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.

Hollywood Is like the Army [Film Friday]

Only without honor and push-ups. There’s a high level of discipline (though not necessarily the same caliber of punishment). There’s a system of rank and rigid hierarchy, especially on set. There’s a delicate network of specialized soldiers – and the brigade is only as strong as its weakest link. But unlike the army, Hollywood uses ego and opinions instead of bullets to survive.

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.

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: 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.

Bootlegging Yourself (Marketing Controversy 101)

A few days ago, a bootlegged version of a red band trailer for David Fincher’s latest film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, hit YouTube with a vengeance. Before Sony Pictures pulled it for “a copyright claim,” the video had nearly 2 million hits after only two days. There is speculation that Sony launched the trailer themselves to kick-start a viral marketing campaign. Whether or not this is true, the video’s premature release certainly did not hurt Sony or the film. The leak was awarded widespread coverage in press and online. If audiences were not aware the hit novel trilogy was being adapted for the American screen, they definitely are now.

I find the entertainment industry’s preoccupation with piracy amusing. Sure, I am a filmmaker and can appreciate revenue lost to piracy. But as veteran studio executive Bill Mechanic once pointed out to me, “Pirating means that people want to see your movie.” As I see it, stolen entertainment media suggests one of two things: your content is not good enough to pay for or too difficult for the average consumer to find. Both problems are your fault and worth solving. iTunes rivaled music piracy by promoting easier access to music: it became easier to buy a song on iTunes than steal it from a torrenting site. With bandwidth evolving and platforms like Netflix and YouTube on the rise, movie studios are running out of excuses not to open their libraries. Simple: help audiences consume the entertainment they want to consume. Most people will gladly pay for that. And pirates will help spread the word in the meantime.

But I digress. In a world saturated by media noise, it has become necessary for marketing materials to have unique stories wrapped around them. The Dragon Tattoo leak promoted three levels of discussion: the bootlegging of the trailer in the first place, whether or not Sony released it on purpose, and finally the irresistible quality of the content presented. Trailer discussion spread the word and inadvertently spread the message: “She’s coming.”

Movie studios should bootleg themselves more often. And you should too.

Understanding New Media [Film Friday]

Few people inside or outside the movie business can really explain the “New Media” trend. The term “web series” has developed an underestimated connotation, suggesting handicam YouTube videos, goofball kids, and poor craft. While a large share of the 3 billion videos uploaded daily are casual video, the professional web video industry has exploded. Many companies (including the one I work for) are spending millions and millions of dollars to produce for the Internet, embracing gear and talent normally resident to major motion pictures. The web is the new frontier and everyone is boarding the train.

Producing video for the web does not necessarily make it “New Media.” If that were true, all movie trailers, skits, and press material released online would qualify. But we often separate this type of material into “marketing” or “publicity.” So where do you draw the line? Having worked in “New Media” for over a year now, I feel safe taking a crack at it.

I am going to spend the next several Fridays exploring this topic. I will take cases I have heard and wrestle with them. With any luck, we will come up with a suitable definition for “New Media” in a few weeks.

Tune in next week for a debate about “producer’s intent.”

Table of Contents for this series:

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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