Akiva Goldsman says. . .

This weekend, as a part of the reunion/commencement ceremonies at my alma mater, I got to see Akiva Goldsman talk about life as an Oscar-winning screenwriter. I also got to see a certain presidential candidate, but I’m going to be a good blogger and stay on topic.

I’ve seen a lot of writers come back and give advice to the masses. Goldsman talked a lot about failure. He was a failed novelist, a mostly-failed textbook writer, and he happened to, by accident, sell the first screenplay he ever wrote. His advice was, in a nutshell: “Write write write write write write write. And then write.”

Someone asked him about going to Hollywood. He said that Hollywood was a club of “about 500 people, with everyone trying to make sure it’s not 501.” He advised aspiring filmmakers, writers, and actors to develop their skills elsewhere, and then bring those skills with them. He said that LA was no place to find yourself – you have to bring something to the table to have success.

The talk reminded me why I chose a small market like Boston, where I can form bonds with people at all levels of the production process. I once was trying to coordinate a shoot with a woman in LA, who tried to get me to sum up where I wanted to be in 5 years. I gave her a very vague, philosophical answer, and she said “No. You need to KNOW now. Do you want to be a technical director? A location manager? What?” I’m lucky enough that I’ve been a location manager, a script supervisor, a producer, an editor. . . all from the same desk chair. I should hope that if I ever get to make money solely as a writer or producer, knowing the whole process from start to finish will serve me well.

I want my MTV, I mean. . . YouTube

Weezer is just so cool. . .

They made a video that’s a super impressive mash-up of every YouTube trend in the last year. Some of these are reproductions, but many appear to have been shot with the original YouTube “stars.” In fact, those people have their own videos about being on set with Weezer, or promoting the new Weezer album.

Congrats to Weezer for figuring out how to work an existing system, rather than push against it. This is a HUGE improvement over bands that have allowed fans to compete to make the “official” video (Tori Amos had two such contests). Those contests push against the flow of information. If 25 fans make videos, hardcore fans will watch all 25, and non-fans will probably watch. . . none. Weezer (or whoever came up with this concept) is going to suck in people who have no clue who they are (if you’re 14 today, the Blue Album is 18 days older than you). So while you probably didn’t blast “In the Garage” with the windows down on your way to watch the X-Files, you probably have seen “Evolution of Dance” and “Chocolate Rain.” And if you haven’t, you can watch them all instantly, and get in on the joke.

That’s probably the greatest power that YouTube has. The “ooh, come look at this!” factor is unparalleled in any other media. I guess you could also call that “viral,” but I’m starting to dislike the negative connotation of the word. It doesn’t really express the inside-joke factor, or the psychic reward when you pick up on a trend before anyone else.

Also, the new Weezer song isn’t half bad. . .

Can you wear leggings with that?

So, the Producer’s post got me thinking. First of all, thanks to SXSW for the shoutout! Second of all. . .

I read this article in the NY Times a while ago. To sum up: Steve and Barry’s is setting out to be the cheapest, most fashionable chain store ever created. They’re using celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker to design fashionable outfits that sell for less than $9. Are these guys going to put Chanel and Oscar de la Renta out of business? No way. They’re doing the same thing that the big studios are doing right now: Taking the most popular trends from high fashion (or its most popular public faces) and co-opting them for the masses. Warner Brothers, Paramount and the other studios seem to be angling to be the Target and Walmart of new media: You like Steve Carrell in that arty Little Miss Sunshine movie? More Steve Carrell! Steve Carrell for everyone!

Now, the difficulty here is that everyone, absolutely everyone, needs shirts and pants. The content of those shirts and pants (color, cut, pattern) is all up for grabs. So if Target can make cheap shirts and pants that look like something out of Sex and the City, then that starts to look like a pretty good deal. However, not everyone needs movies. Not everyone enjoys movies (I know, I’m as shocked as you). So what happens when the economy is a bit shaky, and people start thinking that their $9 is better spent at Steve and Barry’s than at Landmark Cinemas?

Vaudeville. If you were around in the 1890’s, and you went to the theater, you could see a vaudeville show consisting of comedy, drama, dance, music and some seriously weird stuff (does this remind anyone of the CW’s Monday night lineup?) – it was affordable for the middle class, and acts traveled all over the country. There were people whose acts inspired the same kind of fannish devotion as any modern-day Miley Cyrus. But the advent of this cheaper form of entertainment called “film,” plus that nasty financial incident in the fall of 1929, forced theaters to turn into movie palaces. Vaudeville’s best talent headed for Hollywood. If this interests you, PBS put out a really good documentary on vaudeville for American Masters.

Film didn’t kill theater. It just changed the nature of the theater-going experience. Now it’s unlikely you’ll see variety shows trying to attract a mass audience. Theaters had to adapt to appeal to a specialized audience. Target hasn’t killed high fashion, either.

Are films going to die? No. Art doesn’t die. It gets chopped up, rehashed and made into a collage somewhere else. Just like fashion – everything comes back into vogue eventually. When technology gets ahead of the curve of theory and critique, people get all agitated. Right now, nobody is reviewing YouTube videos in the New York Times. No academics have cannonized it, no critics have turned it into a comparison-fest. In vaudeville, there were some trashy, mind-blowingly stupid acts roaming around the country. But what we remember now are the geniuses – the people who influenced generations to come.

Eventually, we’re going to see great art, really great narrative art, come out of these weird little platforms. I agree fully with the Producer: It’s a great time to experiment and make something new.

Presenting Your Message

Image by Andres Rueda
Image by Andres Rueda

Picture an advertisement for a cash back rewards credit card. A couple of months ago, this card was offering 5% cash back for the first 3 months and then 1% after that. Now they are offering 1% cash back and a 20% bonus on all cash back earned in the first year.

Which of these deals sounds better?

Many people will say the second one, because the percentage is higher, and the time period is longer. But take another look at what is actually being said.

20% on all cash back earned. So effectively 1.2% on purchases for the year. The first offer gave an average of 2% cash back in the first year, assuming evenly-spaced spending, and the new offer gives only 1.2%.

What lesson can you take away from this? How you present your message is almost as important as what the message says.

Metcalfe’s Law

Andrew Chen has a post about Metcalfe’s Law and corollary Eflactem’s Law (M-E-T-C-A-L-F-E backwards, you can probably figure this one out).

“In fact, you see this happen all the time at dinner parties or events. Things are great until one or two people announce the intention to leave. If those folks are fun and entertaining, there’s an immediate realization that the quality of the experience is about to go down. And yet more people announce their intention to leave, and so on, until you are left with the party hosts and a big mess ;-)” 

Essentially, he posits that while adding a user increases value exponentially, losing users shrinks value by the same order.

Anna and I were discussing this phenomenon:

Anna: Awww, the Friendster party hosts must be so sad.
Teague: (laughs) Yeah.
Anna: It’s such a sad mental image, ’cause it was like they had this sort of okay party with Bud Light and Sun Chips but then Facebook came along with its local microbrew and cru de te and it was all over.

Democritization of Technology is Not a Problem

Mike Curtis of HD for Indies recently wrote a piece titled The very, very serious problem with democratization of technology in moviemaking. I am a regular reader of Mike’s blog and I generally find him to be very insightful, but on the premise of this article I must respectfully disagree. He mentions that this is a rough draft, so I won’t nitpick it, but I will say that the article primarily focuses on the difficulties faced by current industry players who insist on maintaining the status quo.

I would suggest Mike pick up a copy of “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson and then take another shot at his draft. The “trouble” isn’t caused by more production and the same number of buyers and technology isn’t a problem. Technology has changed the entire economy of entertainment (among others). Attention is now a scarcer commodity than consumer’s money. This is a fact that we seem to agree on. Lower barrier to entry means more people make films for less money. Some of those are good; many are not. The trick is filtering through the bad to find the good; a job that is increasingly offloaded to the viewers.

However, where we differ in opinion is that I do not see this as an obstacle, but an opportunity. Mike talks about the rising cost of marketing, and how films must shout loud enough to be heard over the noise (I paraphrase). I think this is the wrong approach. Success for a small, low-budget film is more easily found by connecting that film with its niche audience, a goal that is aided, not hindered by technology.

Digital distribution lowers marginal costs to asymptotically approach zero. Crowdsourcing of the filtering process negates the need for taste makers and executives to tell people what they want. The declining need for those jobs means the people currently holding them have to adapt to the changing landscape. Some try to hold onto the status quo long enough to reach retirement. The real winners will be the ones who take a risk and leave the comfortable status quo to be at the forefront of the wave of change.

The final point in Mike’s article is about the major challenge for content producers of creating content and selling it at a profit. As the technology is democratized, more people can create content, and with the same amount (or decreasing) consumption, it’s true that maintaining a health profit margin is difficult. But if the only barrier keeping a novice from creating content that is more relevant or enjoyable to the viewer was technology, then the old guard of content creators hasn’t been doing a very good job.

The technological playing field is being evened, the challenge is to produce content that people connect with and want, not just content that looks good. There are 4 quadrants in the production quality/story quality grid. The result of democratization of technology is that the production quality gradient gets flattened and it is no longer the determining factor in success. Story quality (however you define it), becomes a larger differentiator and, as such, will be the main measure of quality to people deciding ‘what to watch’ (or ‘where do I spend my attention?’).

We’re seeing the effects of this already (Mike points to Speed Racer’s absence of plot and resulting box office figures), but it will only become more pronounced as the difference in production quality from a studio-backed blockbuster and a low-budget indie gets smaller. Personally, I don’t see this as a problem so much as an opportunity. It’s an exciting time to be creating independent media of any kind and consumers have more choices than ever before. The future entertainment economy may not support large studios and monolithic entertainment empires, but there will continue to be a place for content creators and artists.

Turnitin wins by Fair Use

The Center for Social Media at American University has a story about Turnitin, a site used to catch plagarism, citing Fair Use to win a case against students who sued them for taking intellectual property. The irony was not lost on Patricia Aufderheide, who concluded:

So let the students—and the teachers—take a real lesson from Turnitin. Quoting from other people’s copyrighted work is sometimes, even often, fair. Not all copying is cheating, or copyright violation.

Trends from SXSW

Not all filmmakers at SXSW were bullish on digital tools and social networks this year. The Center for Social Media at American University reports :

In spite of cutting edge talk, though, many filmmakers were looking to strike far more traditional deals with theatrical distributors and broadcasters.

Although SXSW has a reputation for being on the cutting edge, it seems there are still plenty of attendees who are proponents of the traditional distribution model. This suggests that it will still be a while before newer models begin to gain large market share. There are still opportunities to be had by those who take a risk and dive into the new distribution market.

And we’re back…

After an extended hiatus, brought about by outside circumstances, we have returned to the Experiment. There will be a few changes to the site in the coming weeks, so keep your eyes open as we continue to bring you insights and news on the state of independent media.