The Echo Chamber Election

Most terrifying to me is that I cannot find a single satisfied pro-Trump comment in my Facebook feed this morning. That means half of everyone else woke up this morning to feeds loaded with genuine celebration and triumph (and very little contest). I obviously have friends who voted for Trump and post regularly, so what gives? Seriously, Facebook, what have you done? Zuck, you’ve contributed to building a very dangerous world.

We now live in echo chambers designed for our individual convenience and engagement, “safe” from opposing opinions. Frankly, the press failed in this election (indisputable, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on) in large part because they cannot reasonably compete in profiteering contexts with social media feeds that serve our deepest sentiments and surround us only in reflections of our own uncontested opinions. Friends, your world now literally feels like “your world” in total ignorance of the actual world around you. And that’s fucked up. Consider protesting these platforms for that reason. I could not have been more wrong when predicting the outcome of this election…and have the press, an antiquated system of polling, and social media algorithms to blame. Tech elites, developers, product designers, and advertisers…you all fucked up, too, and we have a lot of work to do to make the world a better, safer, smarter, and more connected place.

Press, it’s your job to inform the people and put everything into perspective, not pander to our sentiments. Don’t try to compete with social media; go back to building brands around trust and truth. We have the first amendment and a free press to hold us all accountable from tyranny and its tells. But we now have a President who has not been transparent with us (where are your effing tax records, Donald?), never once taken responsibility for mistakes (of which there are a great many in his businesses and campaign), and has no functional plan or reputable team assembled to actually make America “great again.” America just put in for a four-year order of another reality show. Unlike “The Apprentice” or “Miss Universe” that were of trivial consequence to our day to day lives, we’ll all be contestants on this reality show and required to play whether we wanted to or not.

To be clear. I do not contest the outcome of this election or issue any ill will against our President Elect, for I still hold a great deal of faith in our representative democracy. Contrary to his remarkable accusations, the system isn’t rigged and we got what we asked for. That said, we have a responsibility now more than ever to better-inform and educate the people, to better involve them in our government and policymaking, and to hold our leaders accountable.

Creator Buddy System

Before you earn an audience, users, paying customers, investors, shareholders or employees holding you accountable to your work, you often find yourself alone and unmotivated. Unless you popped into this world as a self-starting anomaly, waking up and getting to work on something that doesn’t exist yet and that no one else cares about can feel like forcing children to eat broccoli. It helps to have business or creative partners on the project with equal or greater investment in the outcome – and sometimes that’s all you need. But even partnerships lose steam and it helps to have someone else on the outside to push you.

You may need a creator buddy: someone you never want to disappoint and who also has his or her own personal projects in infancy. Someone outside your field with whom you can learn from each other. Between the two of you, schedule regular check-ins to set goals and debrief accomplishments or failures on a regular basis. Weekly or bi-weekly works best, nothing too involved. Encourage each other to set goals you both can realistically achieve in that time and hold each other accountable. Send text messages to touch base in between. Whatever helps to keep you both on the tracks and moving forward. Before long, you’ll find yourself accomplishing more – if only in fear of disappointing your buddy if you fail.

Sounds too simple, but the work you need to do today is difficult enough. Avoid overcomplicating it with crazy motivational regimens. Find a buddy that can pull you out of isolation and give you the push that you need. He or she will appreciate it as well.

Motion Pictures: An Expendable Commodity Experience

In a world where a billion people can create and share content, Hollywood studios compete against their own consumers for audience attention. Hundreds of thousands of hours of video reach audiences through a growing number of channels each day. Web Video Platforms enabling your four-year-old nephew to compete with studio mega-moguls struggle to sift through the infinite noise to help you find the best entertainment. Hollywood Studios struggle to efficiently recapture audiences after the curtain closes, left only to throw billions of dollars marketing desperate pleas to past successes through a record number of franchises, sequels and remakes. As a consumer, building a loyal relationship with either continues to prove as difficult as siding with a parent through a divorce.

The theatrical and home video businesses treat content as a commodity, marking up ticket and a la carte prices to record-high margins. The television and internet businesses treat content as expendable to sell advertising and subscriptions. The answer, for consumers most loyal to great storytelling, lies somewhere in the middle. As the music industry learned through live shows versus lost sales via easily transmittable mp3s, sustainable value lies not in the content itself but the experience through which people consume it. Great content markets special experiences. Rather than fighting an uphill piracy battle, consumers continue to challenge the industry to focus on making it as easy as possible for them to access content in any and all formats that maximize their personal experience. Greater the experience, greater the value.

In the Information Age, consumers expect better quality at their own convenience. Make them wait or jump through hoops and they will likely go elsewhere or steal from you. Are they criminals? The law says so. But the studios are responsible — for failing to build a better relationship with and serve audiences who love their content. As the Internet evolves into a responsive utility with no prejudice between screen sizes or location, producers have the opportunity to reach limitless platforms with ease. What are we waiting for?

With the capacity to reach any screen at negligible distribution cost, how can the industry create the illusion of value in content itself? Commodity value comes from scarcity — supply and demand. Digital can transmit anywhere, anytime, ad infinitum. Unlimited supply. No scarcity. When movies exist as ones and zeros, good luck convincing audiences to pay $30 for a file or stream.

Scarcity, then, can only come through wrapping the movie with an unforgettable experience. The “wrapper” can manifest as a better video player, larger screen or infused relationship with a fan community. But that’s only the beginning. Sure, digital can transmit ad infinitum, but “once in a lifetime” experiences cannot. Exclusive themed dinners, costumed extravaganzas or private viewings with filmmakers all fit the “once in a lifetime” thesis. An experience you cannot rewind or replay. An experience worth paying for. How much would you pay to sit next to Steven Spielberg and watch Jurassic Park or E.T.? The more inventive and unique the experience, the greater the value. Popcorn and surround sound do not sell tickets anymore.

Want to compete against small screens, millions of content “producers” and the Internet abroad? Make content easy for audiences to consume and help fans live your stories.

Don’t just make movies; create memorable experiences.

Day 59: Embarking on Tour 2

Spent the last 10 days in Abu Dhabi editing our first three episodes and planning our second tour of four cities: Seoul, Tokyo, Bangkok and Melbourne. We leave tonight for South Korea. It will be another whirlwind tour and we’re slightly less prepared than the first tour due to less prep time and more distractions in post, but I have no doubt it will be a blast. I love Japan and Australia. I expect to love Thailand and Korea as well.

As a side note, Google has been a great assistant to me on this trip. In fact, Google’s my only friend on this trip offering me logistical travel support. Google Now is an app that predicts what useful information you might want on hand and prepares it for you. For example, it plucked our flight reservation out of my email inbox and returned our flight status without me prompting a thing. So helpful!

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Wish us safe travels and luck shooting! I’ll try to stay in touch.

Life Digitized

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Goodbye, college! Welcome to the cloud 🙂

A year ago I committed to going paperless and moving into the cloud. Now over twelve months later, I finished scanning and organizing everything that remained from high school and college:papers, tests, handouts, course readers and anything I might like to access again at some point. I also scanned all personal administrative, financial and legal documents that sat around collecting dust. I will recycle all of this paper and breathe a deep sigh of relief that I no longer have to cart  all that dead weight around.

The first thing you might be thinking is, “Craig, why would you go to all this trouble for documents you may never read again?” To anyone who knows me and my obsession with cataloging my life, this should not surprise you. To everyone else, my answer is not straightforward. The honest truth is, “just in case.” I might want to reference these documents again. Yes, clinical psychologists today have a term for that behavior: “hoarder.” Better and a totally different paradigm, I think, to hoard information that takes up zero physical space than piles of crap everywhere. Fancy me a “digital packrat.”

Some documents I refer to on a regular basis. Others I enjoyed rediscovering as I scanned them. The rest I will likely never see again. But at least now they’re organized, searchable (Google recognizes optical characters in PDFs and extracts information as searchable text) and accessible from anywhere. No more piles of paper to dig through or carry around. There are over 2,500 documents in my school folder alone, many of them tens or even hundreds of pages long. That’s a metric shit ton of dead trees!

Life in the cloud is certainly cleaner, lighter and easier. All of my files are mirrored across Google Drive, Dropbox and external hard drives (with the exception of over 14TB of video that I have not found room for in the cloud yet). I can access them all from my phone on the go and from any computer I can sign into. Google’s omni search bar finds not only web search results, but results from within email, contacts and all of these documents. Sometimes I search for a term and find the answer to my query in a class handout from years ago. Pretty wild. I suspect access to my personal information ecosystem will only get better from here.

So while it might not be as useful to me now, there’s no telling what fruits this project might yield in the future as the technology gods evolve.

Holding On to An Idea

We all forget things often and risk losing good ideas. As soon as a brilliant idea comes to you, there are two things you can do to preserve it. First, you can record it – in writing, picture, drawing or video – and put it in a place where you will never lose it. The alternative, I’m afraid, is to let the idea linger in mental space and see if it can stand the test of time. The best ideas are not easily forgotten and won’t leave you alone. If you truly want to test the relative strength your idea, see whether you forget it after a while. If you fail to write it down and never forget it, chances are pretty good that your idea counts for something and isn’t going to run away from you.

Don’t Hate the Copy Cat

I’ve struggled over the years with artists who steal from other artists and purport to call their work original. I will never endorse people who steal ideas from other people and turn a profit. The age of piracy and duplication concerns me.

As the original author of a piece of work, you feel robbed. And you should. But that’s the glass half empty view. If people are copying you, that means you’re worth copying. Take pride in that. Many of my wisest mentors always carried a delicate smile when they declared piracy of their IP because it affirmed that people care. If your work is being stolen, find a way to take advantage of that. Other people are marketing your work for you. That’s a good thing. Use it.

Why Fudge Your Own Numbers?

Data is good and can be very useful. Manipulated data is bad and can hurt you. What’s the point of collecting information in the first place if you’re going to mess with it? Your method of collection isn’t as accurate as you would like? You must stand behind the data you collected so far and move forward with another method instead. By adjusting numbers you’ve collected, you are misrepresenting the method or formula. Ethically better, I think, to publicly acknowledge a broken metric than stand behind massaged lies.

If the numbers are not for you and instead for someone else (boss, investor, customers, etc.), get to the bottom of why you want to change the numbers. If you feel the data misrepresents your business or project and worry that the numbers might throw you under the bus, it’s important to push back against the people asking for them in the first place. Again, better to admit a broken method than stand behind numbers that aren’t true. Honestly, I can think of no situation where it is ethically or practically appropriate to manipulate data you collected. It’s fine to do that in a budget or estimates, but actual cold hard data should not be toyed with. No one can learn anything from our lies except for the person with something to hide (or of course until the truth is revealed – don’t put yourself in that situation).

Be honest with yourself and your numbers. Don’t lie. Try a new formula instead.

Broadcast Contracts Will Kill Hollywood

It does not surprise me that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show on television. Without cable, I have no way to watch it. I’d happily pay $20 per month if HBO GO was open to people without cable subscriptions. Unfortunately, that’s not that case. None of HBO’s shows are available on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I have no way to watch any of HBO’s shows except pay a $75 per month cable subscription for a television I don’t have, wait for them to come out on DVD, or pirate them. I’m a good boy with little expendable time, so I avoid Game of Thrones altogether. But 25 million people have not been angels and found the show through whatever means necessary. Who knows how many more people opt out entirely and forever pass the show by?

I’ve said before that Hollywood should concern themselves less with piracy and more with audience access. Simple supply and demand metrics – audiences demand content and providers are failing to supply to increasingly popular internet channels. It’s the whole industry’s fault for inciting piracy. They are missing out on an expanding margin of customers. In defense of HBO and others, production companies have entangled themselves in lucrative and restricting contracts with cable partners. To offer direct-to-consumer digital distribution would breach their contracts and deprive them of their single strongest revenue source. For most companies like HBO, that may never happen – at least not until everyone has internet televisions or the cable providers themselves die.

Broadcast contracts may be a reasonable excuse for holding content back from web distribution. But if companies plan to stand behind that excuse, they need to stop making such a big deal about piracy. By threatening or incriminating millions of people who cannot access your primary distribution method, you are alienating potential evangelists of your content and failing to understand the trajectory of your market. Web television is not a trend. In five years, most motion picture content will be consumed online – on connected televisions, game consoles, mobile devices or computers. To fight or deny this is foolish and egoistic.

I left Hollywood because no companies were willing to put the engineering muscle behind personal distribution channels. Beyond sheer web design and database builds, online services require customer service and billing infrastructure that can cost a lot of money. Fortunately, these things are getting easier and cheaper. An independent production company with enough content to leverage could easily set up shop on the web with a very controllable investment and small handful of people on the tech side.

If you want a sustainable career in the movie business, start or work for a company with full digital rights. Careful signing onto productions with traditional broadcast contracts and no digital rights – these opportunities, no matter how lucrative, are sinking ships. If they cannot find a way to breach contracts soon, they may not survive the next wave of liberated web-savvy competitors.

Consolidating the Online Content Experience

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Image via CrunchBase

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.