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.

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Farewell, Alloy Entertainment!

Ladies and gentlemen, my term with Alloy Entertainment has come to an end. Over the past 15 months, I helped teacher and friend Tripp Reed build a new media division, produce six original hour-long series, and premiere them across the web. My experiences on these series served as an unmatchable education in production, content, leadership, marketing, and technology. Lessons gleaned here will inform me for a lifetime. I could not be more grateful to Tripp and the Alloy family for this amazing opportunity. Thank you for trusting and empowering me to help you build this company.

To the 511 individual department heads, cast, crew, executives, assistants, accountants, lawyers, vendors, and clients I have worked with over the last year and a half: it has been an absolute pleasure. I love you all. Never hesitate to reach out if you need anything. Please stay in touch.

A few special shouts: to Korey Budd, for taking care of everyone and reminding me why I love this business; to my editors and post-production staff, for putting up with me daily and keeping the culture fruitful; to Courtney, for taking everything so seriously; to SonicPool Post-Production, for going above and beyond to meet our needs; and to our office staff, for putting the work first and keeping me alive.

Today, I pass the baton on and begin the next era of my life. I wish Tripp, Alloy, and our team all my love and best wishes as you venture into the shows beyond. We shall meet again down the road.

Here’s to the future!

End With a Question [Film Friday]

They call it a cliffhanger. End every scene and episode with a question. “What will happen next?” The stronger the question, the more likely you’ll grip your audience and inspire them back for more. “Will she say something?” “Will he find out?” “Will they make it out alive?”

I find it a useful writing exercise to note the question at the end of every scene. With the dramatic tension clearly identified, you can revise your characters and action within the scene to serve the question as dramatically as possible.

On the next Film Friday post, I have big news to announce. What will it be? Tune in next week to find out! How’s that for a cliffhanger?

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.