D in a way that sucks me in differently than I could have in 2-D. If I want to reach out and push aside a bush that’s blocking my view of a crucial plot point, that’s pretty cool. If the bush is simply placed there to give me a sense of three dimensional depth… well, good cinematographers (and photographers and painters, for that matter) have been doing that forever without the need for a third dimension.

In other words, if 3-D is a gimmick, like it was in the 60s, then we’re going to move on really fast.

In the home, for much the same reason, the studios still think that Blu-ray is a cool idea, even though the marketplace still doesn’t see enough of a difference to make them move over. Even if the players come down under $200, from their initial thousand-buck range, it’s still a non-starter if the audience doesn’t see any reason to switch. What is going to be better about Blu-Ray than standard definition DVD, other than a slightly better picture quality (and tell me how many parents are going to give a rat’s ass about that, if they’re using DVD as a baby sitter?).  Some people will like the increase in disk capacity because it gives the opportunity to put more stuff on the DVD. Assuming that the studios give us that.

But that’s going to cost more money in content creation, so I don’t imagine we’re going to see too much of that soon. Some people, like the Peter Jacksons of the world, will be able to give us lots of cool stuff. But every LORD OF THE RINGS set of DVDs came with tons of extra content anyway. I can’t imagine that many more people are going to gravitate to paying the extra money if it’s on one or two disks as opposed to seven.

No, the real game changers in the world of entertainment are going to be changing the experience of the viewer. That might mean immersive and interactive play (and it’s why the coolest work here at USC is probably going to be coming from the Interactive Division for a while), or it might mean rapid delivery of regular ordinary movies from a streaming or downloading server, minutes after I’ve made the decision that I want it to watch it now. That’s faster than going to a movie theater, or snapping up a disk at Rocket Video.

One of the biggest time and money drains on the iPhone is the ability to buy its applications (or download the free ones) as soon as you see it on that very iPhone. Hey, I think, I wonder if there’s an app for keeping track of the presidential polls. I do a quick search (which I can do, because I’m in a 3G city), find one and press INSTALL. Voila. I’ve bought it.  Almost no thought involved.

And that’s part of the future of our entertainment industry as well. It’s not that it’s all about impulse buying. But it’s about changing the way that I do the buying — fulfilling my needs better. 3-D would work if it gave me a cooler (McLuhan’s term, there, not mine) experience, rather than just a mild titillation.

The really successful storytellers of the near future, are going to be the ones who figure out how to give us that new kind of experience, in this new package.

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Oh, by the way, until I finish with the cut of my documentary in mid-November, I’m still going to be a bit erratic. To catch my lucid prose (or incoherent, it depends on how I’m feeling) you can get me every Friday — more or less — over at Film Industry Bloggers.

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Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008
Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

When I was growing up, long ago in the dark ages (read the 1970s) there was one thing that we could always rely on. When the mainstream media, usually Time or Newsweek magazines, had an article on a rising trend, it was always dead by about a year. The media was always a year or two behind, and by the time their editors figured out what was “hip” and could safely be reported on, it was time for the rest of us to move on.

I remember reading an article about “youth speak” which purportedly described the “lingo” that we “younger generation” actually talked in.  The article got passed around at school, usually at parties when we could bearly see straight and needed something to laugh at. No one, of course, had ever heard of most of the “hip lingo” and those terms that were vaguely familiar had been dumped years ago.

And this was before the Internet.

So, it is with a major grain of salt that I bring up an article in today’s New York Times by Mike Hale entitled “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game With Serialized Shows“. In it, Hale talks about several shows that the mainstream media is producing in an attempt to get viewership on the web. Shows such as “Gemini Division” the Rosario Dawson starring vehicle that seems to have learned none of the real lessons of lonelygirl15, and presents its form without its content.  A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan, in the Times’ Sunday Magazine attempted to compare the failure of many web serials to television and radio shows like “The Shadow” and “24”, somewhat missing the point. In one section of the article, entitled “Serial Killers” she says:

Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

Now, I’ve written about Internet memes several times already, so I like pontificating on the subject as much as Heffernan does, but she doesn’t seem to get the difference between web serials and memes. To compare a series like “Satacracy 88” to “Chocolate Rain” is about as misguided as comparing the Ed Sullivan Show to a Beatles concert (to keep the 60s/70s thing going).

Still, both Hale and Heffernan score a few points as they talk about how nobody seems to know what to do with web video. Talking about the web series “Steven King’s N.” (which comes from King’s publisher and is meant to attract interest in King’s new short story collection, coming this fall). Hale says:

What “N.” really demonstrates is that the Internet could use more Stephen King. The story, involving therapy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an evil presence trapped in a New England field, is C-grade King. (It was adapted for the serial by Marc Guggenheim, a creator of “Eli Stone.”) But it still has enough narrative pull to drag you from snippet to snippet, even when there’s less than a minute of new material.

The emphasis on the word “narrative” is mine, and completely shows my point of view.  I create content and firmly believe that you cannot divorce story from the economic equation of what will work for audiences.

What is interesting about these shows is not the content themselves, but the advertising and business model behind them.  Frankly, I almost gave up on Gemini Division because it seemed so-much watered down network television.  It’s bad cinema — with too much narration and not enough visuals. There has been a lot of discussion in content creation circles about just what the new rules of content should be — are wider shots not viewable on mobile phones?  Is faster cutting too much for the compression and bandwidth? Are three minute episodes too long?  How long should the pre-rolls be? NBC is, obviously, still experimenting.

The results — if Gemini is to be believed — are to take properties destined for wider distribution, create cheap pilots for them (as opposed to the standard dictum, which is to spend loads more time and money on the pilot than they’ll ever be able to put into the actual pattern budgets of the shows) and flush them out on the web.  Looking at lonelygirl15 without understanding the mindset behind it, leads to static “talk to the webcam/phone” shows which might as well be radio. They’re copying form here, not content.

The King series is more interesting — it is a trailer for the book, in some ways.  An expansion of the market outwards, rather than a contraction simply as a pilot.

I’m far more interested in web series like “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy88” which focus on a single character in bite-sized bits, but present those bits in interesting, cinematic ways (even if the cinema is on a small screen). I can watch these series on my iPhone without losing anything, largely because they don’t talk down to me. There is a real arc of character in their episodes, other characters that don’t seem paper thin, and plenty of story places for the audience to explore. It’s not handed out in prescribed dosages. It also helps that they work in genres that lend themselves to introspection and, therefore, storytelling closeups.

So, what are the major companies doing in my opinion? When I worked over at Universal Music Group, I remember an exec there saying that since no one knew anything about the web, they would just keep throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck. That’s not a terrible strategy, I suppose. It’s the sibling of the strategy of buying every company you can find/afford and seeing which ones survive. The basic problem is that the MET space needs a combination of technologists with ideas, entrepreneurs with commitment, and artists with energy and passion and stories that they need to tell.

Simply putting Rosario Dawson in front of a camera, plastering Microsoft and Cisco logos all over the place to spread the financial exposure around, isn’t a real content strategy.  It’s more of a safe business strategy, one in which no one is going to win in the long run. It also violates everything we know about storytelling, especially in bite-sized pieces.  We know that we need to grab them early with your concept, not slowly. We need to suck them in with something interesting, not voice-over dialogue that happens to be spoken on camera.

They’ll keep trying.  They’ve got the money for it and that will certainly help (the Steven King series benefited from money, along with an interesting idea, though I lost interest after a few episodes because of its stilted format).  But, right now, the more interesting work is still being done in the independent, unsupported market.  I can’t wait for the two sides to meet.

Phew, I didn’t mean to go on for that long. Remind me to tell you about what Cisco is doing on our campus here to develop their own content.

[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DEPARTMENT: My upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, uses both “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy 88” as examples and I’ve contacted both filmmakers about that usage. So, I guess you can say that I “know” them, in a 21st Century, Webby kind of way. But I’m using both series here for the same reason I used them in the book — I think they’re great examples of the form.]





The World Really IS Flat

10 07 2008
The World is Flat

The World is Flat according to Thomas Friedman, Thomas Ryan, Ken Rutkowski, Fred Wilson and me.

A recent post by VC (Venture Capital) blogger Fred Wilson reinforces Thomas Friedman’s 2005 book/theory that globalization has completely changed the way we do business, in general, and entrepeneurship, in specific. That, combined with a discussion on a recent KenRadio show (I believe by Thomas Ryan and Ken) reveals much about where our expectations should be in the 21st century.

For those of you not familiar with Friedman’s book (available from Amazon, and from Audible as an audiobook), he takes the position that technology and our new mindset have leveled the playing field so that there is no real difference between countries anymore. It’s a philosophy I first heard expressed in the mid-seventies when Paddy Chayefsky had one of his characters in the film NETWORK proclaim that “There are no more countries of the world. There are only ATT and Exxon and…” [he went on and on from there]

On KenRadio, Ryan and Rutkowski were talking about the dearth of new American ideas in tech startups and discussing whether Americans were being “dumbed down.’ Ryan’s comment was that it wasn’t so much that Americans were getting dumber, as that the rest of the world was getting smarter and Americans were sorta standing still. In my opinion they’re dead on here. As both a teacher and technologist, I can’t say that I have seen my students or the startups in this country to have fallen off in any way. My students at USC are still as challenging, bright and motivated as ever. It’s what keeps me in an industry (education) that forced me to take a huge paycut when I joined it seven years ago.

However, because of that very thing (educators being paid less) as well as government support of education and technology waning, other countries have been able to boost their status quite well.

And this leads me back to the first paragraph of this posting — Fred Wilson’s blog from today entitled “Taking Stock of Tech Startups in Paris.” (Fred’s blog, by the way, is one of the most informative and consistently interesting blogs about venture capitalism around. You should definitely check it out.)

There, Fred talks about a meeting he attended in Paris called Open Coffee in Paris, which is a weekly Thursday get-together of technology business people held every Thursday in Paris (open to everybody, so if you’re in Paris and you’re interested, check out their Facebook page from the link above). He also attended a “speed dating” event for Parisian entrepreneurs. There Wilson met, in his words:

 [T]he entrepreneurs I met yesterday were very typical of the people I meet every day in our business. And they are working on exactly the same problems/opportunities that startups in the US are working on.

He then goes on to detail the companies that he talked to at the event. Here is his scorecard, listing the industry they were in, the number of companies in each market space, and whether his own VC company is currently investigating companies in the same space in the US:

Entertainment ratings/reviews – one company – current
Mobile banking – one company – current
P2P lending – one company – current
Interactive/Internet TV – two companies – current
Sentiment analysis/tracking – one company – current
Stock footage – one company – current
Mobile gaming – two companies – current
Mobile RSS – one company – current
iPhone apps – one company – current
Prediction markets – one company – current
Virtual worlds – one company – current
Video ad creation – one company – current
Mobile/web integration – one company – current
Career/Jobs web service –one company – current

Here’s the interesting thing to me about this. Every single one of the categories has stateside equivalents that his VC company is currently investigating. In other words, the industries that we are developing here in the US are not ours alone. They are worldwide industries. Wilson’s conclusion:

Don’t think that the most interesting mobile games or iPhone apps will be built in Silcon Valley or even the US. Some will. Many won’t be.

This is what globalization is all about and it is further evidence that we are in a changing world. Those of us who create content would be foolish to ignore this. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. If you think that the ultimate goal for your content is a big screen (cinema) or small screen (television) then your train has already left the station and you’re not on it.

You are going to have to think globally — global stories, global collaborative ventures, global financing, global production and post-production, and global distribution. That’s the train you want to be on if you want to be around and thriving in the year 2020.





Screens, Screens, Screens

5 07 2008

Gas Station ScreensStop me if I’ve mentioned this before, but I think that filmmakers who think that the only way to reach people is on the big screen (film theatres) or small screen (television) are so 20th century.

Uh, okay, so I have said it before. Often. Very often. And again and again. But you can’t stop me now.

In any case, at the recent WCA conference panel that I hosted, we ended up talking about thinking of distribution as a multi-faceted hydra and woe to the filmmaker who ignores that fact. I forget if it was Ken Rutkowski or I who said this, but someone said that it’s all about screens, and there are a multitude of new ones out there — try waiting in line at your local chain supermarket, or drive into a gas station. Some phenomenal percentage of South Korean users of cel phones actually watch media on their phones (I think Ken said it was 85%, if I’m not mistaken).

Now, in the latest issue (July/August) of FAST COMPANY, there’s an article called “Can’t-Escape TV” and it outlines five places where these new screens are becoming even more ubiquitous. They talk about five places:

  1. Big-box stores. Places like Costco and Best Buy. They have tons of screens on display, but obviously can’t take the chance of showing regular programming where ads for their competitors might show up. So they contract with various programmers (big player – PRN) to provide content into which are slipped very specific commercials. Which, of course, they can get paid for. Genius. The content, however, is mostly reculed from cable networks.
  2. Gas stations. Gasstation.tv reports that 84% of all people who pumped said they’d view or listen to GSTV on their next fill ‘er up. Frankly, I find the content unbelievably bland, created by CBS-TV in 4-1/2 minute blocks.
  3. Grocery stores. You got your basic captive audience here — a tedious wait for the person in front of you to count out all of his/her pennies, right before they run back to the deli counter for that order that they forgot to get (“Could you please hold my place for a minute?”). Once again, CBS seems to dominate this market (a division called “CBS Outerreach” — which is actually a pretty cool name). The article notes that screens at the deli and meat counter lines can be used to promote store items before the customers get to the checkout. Hopefully the content starts to get better than the bland E! type stuff I’ve seen so far.
  4. Doctors’ offices. Wow, speaking of captive audiences. As the health care system degenerates even further, the waits get longer and longer. CNN and others design programming for us poor schmucks who don’t want to read last year’s copy of Family Circle Magazine. I haven’t seen this yet (I really must get to the doctor soon!)
  5. The proverbial “third place”. This includes places like Borders, Jack in the Box, Coffee Bean, et al. The content, which is a live feed created by companies such as Ripple, consists (according to the article, I haven’t witnessed this yet) of Retuers, E! Entertainment (ho-hum), New York Times, Yahoo, CBS (again!!) and Clear Channel. Coolest of all, though, is that customers can buy — for a buck — “ShoutOuts” which will be broadcast in the store with content of their own choosing. Presumably we will soon see marriage proposals in Borders soon. [Preferred to the Jack.]

So, for content creators, here’s the $64,000 question. Just what do you notice all four of these sites have in common.

I’ll let you think about this for a minute. And… the … answer … is … crappy, unimaginative, repurposed content (with the exception of the ShoutOuts, which are pretty cool).

If you are smart content creator/filmmaker/digital artist, I think you’d do yourself some good if you’d hang out in front of these screens for a while and figure out just what  you can do that will fit onto these screens and more. You are all creative people. Why not give these captive audiences something more for their time, something that they’d like to see.

Once again, those of you who see the big screen and the be-all, had better start sharpening your burger-flipping skills.





Internet Memes Expand

22 06 2008

Earlier this month I talked about Internet memes (those virally popular Net phenomena like the Numa Numa guy, or the Star Wars kid).

Now comes evidence of the power of the memes.

In 2006, a guy named Matt Harding did a video called “Where In The Hell Is Matt?” which wasn’t a parody of the Where’s Waldo? books at all. Instead, it was a video of Matt, dancing/hopping up and down in the center of the frame (usually, more or less, the same size in each frame) in dozens of countries all across the world. The video, sponsored by Stride Gum, became an Internet sensation, spawning dozens of parodies. (You can see the videos at Matt’s site, or on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNF_P281Uu4)

Now, Matt is back with his 2008 (in HD) video of him dancing in yet more countries. But there’s a difference this time — in each video he is joined by people from the cities and towns he was visiting. In many cases, it is clear that Matt (using his web site) recruited the people to dance with him and, in cities all across the world, he was joined by enthusiastic people who, for the most part, clearly seems to be aware of this Matt phenomenon, and were all too happy to join in. He starts the video dancing alone and then, right before the chorus, cuts from city to city to city, as people stream into the frame and start to dance with him.

The video, which can be found on Matt’s site, or at this link in Vimeo, is actually oddly compelling in an incredibly sweet way. Whether the dancers are in Madagascar, California, Jordan, France, Antarctica (yep, even there!) or any number of other cities and countries (there are 63 listed in Matt’s blog) they all seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously. In many of the countries it is also clear that the people came to this location specifically to dance with Matt. There is even a place in Matt’s blog for dancers to comment on the postings that Matt puts up about his travels.

It’s actually a good example of the international power of social networking and Internet celebrity.  I won’t say that this is work on a shoestring (I can’t even imagine how expensive the travel costs are!!), but it is certainly something that I cannot imagine being imagined by anyone rather than a sole person, who had the audacity and insanity to pull it off.

Take a look and let me know what you think





Marshall Herskovitz talks about “Quarterlife”

12 06 2008

For those of you who’ve been watching Big Time Movies instead, let me explain what Quarterlife is/was. Producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick created an Internet-only, self-referential series about a group of twenty-somethings who hang out and get crazy when one of them starts keeping a video blog on a website called “quarterlife.”

The series did well enough on YouTube that NBC phoned up the two producers. They knew their phone number because they had previously teamed on such mainstream television shows as “thirtysomething,” and “My So-Called Life.” So they weren’t exactly unknowns. Anyway, the show went on. They called it “Quarterlife” (no sense in screwing up a good thing, right?) and it lasted exactly one episode. And now Herskovitz talks about the process and what he’s learned in a long interview on Debra Kaufman’s new but increasingly valuable blog mobilized.tv. (As an aside, Debra is a journalist with years of experience in publications like The Hollywood Reporter, TV Week, Film & Video, Editor’s Guild
Magazine, Wired,
The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and American Cinematographer.)

When the show tanked there were tons of think pieces about how Internet content couldn’t move into mainstream media. Which, to me, sorta missed the point. Nobody ever said that Internet entertainment was the equivalent of mainstream entertainment. The translation from one to another isn’t just as simple as adding 19 minutes of running time. There is no real equivalent to the Numa Numa guy on network television, and there’s no real equivalent to the complexity of “Lost” on the Internet. There are some mobisode series that are interesting and plot-detailed, but the very nature of watching for three to five minutes and then going away for a week or two or three makes the type of twisted plot and timelines very hard to do. Lost actually has a pretty interesting web presence but it comes from doing added and different types of content, rather than trying to replicate their winning television formula.

And that’s the real thing that Quarterlife teaches us. Translation isn’t what new media platforms are all about. Addition is what makes sense. There are a lot of different types of screens out there. We need to take advantage of each in their own ways.





Distribution Hints and Depressing Tricks

8 06 2008

On Larry Jordan and Mike Horton’s always valuable and fascinating Digital Production Buzz podcast the other day (June 5 episode) Stacey Parks talked about things that she learned from her recent trip to the Cannes Film Market. Stacey, who wrote the book “Independent Film Distribution,” and who runs an amazing web site about film distribution called Film Specific, found out that the good news is that there are a lot of companies in the international marketplace who are looking for short films — actively looking. She said that she would post it on her website and, though I can’t find it there, you should keep checking back. On a clip on her site she talks about selling to the emerging markets — India, China, Eastern Europe and Latin America.

The bad news, however, is that even features with big buzz and stars aren’t selling because there are fewer channels for distribution in the United States. The films that are selling are those with very specific targeted audiences — such as senior citizens, teenagers, Christians, skateboarders, etc. The days of broad marketing are gone for independent films. Ironically, though, the major distributors are looking for films that appeal to all “four quadrants” (that is males and females, under and over 25) and, as a result are spending $125 million and more in production costs and tens of millions more in marketing.

That means that the only films that they will touch are those with strong marketing elements. And that, often, leads indie films out in the cold. Or, as I’ve talked about before, forces indie filmmakers to look at their films just like studio films, just with lower budgets. Marketable concepts, a few stars, name directors or writers or producers.