The Life of a Voice-Over Artist [Film Friday]

Have a great voice? Want to work from home everyday? Want to have a lot of time on your hands? Then consider being a voice-over artist!

There is a large army of people out there who have recording setups at home and read scripts into a mic for a living. As a voice-over artist, you can make between $5 and $200 per word you read (the pay varies depending on where your voice will be heard – television, web, theater, radio, etc.). Reading just one paragraph a month for average-priced spots can earn you a livable annual salary. Because audio files can be sent back and forth digitally, you can live anywhere you want. Most VO artists have their workflow optimized online so that they never need to speak to another human being again (except through email).

Want to get started? Buy yourself a decent microphone, hide in a closet or sound-proof room to record, and post a demo reel to a site like voices.com. Most projects solicit and cast from web networks like this one. More legitimate voice talents hire an agent to represent them and drive higher-profile, lucrative projects. You can graduate from infomercials and web spots, to theatrical movie trailers and documentaries, to animated feature film characters.

With enough unique character and range in your voice, you can make decent bank for as little as three hours of work per week.

Entertainment Tax Deductions [Film Friday]

One great thing about being an entertainment professional is the extent to which you can write things off on your taxes as “research.” Movie tickets, DVDs, dinners, coffee, and alcohol may all qualify next April. Keep track of everything!

I have been working really hard lately. Now it’s time to “research” a crazy party. The best news? I can write refreshments off on my taxes!

I will see you tomorrow … maybe.

Is New Media For You? [Film Friday]

This is my fifth and final post in my series, “Understanding New Media.”

Last week, I resolved a “New Media” definition that I am happy with: “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on active viewership platforms that autonomously drive traffic or revenue online.” The key here is the distinction between passive and active viewership.

It is important to contemplate the best way to tell your story. Ask yourself: how long should the story be? How many people should watch it together? How involved should your audience be? As I have said before, we need to knock down the silos of Hollywood. They have no worldly business dictating our storytelling needs anymore. We should choose the format that best suits our characters.

Many people are distracted by the pizzazz of the Internet. Do not get carried away. Before you produce video for the web, ask yourself why. Is your story better told at an audience’s fingertips? Think hard about what role your story can play on the web. Does it belong there? Or does it really belong on a bigger screen?

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: Revenue and Profitability? [Film Friday]

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

So far, it’s safe to define “New Media” as “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that serves itself and no other.” Last week’s post tried to rule out marketing materials and spinoffs (content promoting other content or products). But I asked a key question: what happens when one of these videos generates its own revenue online? Since “New Media” is a tech and entertainment industry term, it is relevant to discuss the format in the context of commerce.

If a company authors products that collect money from the hands or by the influence of consumers, then it deserves to be called a “business.” If the company’s products drive profits, then it deserves to be called a “good business.”

In web land, advertising, subscription, download, and rental revenue are mere pennies and cents compared to the millions generated by the multiplex or family room tube. Web video is still young, and very few Internet networks have been able to grow through these sources of income. Most content is financed by upfront sponsorship and rarely sees extra money after launch. For example, our company depends on sponsorships from large brands to kick-start our projects in exchange for guaranteed impressions. But in several cases online, the cost of video production was so low and viewership so high that notable returns have been made. It is not uncommon these days to find content producers on YouTube bringing in generous annual salaries through the site’s Partnership Program. They might be small businesses, but these producers definitely deserve to be called “businesses” on their own. And in a select few cases, some large budget web series have garnered such a following that they have paid their bills in full and earned a DVD release. My favorite is The Hire, starring Clive Owen.

Some spinoff series online, as well as commercials and promotional skits, have attracted huge audiences and generated revenue beyond the marketing spend. The Old Spice commercials are famous for this. While these pieces definitely serve a greater purpose, audiences have awarded them the respect and merit of being autonomous content online. When this phenomenon happens and commercials become Internet memes, it is hard for me still to call this material “marketing.” Likewise, when spinoff series build so much traction that they turn direct profits for the label, I owe them respect as autonomous entertainment product.

When first approaching the subject, I assumed all web endeavors were only ever marketing extensions that inspire viewers to spend money in a way that indirectly supports the content producer. For example, a sponsored video promotes a product that, if purchased by consumers, can afford new content produced in the future. If a series makes money on a DVD release and not by itself online, the web release is really just promoting home video sales. In this case, the web endeavor is still a marketing extension – even if it is promoting sales of the exact same material. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between content that makes money through viewership on the Internet and content that makes money elsewhere.

Long story short, I think it’s fair to say that any content that makes money online deserves the “New Media” industry label. So, for the sake of iteration, let us expand our definition to include “content financed, produced for, and released exclusively on the web that autonomously drives traffic or revenue online.”

All of that is well and good, but I am still stuck on the evolution of the Internet. In five years, there will be little-to-no difference between the way television and web video are distributed. The pipes will be the same and the viewing devices will be the same. So what then is the difference between “New Media” and other forms of content? While television and web may converge, audiences interface with these platforms very differently.

Next week, we will address the penultimate quality of “New Media” entertainment: active viewership.

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?

New Media: Producer’s Intent? [Film Friday]

This is the first in a series of posts I announced last week called “Understanding New Media.”

One argument I’ve heard from filmmakers trying to define “new media” favors a producer’s original intent for the material. If the story being told was meant for web and first launches online, then it (by definition of producer’s intent) should be considered “New Media.” I suppose that’s fair – if it was made for web and only ever lives on the web, what else do you call it? Well, I call 99% of it “Casual Video.”

YouTube is the biggest marketplace for “Casual Video,” where users upload literally anything they can capture. Most YouTube videos have no revenue agenda, are authored by individuals arbitrarily, and lack front-end logistics or financing. For a video to transcend “casual” status, I think it must first have at least a little foresight, structure, and craft tied into its execution. “New Media” is a film industry term, so there should be a certain level of “industry” to the content being produced. There is really no “industry” to my friend Jim skateboarding off of a cliff. It’s merely pure, casual fun.

So I’ve raised a little money and produced something for the web. “New Media,” right? What happens when that content syndicates on television? Or premieres on the big screen? Is it still “New Media?” Or has it become more than that? On the flip side, what happens when a feature film, originally intended for the big screen, first ends up online out of failure to platform in theaters? Is it still a “Feature Film” or has it become “New Media” in spite of the producer’s original intent? Tough call.

Moreover, what happens when our televisions and movie theaters are networked through the web? Is a cable show broadcast on Google TV “New Media” or “Television?” I stream Netflix and South Park the same way I stream YouTube antics. Don’t you? So what’s the difference? Well, there is no difference to the consumer, except perhaps the quality and duration of content. The lines between web and other platforms are blurring. Just because something plays online does not necessarily make it “New Media.”

I suppose the “original intent” argument can stand for now concerning content that was financed, produced, and distributed exclusively for the web. But there’s much more to it than that. Does the content play as part of a greater whole? Is it a spinoff or tie-in to another intellectual property on another distribution platform? Should the content then be called “Bonus Material” or “Marketing” instead?

Tune in next week for a discussion on web content’s autonomy.

Film Friday: Power to the Theaters

A Certified Fresh logo.In the good ol’ days, content was king. Producers and publishers thrived off of the complexity, scarcity, and cost of generating and distributing entertainment. Very few people could publish a book, record an album, or produce a theatrical feature film. Times have changed. Through the commodification of consumer production tools and publishing platforms, content generation and distribution are easier than ever. The result? Far too much noise. Public discourse is completely cluttered by personal voice. To whom should you listen?

Ears and eyeballs are in high demand. Seth Godin said, “We don’t have an information shortage; we have an attention shortage.” Content is no longer king. Attention is king. Those who command the respect of the masses command the value of entertainment product. Content Producers are less powerful than ever. Content Curators, like companies and critics who drive discoverability and promote entertainment traffic, are taking the cake. Warner Bros. demonstrated a progressive value in discovery platforms through the purchase of Flixster and Rotten Tomatoes. Systems like Netflix, Pandora and YouTube that navigate consumers through targeted entertainment are dominating the market. As the library of public content continues to grow, so too will the value proposition of these companies.

Platforms are the near future. Traditional theaters need to wake up and smell the opportunity. As it stands, film exhibitors are little more than the leashed pets of the movie business – completely at the whim of their masters. If theaters take liberties to curate, program, and leverage alternative product against the studios, their value to the average consumer will increase tenfold. The quality of entertainment will increase, revenues will increase, and cultural sophistication will increase. Theater owners know their communities well and should play an active role in curating entertainment. Curator Exhibitors (theaters) need to earn the respect of local audiences by consistently screening top-notch entertainment and communitizing outside Hollywood.

Film Friday: Bring Down the Silos

Hollywood is divided by motion picture form: feature films, television, interactive and new media. These “divisions” can be further split into narrative and non-narrative, scripted or reality, short and long-form, franchise or micro-budget, professional or prosumer, etc. Some companies even divide content departments by genre. All of these worlds are segregated into silos, and it is very difficult for filmmakers and executives alike to migrate between them.

 I find the rigidity amusing; while aesthetic sensibilities may be slightly different, the gear and roleplaying needed to produce each are now essentially the same. Aside from budget, which varies widely from project to project (not necessarily from format to format), there is only one relevant fundamental difference between each of these production types: story structure.

Some stories play better in the short form; others over hundreds of hours. Some can be broken into episodic pieces and spread out; others should be consumed in one sitting. Some play better on the big screen with large audiences; others on small screens alone in your living room. Some should be passively consumed and others interactively. It all depends on the characters, the situation and the journey at hand. Unfortunately, most companies in the industry approach storytelling backasswards: choose the form first and try to build a narrative for it. Squeezing a square peg into a round hole. Unnatural. It should be the other way around – develop characters first and then pick a format that best tells their story.

Major studios have mobility between formats to a degree, but only make the effort with franchises. To make matters worse, studios regularly attempt to spread each franchise thinly across ALL formats and mediums simultaneously to milk the cow dry. Moreover, the golden goose sits in the theatrical box office – most production companies aspire to author 90-page scripts to entertain large audiences through feature-length events in multiplexes worldwide. I can appreciate the spiritual power of consuming content beside large audiences in the theater space; I do not think the industry or exhibitors need to be so myopic as to distribute features exclusively in this space. 

I contend that there is a healthy market for episodic content in the theatrical space. I am one of the few people who think Harry Potter would have played better as an episodic television show (with each season framed by a school year). The films themselves omitted far too much to satisfy audiences thoroughly. By stretching the 2 hour format to 15 or 20 hours, there would have been much more room to explore the characters and lore of the world J.K. Rowling created on page. And with select or all episodes being streamed into theaters weekly for supplemental revenue, the box office could have collected as many as 100 movie tickets per audience member throughout the weekly run of the seven year show. A wild idea, but why not? Expensive? Yes. Risky? Maybe, but less so with a loyal, young and international fanbase. Profitable? Hell yes. Open your mind, Hollywood. There is a lot more money to be made with creative mobility.

Motion picture formats are homogenizing, both on a technical and talent level. The movie industry should experiment with form, untangle from the guild restrictions, break down the silos and be a little more anarchistic about formats. Hollywood needs to be honest with itself and its audiences.

Let your characters tell you how long your story should be and then budget accordingly.

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Film Friday: 555 is Dead / Clearing Phone Numbers for Movies

555In the past, the 555 prefix was widely used for fictitious telephone numbers in film and television. No carriers assigned 555 numbers and therefore most of them were legally permissible to show on screen. Unfortunately for producers and writers, that is not the case anymore. Almost all 555 numbers are being assigned to directory assistance services and phone carriers throughout North America. Only numbers 555-0100 through 555-0199, 800-555-0199 and 888-555-0199 are still available for entertainment clearance. While I cannot assume that most people outside Hollywood really notice or care, these numbers will become quite redundant in movies. Producers and studios should get more creative.

Fortunately, there is a way you can set up and control a unique phone number for free. Google Voice allows you to create one new phone number per Google account, absolutely free of charge. You can pick the number yourself with an area code from whatever city you choose (you can pick a number to match the residence of your characters!). You are free to use this number in your film because you own it. If you already have a Voice number or do not want the number linked to your personal email, simply create a new Google account.

Google Voice also provides tools to have a little fun and promote the film, too. You can set the number to forward straight to voicemail and record your own message. It is the perfect opportunity to orchestrate a real-world tie-in to your film by having a cast member leave a voicemail message in character. Hardcore fans can call the number and leave messages that can be picked up by the producer or studio at leisure in forwarded emailed transcriptions or mp3 files. A small but classy way to help build a small community for your show!