FROM HERE TO AWESOME. PHOTO BY: MIKE HEDGE
The entertainment industry is experiencing an identity crisis, unsure of its future and reluctant to let go of its past. The traditional models of distribution are in flux; the standard rules no longer apply. The permission-based culture and competitive nature of filmmaking is falling away. Meanwhile the experimentation necessary to establish the foundation for a new collaborative film industry is beginning.
Independent filmmaking finds itself at an interesting crossroads, but many are already rushing to declare it dead. Ironically though, in some ways it is the best of times to be a filmmaker. Production processes have become democratized and distribution methods are quickly becoming commoditized. In theory all the tools and services are in place for filmmakers to beat a direct path to their audiences. But the part of the impending new business model that still remains foggy is the issue of discovery.
The ability to generate virtual word of mouth and turn audiences into fans is the skill that will improve a filmmaker‘s chances of moving from a single film to a career in this new environment. It is at this cross section that the new business models will evolve, ones that learn from other industries, study consumer behavior and embrace open systems and solutions.
Pulling Back the Curtain
The Workbook Project grew out of an experiment to see if I could outperform a book advance that I was offered. I had been approached to write about the production and distribution of my films, but instead of writing the book I took the project to the Web. This past fall marked the two-year anniversary of the Workbook Project. To date the project has long surpassed the initial book advance and is soon about to expand in ways that I only hoped would be possible. The Workbook Project now includes not only online resources but offline events like DIY Days and a discovery and distribution festival called From Here to Awesome.
The Workbook Project‘s mission is to provide open resources and information — to pull back the curtain on the filmmaking process in an effort to help those making films to fund, create, distribute and sustain from their work. Its model is inspired by the Open Source Software movement where amateur and professional programmers share code and resources while collaborating to build and maintain software. This open approach has created a vibrant community while at the same time establishing both free and pay models for software that have fueled innovation and many successful business models in the process.
The Workbook Project strives to support a similar collaboration between creators and the audiences who are passionate about their work. For the first time in history audiences are finding themselves with the tools and services that enable them to create. The concept of open creativity realizes that these new forms of interaction can be mutually beneficial to both filmmakers and the audiences that love independent film. By understanding these potential relationships filmmakers can establish collaborations with audiences that help them to fund, promote and distribute their films while creating additional materials around their work. The key is to give value back to audience members that turn them from passive viewers to engaged fans.
When Fans Mobilize
Within the last few years fans have begun to exercise a newfound collective voice, and thanks to technology, it has become large and powerful. Fans have mobilized to save the shows they love from cancellation. Notable examples include Seth MacFarlane‘s Family Guy and Joss Whedon‘s Firefly. In the case of Firefly, fans self-organized under the moniker Browncoats in an attempt to save the Fox show by raising money for industry ads and conducting mailing campaigns. Later the show would return as the feature film Serenity in part thanks to DVD sales and fan efforts.
Is there a future model where fans could actually help to fund the entertainment they love and in the process move from audience to producer? Citing fans of the show Farscape, a TV show abruptly cancelled in its fourth season, Sharon Ross, author of Beyond the Box TV and the Internet, thinks so.
“The producers went to the fans, and they said, ‘Listen, the rug got pulled out from under us and we ended with a huge cliffhanger. There‘s no way for us to finish telling you guys the story. How do you want to handle this as a community?‘ So the fans started to come up with all sorts of possibilities. One idea was for every fan on the Web site to donate $2, which would have raised enough money to finish the show. The only thing that stopped it from happening were legal issues like international copyright laws and how royalties would be divided. Otherwise the producers were willing to allow the fans a way to contractually and economically become attached to the show.”
Film, television and music properties with preexisting fan bases are easy for independent filmmakers to dismiss. After all, in most cases these large fan bases were built off the backs of traditional media. But Ross is not so quick to dismiss their instructional value because at the core many of these cases are common fundamentals that can be employed by filmmakers of any size and scope.
“A good story is very important, but the typical reason that [viewers] become fans is because the story offers them something personal,” Ross says. “Fans are actually looking for a quite sophisticated psychological experience. At the end of the day they need to be able to talk to their other fan friends about the meaning of the story. And once they have a meaningful relationship with the story then they want a relationship with the creative team. They need writers and producers willing to chat with them or to communicate in some way with them.”
Media Wants to be Social
Audience building has been a hot topic for indies recently. By now it is common practice for filmmakers to collect e-mail addresses and capture zip codes from fans who have visited their sites or attended their screenings. But many filmmakers are building their audiences within closed systems that could ultimately be detrimental to them. YouTube, Facebook and MySpace provide turnkey solutions that have captured large market share thanks to simple tools and services that enable people to conveniently connect. But remember, these outlets — not you — own your audience. Currently there is no easy way to export your subscribers‘ and/or friends‘ info to another platform that is not a blatant volition of the service providers‘ terms of service agreement. Even worse, for a variety of reasons, one day your audience could just disappear from these sites.
One filmmaker who wishes to remain anonymous related a horror story: “One day I couldn‘t log on to YouTube. My account was gone. All my videos, all my subscribers were gone, and to this day I still don‘t know why.”
More recently filmmaker Arin Crumley has been fighting to get his Facebook account back up and running. “Facebook disabled my account with more than 2,000 friends because I used the words ‘BUY FOUR EYED MONSTERS DVD in CANADA”‘ in a posted item,” says Crumley.
Beyond the possibility of a glitch, accidental terms of service violation or censorship issues that could disable your account, there is a larger issue at play. Your data should be able to travel with you. A group known as the Data Portability Project is working hard to ensure that the audiences, social interactions and relationships you build can be portable across the Web. Chris Saad, co-founder of the Data Portability Project (dataportability.org), explains, “The key point with Data Portability is that it is open-standards based, so no one owns it. It‘s an ecosystem of community-driven technologies. Platforms like MySpace and Facebook have become very popular and as a result audiences are actually aggregating and consuming media there. But the Web is much bigger than any one platform, and what is necessary is for the entire Web to become social. Audiences need to be able to take their friends around with them when they travel the Web.”
The real strength of data portability for filmmakers is not just in making their own audiences portable but in allowing these audiences to make the films themselves portable and social. In the not-so-distant future media social graphs will be created allowing film content to benefit fully from the promise of the Long Tail.
Relationships to films will seamlessly flow from one film to the next once the connections can be made in a simple fashion that moves beyond a basic IMDb or Google search. Visualizing the connections between films and allowing them to be spread across blogs, sites and social networking pages could produce media social graphs that link actors, shooting locations, genres, or musical references across multiple films. However in many cases these connections will be guided by an infinite number of nuances, referenced and generated by an audience that has a desire to discover, share and engage with the media they care about — references built upon core elements such as what a person likes and dislikes, watches or reviews, comments on, or personally recommends.
Or maybe it will be things that connect people in personal ways, like where they first met or how they felt at a particular moment in time. This is nothing new. The mind has been making these connections around music and films for years. A certain combination of musical notes or a crisp line of dialog will immediately trigger a memory from one‘s life. But it is such personalization of media in the online space that will fuel the next generation of distributed social networking as well as a number of new discovery and distribution business models in the process.
Another valuable aspect of this media social graph will be a layer that enables point of purchase to ride in close proximity to any reference to the media. For example, links to purchase digital downloads, DVDs or even to book tickets for an upcoming screening will accompany these social graphs.
Says Saad, “The media world is probably going to lead the way in a decentralized Web social network. If you accept the premise that the entire Web is going to become one big social network so that everyone is connected in some way through this same infrastructure, then what you will have is the ability to aggregate very, very large audiences. If you are able to describe those audiences and the content well enough, you will actually be able to match them up in a very efficient and friction-free way.”
Accordingly filmmakers‘ ability to control data concerning their own audiences is crucial when it comes to fostering these new direct-to-audience models. The promise of true data portability is something that filmmakers should be fighting for. New models will emerge when the entire Web becomes one large open social network, enabling filmmakers to cross-pollinate their audiences with other filmmakers. This alone could expand the promise of 1,000 true fans to that of millions.
Consumer Needs Lead Innovation
This past year a small music start-up called Muxtape grew quickly and caught the attention of users, the industry and the press. The concept was simple: It enabled users to create and share mix tapes. Founder Justin Ouellette started Muxtape with the desire to bring the concept of the mix tape into the digital realm, but he made sure to embrace some of the analog limitations and in the process created a vibrant community excited by music discovery.
“Because cassette tapes are limited in their length a person creating a mix tape had to be very selective about what went on it,” says Ouellette. “The quality of the selection would tend to be very good just by virtue of that one simple limitation.”
Unfortunately Muxtape was crushed by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) this past summer. Ouellette memorialized his project on his blog following the shutdown: “[Muxtape] was successful very quickly. We had 8,685 users registered in the first 24 hours and 97,748 in the first month with 1.2 million unique visitors and a healthy growth rate. Lots of press. Rampant speculation. Tech rags either lauded it or declared it an instant failure. Everyone was excited. I was thrilled.”
The quick rise and fall of Muxtape points to an underlying issue that‘s of value to filmmakers: consumer behavior drives innovation, and even if an industry attempts to exert control over this innovation another service or solution will eventually rise to fill the need. Within days after Muxtape closed an open-source solution called Opentape emerged, enabling those who want to create and host their own mix tapes online. The key difference — Opentape is decentralized and because of that almost impossible to stop.
The Hybrid Economy
Passive consumers are the ideal audience for the entertainment industry. But the problem the industry is currently facing is that technology is fueling audiences‘ desires to do more than just sit on the couch and watch. They not only want to trade their favorite media, they want to use it to fuel their own creativity.
This newfound open creativity is often at odds with both industry practice and current copyright law. In his new book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lawrence Lessig looks at the current copyright wars from a historical perspective. In comparing the remixing of media to an author‘s act of quoting someone else‘s written material, Lessig asks, “What happens when our technology for writing expands beyond words and includes all sorts of media? What happens when filmmaking becomes like writing, when music recording becomes like writing, when production of video becomes like writing? There will be no good ways to control it. The conflict that we‘re now seeing is that the norms that developed around these rich media formats are conflicting with the norms that developed around writing.”
Lessig‘s conception of a remix culture offers a number of interesting opportunities for filmmakers willing to release footage under a Creative Commons license allowing fans to remix and spread one‘s work. But when a creative expression like remixing moves from an amateur pastime to a professional occupation, the legal lines become even grayer. Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) rose from an office cubical to playing center stage at Lollapalooza. Brett Gaylor, writer-director of the documentary RiP: A Remix Manifesto, which documents Girl Talk‘s rise to fame, explains Gillis‘s story: “Gregg started by driving his Ford Tempo to shows in Laundromats with 10 people to [having] a tour bus, roadies, groupies and selling out large venues. Girl Talk is a rock star with a laptop.”
Indeed, his mashups of classic riffs, recognizable break beats and samples send crowds into dance frenzies. But Girl Talk is also a paradox. One of his songs might contain dozens of samples from other songs, all of which are used without clearing or licensing the samples from the original artists. Some would cry “piracy!” but in many ways Girl Talk is a pioneer. He is forging a path where new culture will be created by making inventive use of the past.
Of course all artists deserve compensation for their work, and activities like Gillis‘s require a new approach to licensing. Lessig explains, “Maybe we need to move into a licensing scheme that allows the original copyright owner to get some kind of compensation for it. Gillis has indicated his support for a ‘remix Cover Right,‘ which we don‘t have right now. It would enable people to remix and pay a flat or cheap fee to compensate the original artist and then to gain rights to the underlying work so there is no doubt about the [artist‘s] right to remix it. That would be progressive for Congress to think about something like that.”
This concept of a remix Cover Right could also be applied to film, thus enabling filmmakers to easily and cost-effectively make their footage available for remixing. This would provide additional revenue streams around footage that was used within the feature film or footage that hit the cutting-room floor.
Another exciting model would be the creation of a universal license, one that would enable anyone to sell the film. This could mean setting up screenings, pointing people to physical DVDs, or even seeding the film via a p2p model. The royalties derived from such sales would pass back to all the individuals involved in the production of the work. In this model fans could become distribution hubs for filmmakers in exchange for a small percentage of sales and/or the opportunity to be involved in helping to see something they are passionate about reach a wider audience.
The Future Is Open
One thing is certain: Independent filmmaking needs to evolve. By embracing collaborative models that fuel open resources, discovery, personal recommendations and fan creativity we have the opportunity to lay the foundation for a new independent-film industry. The new models will be powered not only by advancements in technology but by the people who are passionate about making and consuming films. The desire to connect with others and share experiences around entertainment is where filmmakers will find sustainability.