Consolidating the Online Content Experience

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Marvel’s The Avengers raking in a $200M+ opening weekend leaves little room to tell Hollywood that they are doing it wrong. The 40-year old blockbuster model continues to pay for the movie business. In the early days, the cinema experience was not far removed from attending a Broadway show: dressing up and cozying into ornate movie palaces staffed by ushers and orchestras. To expand the experience, multiplexes cropped up everywhere. To augment the experience further, Hollywood learned to tentpole a film, merchandise it and open theme park rides. The cinema experience is larger than life.

While all of that may work for three or four titles, hundreds of motion pictures barely scrape by each year. The internet and a proliferation of choice in the new millennium continues to threaten the sustainability of the movie business. The entertainment industry as a whole keeps falling behind the times. They still depend on Nielsen‘s myopic ratings and surveys to make strategic market decisions. They collect little to no data on their viewers to leverage repeat conversions. They build no intimate relationships with their customers and create few opportunities outside the theater to communitize their content. They embrace an antiquated scarcity model by rolling content out onto different platforms across rigid windows weeks and months apart, thereby eliciting content access demand and piracy. Merchandise still sits on retail shelves or on random websites online, far from the experience of seeing the movie itself. Without update, these practices may be fatal. While box office may be up (due largely to increased ticket prices and 3D or IMAX premiums), attendance is down – even more painful when considering population growth.

All of these issues could be solved by incorporating a thicker web layer into and consolidating the filmgoing experience under one roof – literally and figuratively. By converging merchandise, community and content into a digital or real world platform, Hollywood could make all facets of their business more accessible and leverage entire catalogs toward a more scalable, niche-friendly or cost-effective practice. Loved the movie you just saw? The theaters should make it as easy as possible to leave the theater and impulse buy a plush or action figure of your favorite character. Imagine if you could buy merchandise from and connect with other fans on a movie’s page in Netflix? Organize public screenings or petition for a sequel with the masses online? The community layer would add to the consumer experience and give filmmakers a platform to understand how people engage with their work.

I love the movies. I love the theater. I want the industry to succeed. These issues are reparable. If the industry can recruit key talent from the web tech sector, surrender a century’s worth of logic around brick and mortar business practices, build relationships with consumers online and put storytelling first, there may be a glimmer of stability and hope for film professionals and moviegoers alike. We’ve got work to do. There’s plenty of stories to tell and opportunities to make a living by producing great content.

Protest

I keep my mouth shut and seldom declare my stance on tabled issues in public. I avoid stirring the pot for the sake of it and do what I can to preserve my nonpartisan relationships. But when it comes to legislation or executive decisions that may invariably keep my mouth shut against my will, I speak up.

I learned a lot from Hollywood in the five years that I studied and worked in Los Angeles. I respect and support the industry’s need to fight piracy. To produce and spread content on a sustainable scale requires considerable revenue chains that dare not waver. Due largely to the size of teams necessary to complete them, films will always be expensive to produce. Losing control of your content – and thereby losing the ability to recoup costs on your production – is a huge issue and must be curtailed.

That said, I do not respect Hollywood’s conservative grapple-hold on content in an antiquated scarcity model. While the studios contend that they make more by staggering the release of a film across all mediums, these rigid exhibition windows from theater to home regularly deprive hungry consumers of content they want to consume. The Hollywood release model is effectively inspiring piracy – not because people want to maliciously destroy the industry, but because people want to consume content and cannot do so when and where they want. Street vendors in the third world do not sell ripped DVDs as an attack on studios or because tickets are too expensive; they do it because Hollywood failed to make the content available in their market. Contemporary piracy stems more from accessibility issues than anything else. Hollywood is utterly failing to provide. By holding product close to the chest, the entertainment industry is failing to reach customers, scale brands at the contemporary pace necessary to survive, and collect the money of eager and willing fans. The media industry is killing itself. They need no help from pirates.

Out of desperation and a lazy aversion to change, entertainment turned to lobbyists to craft a bill that would effectively give our government the power to censor or shut down websites. There are constitutional ways to fight piracy; the Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property Acts are not it. To learn more about the bills, I encourage you to watch this video.

Tomorrow between 5am and 5pm MST, I will join many Internet companies – including Wikipedia and Google – in protesting these bills by shutting down my site. You will not be able to read my blog.

Under the First Amendment, we have the right to contest any act abridging the freedom of speech. We have the freedom to protest and stand up for our rights. Do not dismiss protests as mass whining or vanity noise. Without protest and public forums for opinion, women would not have the right to vote and many of us would still own slaves. Do not take the freedom of expression lightly. Celebrate your voice at every possible turn. Use it when you can.

Film School: The Super Degree

When I tell people I might take a break from the film industry to study the web, the first thing I’m asked is, “Didn’t you got to school for that? Why leave the business?”

I learned a hell of a lot more than just camerawork at film school. In what other degree do you learn to actively lead teams, coordinate logistics, start businesses, tell stories, embrace technology, manage budgets, engage in philosophy, write both fiction and non-fiction, design advertising campaigns, engineer software, study history, direct talent, interface with contemporary culture, carpenter sets, raise money, play with toys, draw pictures, play music, review law briefs, curate content, and express yourself? That’s right, I can’t think of another degree either.

Film school is an all-inclusive wrapper for a cumulative degree in storytelling, business, marketing, management, design, communication, technology, law, twentieth-century history, and cultural studies. In even the smallest film trade schools, you must learn to lead teams through creative and technical projects while coordinating schedules and money to do so. Few MBA programs I’ve heard of are half as hands-on.

At the University of Southern California‘s School of Cinematic Arts, I had the pleasure of studying under studio executives, A-list producers, active professionals, and trendsetting innovators; I produced over 280 minutes of content and coordinated more than a cumulative 200 students and professionals to do so; and I interfaced directly with current and impending trends in the film industry. I moved to Hollywood to study from within the belly of the beast and learned more than I could have ever imagined.

Am I bastardizing my cinema degree by jumping industries? Absolutely not. If anything, I am honoring it. And I would recommend it to absolutely anyone looking to master important entrepreneurial skills, engage his or her creative side, solve complicated human puzzles, and have some fun.

New iPhone Summary

For my readers who are not plugged into tech news every waking minute, here is a quick overview of Apple’s keynote this morning. No big surprises in Cupertino today:

iPhone 4S

  • No iPhone 5 yet, mostly performance enhancements: improved processing (A5 chip, 2x faster than before), graphics (dual-core, 7x faster than before), battery life, and download speeds (14.4 MBps).
  • Improved camera: eight megapixel, 3264 x 2448 resolution, 73% more light, faster capture speed, Hybrid IR filter for more accurate color and uniformity, sharper lens elements, wider aperture, face detection, and better white balance.
  • 1080p HD video camera with image stabilization, noise reduction.
  • The phone will be a GSM / CDMA hybrid, working on Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint.
  • AirPlay Mirroring: mirror your iPhone on television sets, wired or wireless.

The most notable announcement was the iPhone integration with Siri, a personal voice recognition assistant. Hold the home button on the iPhone and Siri will listen. Ask her anything you want, and she will return information, a search query, schedule a meeting, send a text message, set an alarm, perform a function on your phone, and more. She can also dictate for you. Siri was started as an iOS app in December 2007 and acquired by Apple in early 2010. Nothing new here.

Pre-orders for the iPhone 4S start Friday. The phone will be available October 14th in black or white casing. Pricing as followings (with a two-year contract): $199 16GB, $299 32GB, and $399 64GB.

Other Announcements

  • Cards App: make your own greeting cards, $2.99 per card
  • iPod Nano improvements to the fitness experience and timekeeping faces (Nano = your future watch)
  • iCloud will launch October 12th
  • Find My Friends feature: similar to Google Latitude, anyone on a GPS enabled Apple device can open their location up to contacts and share where they are. It is unclear how integrated this feature will be.

Overall? Underwhelmed. The iPhone 4S met none of my needs for a next-generation phone, except perhaps performance enhancements. This new model will no doubt outsell the rest, but I’m not sold yet.

LifeCal Schedule Button (Soft Launch)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with Mark Godwin to design and engineer a little web plugin tool we call a “Schedule Button.” Quite literally, it is a button that you can save event data to and embed into your own website. When your visitors click the button, they can schedule your event to their own calendars.

 

The potential use cases for this button are many: concerts, flights, movie showtimes, house parties, television premieres, conferences, conventions, and more. Business owners and hosts alike can use this tool to connect with their attendees and provide them with necessary details.

I have a hard time managing my time as it is, and existing digital calendars do not make it easier. Few people go to the trouble of typing out all of the event details for everything they do. We built this tool for event hosts to make it easier for potential event attendees to input the correct information into their calendars. The hope is that there will be higher attendance rates if your event is staring your attendees in the face from within their own calendars. Unlike Facebook events (which is exclusive to the Facebook platform), we are trying to make this an open plugin compatible with all calendars and available for embedding into all web sites.

We are soft-launching this button today at Lifecal.co to collect feedback from our closest friends and followers before we announce the tool wider this week. Please head over to our site and check it out! If you have any comments or suggests, identify any bugs, or can think of other great use cases I have not mentioned, please let us know! You can use the discussion board below or email me at craig@lifecal.co.

New Media: Interactivity? [Film Friday]

This is the fourth post in my series, “Understanding New Media.” 

Last week, I introduced commerce into the discussion of “New Media” and expanded our definition to cover “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

But there is still one piece of the puzzle that is slowing me down. More and more motion picture entertainment is shifting to the Internet. Conversely, more and more Internet is slipping into our conventional viewing platforms. Some movie theaters now offer WiFi, and many televisions are being released with broadband connection. Before long, our living room television sets will only stream content from the Internet. All of our networks and shows will launch content on URLs rather than cable channels. Google TV is a first stab at this transition, and many companies are soon to follow. With the ease and frugality of Internet distribution, convergence of the web into all of our current platforms is inevitable.

Therefore, I don’t feel like the words “the web” or “online” in my definition are sufficiently future-proof in separating “New Media” from the other forms of entertainment. Besides, “the web” is a release platform – like a television set or cinema screen. Should our definition of “New Media” be based solely on the platform and delivery mechanism? Or should it be based on the type and structure of content? If everything will eventually be trafficked through the Internet, the only aspects that will separate television, feature films, and other forms of motion picture entertainment will be story length, screen size, and audience involvement.

Length is relevant in defining feature films (between 90-180 minutes), television episodes (half-hour sitcom or hour drama, etc.), and short films (usually less than 45 minutes). Length is a fair determiner for content type. Some stories can be told in 5 minutes, others 2 hours, and some in 100 hours. It makes sense to me to distinguish between a category of motion picture entertainment by duration. However, I think “New Media” has considerable flexibility. There is no proven ideal length for web content, no rules, and no time-slots to fill. The web is free territory for content producers, which is largely part of its appeal. That said, web audiences tend to be distracted easily and hold attention shorter than on other platforms. Therefore, it’s fair to note that “New Media” content tends to air on the shorter side. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to that trend, and I find duration largely irrelevant in defining “New Media.”

That leaves screen size and audience involvement. Screen size and involvement are directly related in that the size of the screen determines how far or near to the video a consumer can be. The bigger the screen, the farther back you need to sit to see everything. The smaller the screen, the closer you need to be. So if the Internet is converging into all viewing platforms, what then is the difference between television-broadcast video and browser-broadcast video? There is a huge difference. Televisions are on the other side of the room, whereas our computers and mobile devices are right in front of us at our fingertips. While this may seem like a small paradigm shift, it carries huge implications for audience interaction.

Herein lies the chief differentiation between all other forms of motion picture content: with consumption devices at our fingertips, “New Media” fosters an environment for active viewership versus other platforms otherwise experienced passively. The web is interactive. The way we engage with content while wielding a mouse, keyboard or touch screen is fundamentally different than the way we engage with content wielding a remote or ticket stub. “New Media” presents opportunities to involve audiences in the story. Integrated blogs, forums, social media, and games build audience community and curate return viewership. Technology like GPS tracking, near field communication, augmented reality, and touch will bring interactivity to a whole new level. With “New Media,” audiences can literally live your story – if you tell it well enough. That is huge.

Without some layer of audience involvement, web-launched motion picture entertainment is nothing more than online video. A feature, episodic series, or any kind of video does not deserve to be called “New Media” until it consciously invites audiences to engage.

Therefore, I leave you today with this updated “New Media” definition: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

Stay tuned next week for some final thoughts on the subject.

New Media: Content Autonomy? [Film Friday]

This is the second post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I differentiated between “Casual Video” and “New Media.” We left off with the assumption that any content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that only ever lives on the web could be dubbed “New Media.” But there are two big curve balls that sidetrack this definition: marketing content and spin-offs.

Releasing promotional content on the web is considerably cheaper nowadays than launching a campaign on television or billboards nationwide. Therefore, more and more companies are generating content tailored specifically for the web to promote their products. Commercials, movie trailers, and sponsored skits litter YouTube and the Internet beyond. These pieces are “financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web.” So are they “New Media?” Or just advertisements released on the web? If you chose the ladder, you sit in the popular majority. Most would still call this “advertising.”

So, then, one would be inclined to append “narrative content” to my definition above. But we cannot be that myopic. There is plenty of non-narrative content online financed and produced for the web that drives considerable revenue. And some promotional skits or spots otherwise considered “marketing” are themselves “narrative,” so it would be far too general to affix a “New Media” definition with the word “narrative.”

What about spinoffs? Recently, several television shows and feature films have produced content for the web to build community, expand the scope of programming, and promote the source content. Ghost Whisperer is famous for this. Do these episodes constitute “New Media” or do they serve a greater marketing purpose? Very wide gray area. Expanding the canon of a larger body of work has been in practice for ages. I suppose it depends on, again, the producer’s original intent: was the content produced primarily to drive traffic to another program? Or was the content produced to expand the story or characters in a structure better-suited for the web?

I suppose one clear distinction between marketing or spin-offs and “New Media” is “autonomy” – whether or not the content online acts on its own, or serves a bigger product. The web series we produce are original intellectual property and do not play a role outside the web browser sandbox. They serve their own needs independently and do not require or serve content on other platforms. A movie trailer or blooper reel may air online, but they serve a bigger purpose beyond the Internet. Same could apply to a spin-off. What greater purpose does your content serve?

As it stands, our “New Media” definition goes a little something like this: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that serves itself and no other.”

Next week, we’ll explore an industry-seeded counterpoint to content autonomy: what happens when a marketing promo or referential spin-off generates its own revenue online?