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Welcome to the Future: Adrienne Becker on the Business of Social Art

Adrienne Becker

in Filmmaking
on Sep 17, 2014

The following is the text of a Blitz Week speech given by Adrienne Becker at the Filmmaker Conference at Independent Film Week, presented by the Made in NY Media Center by IFP. IFP is Filmmaker‘s parent organization.

Welcome to the future. I’m Adrienne Becker and I’ll be your Blitz for the next 15 minutes. Feel free to have your devices ready — anything I say or do is an invitation to jump right in and make my story your own. In fact, go ahead and do that. Take this tablet, pass it around, change the title of this talk as it happens, and then let’s see where we end up. Just be sure to sign your name and snap your selfie when you edit and accept that by doing so, your title, image and credit can be used to promote our work together. It takes a bit of the pressure off of me. Kind of like you’re standing up here sharing my shoes, my suit, my invisible Oculus.

The details of my story are too long, boring and eclectic to waste time on here. It includes politics, dot-coms, a media mogul, a consulting firm, a talent agency and an investment fund. So instead, I’ll summarize with the foundation. I’m a business person and an artist. There, I said it. Now, it’s your turn.

I see, you are similar beast-like hybrids: artists and business-people.

And that’s important because it’s what has brought everyone here today, and throughout this amazing week that IFP and the Made In New York Media Center have put together. You see, everyone in this room creates stories, whether on a film set, television studio, recording booth, or simply a computer, tablet or phone – we’re all storytellers of one medium or another, sharing our individual perspective.

Sure, there are many degrees on the spectrum. You’re maybe better at building a shot list than a business plan and I can create animated PowerPoint narratives in my sleep. The point is that by being in this room, we share more than an ability to create, we share a desire to have our creations experienced by others and be impactful… and it is this age-old struggle between art and commerce that we individually and collectively work day in and out to reconcile.

But this isn’t just a story about people, it’s a company narrative as well.

Killer Content was formed by an alliance between the incredible artists at Killer Films — makers of award-winning film, television and digital properties — and Glass Elevator, my company, which set out to create a more effective business model for entertainment entrepreneurship. We recognized that together, we could create greater impact for our writers, actors and directors if we spent more time looking at the opportunities facilitated by changes in our industry and three technological pressure points affecting all of us: how we make content, how we get it out and take it in, and how it gets paid for. The result? The stories themselves are changing.

Shoot a film on a BlackBerry, of all things, and certain details become more or less consequential than if you shot it on a Canon. Crowdfund from a group of strangers and entertain the feedback of your stakeholders at many turns. Experience episodic storytelling assigned to specific times or locations and relinquish the control you thought your on-demand device had given to you.

But undoubtedly the most significant change is that great convergence my old boss Barry Diller used to talk about at length, because indeed, it’s happened. Sparked in garages and coffee shops around the world, technologists have taken their seat at our art/commerce party, enabling a revolution on both sides of the equation: the people who create and the people who consume.

But there I am, back in the past again. Let’s update this for Act II, because most noticeably, it’s not a clear divide anymore — it’s porous with flow between the two. And their roles, our roles, have expanded. Because no matter what side of this sketch you’re on, you both create and absorb and then probably create some more. And this results in social art – a collaboration between a primary creator and many “metacontent” creators who build websites, publish vlogs, post on Instagram and Tweet our best lines.

These unofficial, and in some cases, official partners do really important work — they are in fact building our marketplace — and we don’t even pay them! They pay us! Let’s keep this quiet for now, because if they knew, they’d possibly unionize and probably publicize that metacontent, created by engaged social artists, is the most natural path to multi-platform extensions of an original narrative, and incite the greatest overall impact.

Starting with science fiction, anime, and manga Japanese comics — as Frank Rose put it in the “Art of Immersion” — media can now be inhabited rather than consumed. Entertainment, after all, is an escapist exercise in any format, giving us a chance to unplug from our world’s woes and step into another. As we do, and increasingly we have the option to engage on a deeper level: beyond momentarily considering someone else’s dilemma, to booking an extended stay in their world and making it our own.

So this summer, when I took my son to see Fuerza Bruta down in Union Square… I expected the audience to be dancing, and riveted by the artistic gymnastics, catchy music and set design, as we all were. But then our attention was directed about 30 feet up in the air, and focused on the underbelly of a transparent and tilting swimming pool filled with just enough water that well-toned dancers in underwear and prairie shirts could run, leap and glide across the suspended surface.

Because that wasn’t enough, the pool started lowering and lowering until it arrived, all the way down to our eager, outstretched hands. We pressed on the pool, we moved the water, and we changed the direction of the entire piece, altering the experience of the dancers on top of the pool and us below it.

This, I told Quincy Becker, was immersive theater — a moment where the audience, and even the most unflappable teenage boy, joined the dancers and broke through the divide of our traditional roles. (He made some comment about immersing taste buds in a promised Emack & Bolio’s cookies and cream ice cream, and life went on.)

But that was Social Art: the more participatory, the more impactful because through this deeper connection, Fuerza grew into a larger community of creative stakeholders, right before my eyes — not just those in Union Square that night, but everyone who would join in spreading the evening’s metacontent narrative.

Metacontent includes derivative videos, pictures, reviews, comments and tributes which create secondary and tertiary content layers, all enabled by our always-on studios-on-the-go.

We carry the tools of our invigorated creative democracy every day, guided by social artists who trade in the very simple, popular currency of attention. In Silicon Valley, they’ve made Application Programming Interfaces, or APIs, available for years, enabling the Valley’s thriving social art industry. But here, we still seem a bit unsure — it can be risky, you know — but I’m convinced there’s something in this risk that is critical to the future of our impact and business.

This has led me to focus Killer on working to create more moments that lend themselves to this participation through stories which invite audiences to connect, extend, personalize and spread ways in which it can become their own, and do so while maintaining the quality of work our brand is known for.
Super Market is an example. It’s a digital short by creator Rhonda Mitrani which will take us into a magical world of fantasy where the everyday Food Emporium is transformed into a complex ecosystem engineered to capitalize on everything, but especially childbirth and parenthood. On top of experiencing the piece exclusively from protagonist’s perspective, to be portrayed by the talented and versatile Heather Lind, the audience will have the chance to inhabit the space of the Super Market themselves, exploring the aisles and the people who stock and sell the Market, while leaving their individual mark on the products which fill our carts.

Another example is “Rhythm in Motion,” a series of short films in which creator Jenny Schweitzer guides us through terrain we know quite well, the transportation underground of New York City, though giving us an angle on musicians who inhabit the tiled tunnels and noisy MTA stations that we can’t see well during our daily commute. Schweitzer’s work invites us all to explore and create from our everyday tools and trades. She’ll do this through the work itself and via location-specific incentives to download featured underground music and videos, and even experience the musicians live in a concert, and potentially on tour. The series will also work to inspire rhythm in motion through a submissions channel which aims to identify other “underground” artists who can join the performances.

Then there’s The Glass Elevator, a television series where everyone gets pitched and does the pitching. Hosted by Jackie Emerson, this show will be the first to take full advantage of social media and audience participation in real time as businesses are shaped by the crowd: a millennial take on theater in the round using multiple channels of communication.

These examples of multi-platform creation work best when different formats combine to extend the audience’s overall experience of a story which has more to give. The by-product can be incremental revenue streams but the motivation stems from deeper engagement. Every story lends itself to this examination, but not every moment lends itself to each medium. This is both an artistic and a business opportunity deserving our consideration.

A mix of video, film, text, music, maps and charts ensures that Social Artists have a number of angles on our characters, our plots, our settings, and in doing so, we create countless metacontent opportunities. By working towards social art – remember, it’s a spectrum – we’ll all create more of that attention currency for our fans and with that attention, they will help us move markets. Without it, we fade.

Because audiences have become the busiest people we know and they have zero tolerance for a flat-line entertainment experience. And since everyone is over-connected to everyone else’s next move, the speed and scale of influence is extreme. This hyper-connectivity is incredibly simple – as consumers, we are no longer bound by boxes like day-parts. There are fewer rules and boundaries. Affinities form organically from aggregations of disparate individuals, not by Nielsen Quads and toplines. And these post-demographic audiences are also just more naturally adept at Social Art — it’s probably how they found you in the first place!

But how to pull all of this off? It’s one thing to make an independent film on a shoestring budget, it’s entirely another to consider building a brand that moves social artists to join in the continuation, propagation, marketing and distribution of your narrative.

At Killer, we found a shortcut in a brilliant engineer/entrepreneur duo who had been working for three years on some code that would take massive and disparate data sets and combine them, in real time, into one picture. They started with health information and won an award from the NIH. Then they tried their hand at politics and created a very interesting look at campaign finance and partisanship.

When I saw this, of course all I could think about was applying their algorithms to content and, as it turns out, they had already taken a few steps down this path.

So together, we produced a service called Viewur which will give users the ability to engage with curated content groups defined by their social circles. In essence, it’s a way to stay connected to content from all sorts of sources, and in different formats, through one social destination.

This convergence of content and technology, while not yet launched, has been really valuable to us as an applications engine, enabling our development of smaller, niche services that support our core business of storytelling. Two in particular, I’m really excited about and can mention here today.

The first goes by the working name Backlot and as you can imagine, it give us the ability to open the creative process up to a larger audience, increasing access and sharing useful details that can not only help aspiring filmmakers, but engage social artists and provide them with a more immersive experience of a particular story and cast of characters – above and below the line.

Our goal is to try and couple this effort with our work in education. We’re a partner to New York’s own Stony Brook University, where Killer has been teaching Master Classes in filmmaking for a couple of years now, and we’re working on expanding that program and making it available online to larger audiences in the coming year.

A few students in last year’s SBK Filmmaking program even had the chance to work on Still Alice, our film that just sold to Sony and has everyone excited about Julianne Moore’s critically acclaimed performance. And in addition to the master classes in writing/directing and the very popular new producing class, over 25 filmmakers in the program have grown their short films from idea through development, production, finish and distribution, earning them festival laurels, grants and fellowships. It’s awesome hands-on training with working professionals that you don’t often see in academia.
Meanwhile, the other project I wanted to mention is sure to open up a can of worms, but those are inevitably the projects with the greatest impact and the ones that I seem to be personally attracted to, for better or worse.

By the way, that’s why tech VCs talk about disruption so much. They don’t want to fund a new movie, they might make an exception for a group of them, but give them a way to invest in a new process for producing, distributing or financing content creation (remember these three tech pressure points), and with a fighting chance of grabbing market share from an otherwise complacent system, you’ll have their attention.

So I, like any other partially ignorant/partially insane creative business-person, I want to attack this convergence of consumer and creator head on, giving fans the ultimate participatory tools to make their mark on select narrative works. And we’ve been cooking up some new ways of doing this which we’ll talk more about later in the year.

But it’s the business model which is most interesting. It’s premised on the notion that social art has the potential to be more valuable than its solitary counterpart, because people will pay more to engage with a multi-pronged media property over a single implementation. This incremental revenue isn’t only about more moving parts, it’s also about an increase in choice, control, connection and more of that attention currency,all adding up to greater overall interest among those post-demographic individuals living in different countries, tax brackets, and alphabetical generations. Think about Hunger Games, Frozen, even Vice in this way and you’ll know what I mean.

And it’s proof enough for me that by thinking ahead about the convergence of creator and consumer, content and technology, art and commerce, we as artistic, impact-minded individuals can prosper in the business of social art.

I’ll end with a hypothesis I scribbled on a whiteboard in 8800 Sunset Blvd. about ten years ago, and it’s just stuck with me: that the best applications, the best stories, the best art, give me a way to discover, identify, and amplify something new about myself, and whether you are running a data driven next gen studio or a smaller one out of a studio apartment, I think the most valuable future forward notion I can leave you with, is to try to figure out how to take people on that journey with you.

Thank you.

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