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.]





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.





Panel This Saturday

3 06 2008

USC’s film school has an extraordinary group of students attending. One group, the Women In Cinematic Arts, is holding a great conference this Saturday that is open to the public. It’s called the “WCA Industry Forum 2008: Making Your Vision A Reality.” It’s an all-day event and pretty cheap, even if you’re not a member. It will have panels on:

  • Creating and Delivering a Television Series
  • Navigating the Studio System
  • Independent Filmmaking
  • Preparing your Film for Film Festivals
  • Increasing Production Opportunities for Women, and
  • Trends in Alternative Media

I will be moderating the last panel, which is subtitled “From Your Cutting Room to YouTube” at 2:45. It’s going to be really interesting with these great panelists:

Kim Moses – Director: The Ghost Whisperer and principal in Sander/Moses Productions.
Fonda Berosini – Participant Media
Ken Rutkowski – KenRadio
Jesse Albert – Agent: New Media & Branded Entertainment, ICM

We’re going to be rambling over a range of topics from “What the hell is alternative media anyway?” to “How do I break into new media?” to “How can I get online distribution for my shorts?” It should be an interesting hour, and the rest of the day looks fabulous.

You can find more details about the program, and registration, at the Women In Cinematic Arts site.





Storytellers Talk About Telling Stories

27 05 2008

Current TV logoCurrent TV has a series of videos on their web site which are designed to teach people who are thinking of creating short documentary pieces and uploading them to their site (they call them “pods”) the basics of the short doc form.

And, while their pieces on editing are woefully basic for anyone who has done their own editing (“This is a fade out. This is a fade in.”) there are a number of short interviews with people who make their living telling stories. There are pieces from Ira Glass, Dave Eggers, Sarah Vowell, Catherine Hardwicke, Xeni Jardin, and more.

There is also an interesting piece from Elvis Mitchell, who has to be one of the most intelligent, well-read and relaxes interviewers on the scene today (download podcasts of his always fascinating and educational KCRW radio show — The Treatment — from the KCRW website or from iTunes). He discusses the illusion of objectivity in documentaries. What they are looking for, right now, he asserts is “a point of view.” There is also a discussion about how filmmakers like Michael Bay will definitely be stealing from people in the underground.

Check these out.





Independence from Independents

9 05 2008

2929 FilmsI’m going to quote two headlines in the Daily Variety today, since they bear out what I’ve been saying about independent films for a few years, even as recently as last week:

Warner slams door on specialty pix” is the first one and, slightly lower down on the page, “‘Speed’ strikes while ‘Iron’ is hot.”

The first article talks about Warner’s decision to close its two main “independent film” releasing arms and leads off with these paragraphs:

Warner Bros. has discovered a way to deal with the specialty film business — it’s staying away from it.

The flagship studio ended months of speculation Thursday by shuttering both Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures. The closings — which caught Hollywood and many inside each division off-guard — will eliminate more than 70 positions over the next few months.

The second talks about today’s release of SPEED RACER, and leads with this paragraph:

Warner Bros. tentpole “Speed Racer” gets the green light this weekend but may very well finish behind the second week of “Iron Man.”

[I should add that the film review site Rotten Tomatoes notes that only 36% of critics have liked SPEED RACER. And, in a hilarious side note, the article also notes that Fox is “counterprogramming” with WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, which is sure to make people like me do wheelies and handsprings.]

In a world in which that Ashton Kutcher film is considered counterprogramming, there is really no room at the major studios for real independent voices. The Wall Street Journal today notes that Warner Independent Pictures had high hopes for their 2007 film IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, but that it came nowhere near to recovering its $35 million negative cost.

$35 million dollars!! That’s what Hollywood considers an independent film!! It’s no wonder that these films aren’t successful — in order to recoup $35 million you need to have so much marketing and distribution that those cost could push the recoupable amounts to $70 million. At that price, of course, you either have to see financing independent films as an act of charity, or you have to water the film down to a more easily digestible mass of… well… pablum. I actually liked VALLEY OF ELAH, though you’d have to admit that it was certainly a very mainstream movie in almost every respect.

Does that mean that companies like 2929 (the theatrical/DVD/download play from, among others, Mark Cuban) have an opportunity, or are they doomed to play in the same arena as everyone else? (And I should, cattily, mention that 2929 is releasing Barry Levinson’s WHAT JUST HAPPENED?, which tanked at this year’s Sundance).

Years ago, I left New York City for Los Angeles because there were only two types of projects there for me to work on — the super high budget ones, and the really low budget ones. I couldn’t get interviewed for the first group, and I could no longer afford to work on the second. That stratification has now spread all over the industry. It’s not “haves” and “have nots” I’m talking about here, it’s “big” and “tiny.” The mid-range is unproduceable.

Once we get behind that, we can start developing enough of a truly low-budget/alternative base that it becomes really profitable. And, once that happens, you’ll see that mid-range start to come back again.





Indie Films — The New Way

3 05 2008

Mark GillYesterday’s issue of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER (one of the two old-guard industry trade papers) had a round table interview with a number of men (and they were all men) involved in the independent film world: Newsweek film critic David Ansen; Kirk D’Amico, president and CEO of Myriad Pictures, a production and sales company; Cassian Elwes, co-head of William Morris Independent; Mark Gill (pictured at the left), CEO of finance and production company the Film Department; and Avi Lerner, co-chairman and CEO of Nu Image/Millennium Films.

There were a lot of interesting things discussed, but the three things that caught my eye, have to do with distribution realities and how they impact production choices. The first was from Lerner, who was commenting on how the international film market is getting more selective in what they will buy from indie filmmakers.

What we have done, like most of the big independents, is we moved our target from the straight-to-DVD movie to more theatrical films. Today, with the exception of “event” movies, we are doing the same movies as the studios, just with less money.

Mark Gill then had two comments about the types of movies that get that distribution.

So one of the things we looked at as we were raising the money is, where is the market demand? And it occurred to us that, internationally, it is between about $10 million and $45 million. Once it gets over $45 million, the studio should do that. Also, the studios will tell you their return on movies that cost between $50 million and $100 million is 1%, and on the ones over $100 million, it’s about 35%. That’s a kill zone, there in the middle.

and, in response to a question about what different kinds of films Gill is now making:

We realized increasingly the bulk of what we do has to be wide-release and has to fit cleanly within a genre — whether that’s drama or romantic comedy, action or thriller. You have to fit in that box nicely — no “tweeners,” thank you very much. And they all have to be high-concept, because it is getting harder and harder to get attention.

I’ve talked before about how theatrical distribution has backed itself into a corner from which there is no clear escape (see “The Dismal Future of the Film Business” and “The Future of Theatrical Indies“). I’ve mentioned that seeing theatrical distribution as the Holy Grail of filmmaking is a trap that will sink most independent producers. Filmmakers like Jesse Cowell, creator of the awesome “Drawn By Pain” have gotten theater play after establishing themselves as vibrant storytellers on the web.

What Gill and Lerner seem to be saying in the Hollywood Reporter roundtable is the following:

  • foreign distribution is key to raising money for an indie film
  • foreign distributors are now requiring domestic distribution as part of their deals
  • domestic distributors can only release a very particular film, at a very particular budget
  • therefore, indie films need to be of a very particular kind and budget in order to be made

Of course, there will always be the films that sneak under the door — Harmony Korine’s MISTER LONELY looks like one of those and I can’t wait to see it, but the “smart money” (at least as far as theatrical is concerned) looks to be sandboxed into genre pictures, with American stars, at a low budget range (see Lerner’s comment above).

I don’t know how much more evidence filmmakers need before they realize that they need to stop chasing the Holy Grail of Sundance-style theatrical pickups, and start to pioneer real distribution, to real people, using really modern techniques. It would be great if Apple wanted to go that way with the iTunes store but, as someone told me last night, they’re really just into shoveling as much content through the store as they can, so that they sell more hardware. Someone is going to have to combine digital distribution and social networking, and add a dollop of indie sensibitlity (Netflix is way too broad-based for that), in order for this to break through.

Perhaps, when enough Drawn By Pain and It’s All In Your Hands (which seems to have moved off iTunes and onto Ning and Hulu) type filmmakers have created enough content and have gotten enough business expertise, they’ll band together and do something together. What’s needed is a super cool destination site for indie film, and a site that has figured out how to make money off of it. When that happens, you’ll see filmmakers going the route that indie musicians are increasingly going (thanks to the collapse of the majors) — ignoring major distribution and making it happen outside of the traditional companies.





Stabs At New Distribution

8 04 2008

Arin Crumley, who has created (with a few others) From Here To Awesome, has a video out which talks about what is wrong with the present distribution models. This video, which is available here from Arin’s site or on YouTube, uses panels from the last Sundance Film Festival to prove the point about why film festivals just don’t work.

Only about 2% of the film’s getting made get into the festivals.

Then he discusses what the distribution deals are like — how they take worldwide rights for 22 years and promise nothing in return.

His solution is From Here To Awesome, an alternative distribution site, in which people can post their own films and raise awareness for them. While many of the film clips on this site are, frankly, not very watchable (translation — not my type of filmmaking), it’s a start in the quest to figure out just what the hell the democratization of media production is doing to the realities of marketing and distribution.

[Thanks to Adam Martin over at The Interactor, for cluing me into Arin’s video.]