LIVE on the Digital Production Buzz

29 12 2008
Larry Jordan will be interviewing me on this weeks Digital Production Buzz

Larry Jordan will be interviewing me this Thursday night on his radio show, THE DIGITAL PRODUCTION BUZZ, a podcast/show devoted to all things digital media. You can get details about this week’s show on Larry’s site, or download the show from iTunes or your favorite podcatcher software.



Social Networking — Does It Network?

28 12 2008
Twitter

One of the hardest things to teach people involved in the arts is how important connections are to their success. Hell, if I’d have learned that way back when you might have heard about me way before now — like when I accepted an Oscar or gave a speech at the White House. But networking is hard, especially for people in the arts. I find that many of us can’t speak proudly of work that we’ve done without being prompted.  It feels too much like boasting. So what takes its place — among us socially inept people?

Networking.

They say that, in Hollywood (and, by that, they mean Big Filmmaking), it’s who you know that helps you get ahead. And while I’ve seen too many well connected people who don’t get work because they can’t do the work when they do get it, it is true that having connections is better than not having them. The way that I describe it is that, since there are 100 people out there for every job, you have to differentiate yourself from the next person. That could be that you’ve won an Oscar — that’s different. Or it could be that you speak Swahili and the film has a section in Swahili — that makes you different.

Or it could be that one of your parents is head of post production for a major studio. That also makes you different.

But most of us don’t have parents who are highly connected like that, so what we have to do is to win an Oscar, learn Swahili or find someone who can help us in lieu of the Influential Parent thing.

That’s where networking comes in, and it’s the positive side of the “it’s-who-youy-know” coin.

Filmmaking is hard hard hard work. It’s not easy being trapped in a small editing room for five months with someone if you don’t really like spending time with them. So, honestly, one of the requirements of a good editor (or of any crucial job on a film — and most of them are critical)  is the ability to get a long with people. And that’s really hard to judge in a 30 minute interview.  So that’s why it’s a great idea to get to know someone in another setting before you have to meet them in an interview. Now, this kind of thing can’t be forced. It doesn’t do any good to attend parties, hoping to meet that director who you’d like to work with. But I’ve met some amazing people in social situations, a few of whom turned out to be working buddies later. I met them at soccer games (well… my daughter’s soccer games to be honest), museum functions, book groups and — now — online. Anyone who doesn’t have a Facebook account in 2009 might as well retire from the industry right now, before we reach 2009 (if you’re reading this after 2008 went away, well… sorry about that, give up now).

These thoughts came to mind after listening to a recent podcast of Net at Night, from Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur, where they interviewed Ming Yeow Ng, one of the founders of a service called Mr. Tweet. Mr. Tweet is an identity on Twitter, the microblogging service which is better defined in Wikipedia than on their own site, as a web and cel phone text messaging site which “allows its users to send and read other users’ updates (otherwise known as tweets), which are text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length.” For those of you who aren’t on the service (and there’s really no pressing need for many of you to get on right now, I’m sure) the idea is that you post short messages which go out to everyone who has chosen to “follow” you. Initially, these messages tended to be stupefyingly dull (“I”m driving over to Joe’s house now.”). At SxSW last year, however, people started to use it as a meet-up tool (“I’m in the back of so-and-so’s panel where he’s talking complete gibberish. Who else is here?”). It has now evolved to a rather interesting means of passing information along. People like Guy Kawasaki, Robert Scoble, and Ken Rutkowski use it to push out information and links for items that they find interesting. And because each of those three people are interesting, the links are worth following.

So, it’d be great to find people who can help you learn new things about the world, and the industry, in which we live and work. The question is — how do you find them?

Enter Mr. Tweet. This service takes a look at the people who are in your circle of followers (that is, the people who you follow and the people who follow you — those don’t have to be the same) and figures out the people who you are NOT following who you should be following. Mr. Tweet (no word on whether there is a Ms. Tweet as well) divides them into two groups — the people who follow you, and the people who are not in your circle at all. The algorithm that they use to do this isn’t easy, and Leo, Amber and Ming discussed this a bit in Net at Nite (it is further discussed on the site’s blog) but it basically takes a look at how much respected bloggers respect your tweets (which are what your individual twitter postings would be called if you actually did them). The definition of “respected” seems to come from how valued your own tweets are to large groups of people.  Obviously, the more people in the system, the better this system works — you join the system by following “mrtweet” on Twitter. (As an aside, the two founders of Mr. Tweet, have put together an interesting PowerPoint entitled “Discovery Is The New Cocaine” which gives a lot of the basis for the reasons behind social networking usefulness. It’s worth a look at Slideshare.)

But this leads to a great conclusion about social networking in general — how can you find intriguing, interesting and valuable people with who you can network. One bit of advice that I got seveal years ago from Mark Hortsman and Michael Auzenne over at Manager Tools (a great site and fascinating podcast for those of you who want to learn how to manage) is to never volunteer for something expecting to get something in return. The best way to be helped by people, is to help them out selflessly. That means opening up your rolodex when it’s appropriate. That means answering emails from people you don’t know, even if it’s just a short response, to answer their questions. That means volunteering on a project without expecting a trade. And it means prying ourselves out of our shells a little more than we may be comfortable doing.

Knowing the latest cameras and editing software is important in the new world of work in our industries, but so is knowing how to make contacts in that world so you and your work can get out there. It goes beyond cocktail parties, through the world of user groups and emails, and into many of the social networking tools. Putting your films out on YouTube doesn’t do you a bit of good if you can’t get anyone to watch them. So, one more skill that we need to acquire today, is the ability to use the social networking tools of the time.

Now, you can go out and join Twitter.

By the way, if you’d like to follow me on Twitter (and I’m just learning how to do it right, you can click the Twitter logo at the top of this post).



I’ll Be Up At Macworld

23 12 2008

Im speaking at next months Macworld, up in San Francisco

I'm speaking at next month's Macworld, up in San Francisco

Macworld is the annual get together that is held up in San Francisco. While it’s been rocked by Apple’s announcement two weeks ago that not only would Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, not deliver his customary keynote address at the show and that Apple would pull out as an on-the-floor exhibitor beginning in 2010, it’s still a collection of some really interesting people.

Because Final Cut is a large part of the Mac experience, the publisher of my new book, Peachpit Press, has an exhibit on the floor at which a number of their authors will be giving talks about Final Cut, Photoshop, visual effects and (if I have anything to say about) storytelling. So, for those of you who are planning on attending the show and who would like to hear some people talk about subjects that they are very passionate about, please stop by the Peachpit booth.

I’ll be talking about THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT — a book about how to shape your storytelling abilities through writing, directing, cinematography, editing, production design, sound and music — on Thursday, January 8th, from 12noon until 12:45.  I’ll also be signing books afterwards. Preceding me will be Mark Christiansen, whose knowledge and expertise with visual effects continually stuns me.  I hope to see you there.

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I am also going to take the Macworld opportunity to stop in on my first LAFCPUG Supermeet. For any of you who are interested in filmmaking, in general, and editing in particular, the LA Final Cut Pro Users Group is a great organization with an amazingly deep website, and monthly meetings that attract some of the most interesting and talented FCP users and gurus (such as Larry Jordan, Ken Stone and Phil Hodgetts). Their annual Supermeets are huge affairs, with tons of speakers, raffle prizes, and knowledge.  This year, LAFCPUG head Mike Horton promises the following at this Wednesday night event:

Apple: The latest on Final Cut Studio – JVC: Craig Yanagi of JVC will announce the world’s first acquisition product developed especially for Final Cut post production. Come and be a part of this historic event.

BlackMagic Design presents M. Dot Strange.

Bruce Nazarian: Blu-Ray on the Cheap. How to build a compatible Blu-Ray Disk and burn it on DVD-R media without a Blu-Ray burner.

Christine Steele: FCP Tips and Tricks

Eric Escobar: “Plug-Ins Won’t Save You” A plug-in package alone won’t create the “look” of your movie. A “look” is a combination of preproduction, design, performance, camera work and post wizardry. Eric will show us how to deconstruct a “look” from a TV show or movie, and reconstruct it on-the-cheap.

Yun Suh: Clips from the documentary film “City of Borders” (Show and Tell)

Rounding out the evening will be the always raucous “World Famous Raffle” with over $40,000.00 worth of prizes to be handed out to several lucky winners. 300 “SuperBag” Goodie Bags filled with over $200.00 worth of learning resources will be handed to the first 300 people through the door. Food (snacks) and drinks will be available throughout the evening.

For complete details on the SuperMeet including driving and transit directions and instructions, a current list of raffle prizes and a link to where to buy tickets, visit the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro (lafcpug) web site.



The Music Industry Giveth and Taketh Away

23 12 2008

Two high profile articles in today’s newsfeeds demonstrate just how the music industry is finally evolving — not in any way that’s going to help them in a year or two, but at least in the near term.

In one development, the RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America), which has been busy over the last few years, suing the ass off of anyone who they’ve caught downloading pirated music, decided to stop using their own lawyers to fight the dastardly crime of IP piracy, and to count on the ISPs to use their lawyers. As the blog TechnologyExpert describes it, the RIAA will send a note to the ISPs (the “parents”) asking them to send it to their customers (the “errant children”):

Depending on the agreement, the ISP will either forward the note to customers, or alert customers that they appear to be uploading music illegally, and ask them to stop. If the customers continue the file-sharing, they will get one or two more emails, perhaps accompanied by slower service from the provider. Finally, the ISP may cut off their access altogether.

Computerworld describes this as the RIAA “giving up on finding a competitor to iTunes.” Seth Weintraub there says that “they have effectively stopped trying to put up walls around music.”  In general, the press has correctly seen this as the RIAA admitting that their tactic of suing end-users is about as effective as the government trying to stop prostitution or drugs by throwing the johns or pot smokers into jail. In other words — completely useless.

In another development, Warner Music decided to remove all videos on YouTube that have any of their music in them. So, officially created advertising videos, as well as the countless user generated videos of Madonna, Metallica and other Warners acts, will slowly disappear from Google’s massive video site.

It’s hard to know what to make of these two stories except to say that the music industry may finally be coming to its senses.

The background for the Warners story, as reported in the New York Times, is that Warner Music Group, one of the Big Four music companies worldwide, has been negotiating with Google, for some fair licensing arrangement for use of its music and videos. You know this was going to happen as soon as Google started to put their marketing muscle inside of the video service — as discussed on a recent podcast from (if I remember correctly) Daisy Whitney, people who are beginning to get greater and greater downloads (and are Google/YouTube partners) are now seeing ads inserted into their video streams.

So, Google is going to making some money, and a few of their selected partners will be also.  Why not Warner Music, since it’s their music that will be driving some of the content?

Hard to disagree with that.  As someone who creates content for a living (AD!  AD!  AD! — My new book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, will be out in just a week.  Buy early and buy often.) and who has to pay the rents they charge in Los Angeles, it doesn’t make much sense to continually be creating work and not getting paid for it. So, I’m with Warners up to a certain point.

The really interesting thing for me, however, in the juxtaposition of these two news stories, is that (however slow on the uptake the music companies are) they seem to finally be getting the idea that their core business is distributing content, not lawsuits. If the major music companies decide to stop suing their users (and make no mistake about it, there is no difference between the RIAA and the major music companies) and start experimenting with distribution, this is all going to be for the good of the consumer. If Warner decides that withholding their product is the smarter business move — as opposed to giving it away for publicity — then they’ll let the market decide if that’s a boneheaded move or not. And while I would take the position that it is incredibly boneheaded (I’ve long felt that they’d be much more successful as marketing and distribution companies than as music creation companies), it is a great step in the right direction for them to allow them to test their strategies in the marketplace rather than in the courts.

Today is a good day.

==================  UPDATE ===================

An article in Ars Technica, mentions an ISP that is complaining to the RIAA that, if they want to push P2P enforcement onto the ISPs, then they should be prepared to pay for the privilege of not paying for their own lawsuits. The owner of this particular ISP, Jerry Scroggin of BIC in Louisiana, notes that:

In the case of RIAA notices, however, there is a lack of information to work from, but significant expense is involved when trying to track down a user who may not be doing anything wrong… Spending long hours to stop what may not even be a crime, only to pick up the tab in full, is simply not within a small ISP’s budget.

ISPs aren’t excited about bearing some of the costs of the RIAA’s copyright enforcement efforts, and it may be one reason why Verizon isn’t going along with the labels’ new enforcement initiative.

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Test Screenings

15 12 2008

John August, the screenwriter and blogger who is an incredible resource to the online film community, has a post about putting together a test screening questionnaire. I’ll let you go away and read it.

My response:

Three caveats on the questionnaire:

  1. First, don’t be surprised when the scenes that appear on the “scenes I liked most” list, also show up on the “scenes I liked least” list. It happens every time and, in a funny sort of way, means that you’re pushing some buttons. Not a bad thing.
  2. Second, be very very careful how you ask the question about things that concern you (this is especially true in the those awful focus groups after the screenings). As soon as you ask whether the audience had a problem with something, you’ve called it out to them and they start responding to perceived problems, even if they didn’t feel them. If you have an issue with the music in your film, don’t ask about the music, ask if there were things that contributed to the audience’s enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of the film.  You get the idea. As soon as you give them a pencil, they all think they’re Roger Ebert.
  3. And, finally, be very very careful about what changes you make as a result of the questionnaires. Too many people use it to justify something they’ve wanted to do all along, and others use it as a cudgel to beat someone over the head. Each audience is different and each person in each audience is different. Take everything as information, not as marching orders.

That having been said, I’ve often learned a lot about the films I’ve worked on through test screenings.  There was a screening of the film HAIR, on which I was an assistant editor and assistant music editor to the incredibly talented John Strauss, for which we got a comment that the viewer “liked the scene with Claude’s sister.” The problem was that the John Savage character didn’t have a sister in the film — the person was referring to Beverly D’Angelo’s character, Sheila.

What was obvious to us at that point was that at least one person hadn’t realized the relationship that these people really had in the film. And that was important to us.

So, we did a few questions in that focus group trying to discover if others had that perception — asking who else liked his sister, how they felt about his sister, did they like what happened to his sister at the end (well, we didn’t do it that obviously, but you get the idea). And, lo and behold, we found that most people understood that the two weren’t related but a few didn’t.

We fixed it in the next cut.



Cool and Hot Media, and Me

13 10 2008

There has been a decided lack of activity on this blog in the last two months as I’ve been in the home stretch on a few projects–all of which seemed to come together at once. One of them, my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is about finished (the last big chapter went out this past Saturday) and I’ve begun to stick my head up and look around at the roiling landscape.

With the crumbling stock market, you’d think I’d take a look at that. But, the reality is for me is that (since I’m just an editor and a teacher) I don’t have millions in equity and, therefore, it’s all paper money for me. In other words, what interests me most right now is not what’s happening right now, but what’s going to be happen in a few years — when the rest of the world decides they want to start spending some money again.

The major studios are betting the bank on several things, all of which involve technology, so that’s not bad for people like us, who get it. As they did back in the Good Old Days when television threatened, they are looking for the flashy baubles to interest the audience into coming into the theaters. For now, they’ve decided on 3-D, which has me checking the calendars to see if we’ve flown back into the Fifties.

I’m not going to disagree with those people who actually have the ability to influence the direction of these major companies, by dint of their being on the board of directors. They obviously think they know where they’re going. But I see 3-D as a mere way station along the way to immersive entertainment.

Remember Marshall McLuhan — cool and warm media? McLuhan, a media theorist from the 60s and 50s, described in his book Understanding Media, the concept that some media are inherently more focussed than others. If I remember my theory correctly, film, he said, provides a more complete experience and, therefore, demands less involvement from its audience than others, like comics, which demand that the reader fill in more information. The media which demands less of you is said to be “hot” and comics would be “cool” .  It has to do with the amount of sensory perception that is required of an audience.

3-D is an interesting attempt to force the audience to participate more in a visceral way, but it’s nowhere near as complete as a complete immersive experience, such as a VR booth, or even a simple Game Boy.

I sat in on a class the other day, at USC’s Interactive Media division. I had spoken there several weeks ago about shaping story, in a linear sort of way. The students went out and shot a film, which they assembled in the traditional straight-line form. Then, after getting a critique, they had to reassemble it and introduce the elements of game-playing to the story. Many of the students created simple trees — at a certain time you could choose between having the character do one action or another. In one case, the lead character could wake to his alarm, or press the snooze button and go back to sleep.

You get the idea.

By far, the most interesting re-construction involved a story about a young woman who, depending on the order that you made your choices, left her apartment with a toy under her arm, met a man on the street who was drawing a boat, was either followed by him or not, walked past another woman who was sitting in a park, or was passed by that other woman on another street. The material was, often, introduced by quotes that crawled across the screen, or by the young filmmaker herself who shot herself in a bathtub (the theme of the piece was water, I should say) saying the quotes.

There was more to it, but one of the thoughts that I had coming out of the screening was that this was a complete example of cool media, using McLuhan’s vernacular. My mind kept on making associations between each decision tree there. It hungered to create connections and ranged over a wide range of them as I thought, processed, accepted or rejected them. The face of the woman, as she stopped to take a phone call, seemed different when I didn’t know that the second woman was around the side of the park building, compared to when I had already seen that other woman. Was the performance different, or did I just feel that?

I began to pay attention (to “lean forward” to use my vernacular) in different ways, and I got involved.

Many of the other films simply repackaged the linear content and paused, old PC game style, at places to allow us to make a binary choice. The works that involved me more, were the ones that did not try and tell a linear story in a non-linear way.

So, how does this overlap with the 3-D issue? Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. Simply making a movie in a cool and groovy three dimensional process is only going to hold my interest if 1) the story is good enough so it would have worked in 2-D or 3-D, or 2) it uses 3-D in a way that sucks me in differently than I could have in 2-D. If I want to reach out and push aside a bush that’s blocking my view of a crucial plot point, that’s pretty cool. If the bush is simply placed there to give me a sense of three dimensional depth… well, good cinematographers (and photographers and painters, for that matter) have been doing that forever without the need for a third dimension.

In other words, if 3-D is a gimmick, like it was in the 60s, then we’re going to move on really fast.

In the home, for much the same reason, the studios still think that Blu-ray is a cool idea, even though the marketplace still doesn’t see enough of a difference to make them move over. Even if the players come down under $200, from their initial thousand-buck range, it’s still a non-starter if the audience doesn’t see any reason to switch. What is going to be better about Blu-Ray than standard definition DVD, other than a slightly better picture quality (and tell me how many parents are going to give a rat’s ass about that, if they’re using DVD as a baby sitter?).  Some people will like the increase in disk capacity because it gives the opportunity to put more stuff on the DVD. Assuming that the studios give us that.

But that’s going to cost more money in content creation, so I don’t imagine we’re going to see too much of that soon. Some people, like the Peter Jacksons of the world, will be able to give us lots of cool stuff. But every LORD OF THE RINGS set of DVDs came with tons of extra content anyway. I can’t imagine that many more people are going to gravitate to paying the extra money if it’s on one or two disks as opposed to seven.

No, the real game changers in the world of entertainment are going to be changing the experience of the viewer. That might mean immersive and interactive play (and it’s why the coolest work here at USC is probably going to be coming from the Interactive Division for a while), or it might mean rapid delivery of regular ordinary movies from a streaming or downloading server, minutes after I’ve made the decision that I want it to watch it now. That’s faster than going to a movie theater, or snapping up a disk at Rocket Video.

One of the biggest time and money drains on the iPhone is the ability to buy its applications (or download the free ones) as soon as you see it on that very iPhone. Hey, I think, I wonder if there’s an app for keeping track of the presidential polls. I do a quick search (which I can do, because I’m in a 3G city), find one and press INSTALL. Voila. I’ve bought it.  Almost no thought involved.

And that’s part of the future of our entertainment industry as well. It’s not that it’s all about impulse buying. But it’s about changing the way that I do the buying — fulfilling my needs better. 3-D would work if it gave me a cooler (McLuhan’s term, there, not mine) experience, rather than just a mild titillation.

The really successful storytellers of the near future, are going to be the ones who figure out how to give us that new kind of experience, in this new package.

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Oh, by the way, until I finish with the cut of my documentary in mid-November, I’m still going to be a bit erratic. To catch my lucid prose (or incoherent, it depends on how I’m feeling) you can get me every Friday — more or less — over at Film Industry Bloggers.



LAFCPUG Supermeet in Europe – Go Early, Go Often

2 09 2008

For those of you who don’t live in the Labor Day oriented United States, but live in Europe instead, here’s a tip for you.

What do you get when you combine the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro Users Group (the largest group of FCP users in the world, with really great monthly meetings in Los Angeles, and members around the world) with IBC, the media technology industry’s biggest international marketplace in the Netherlands? You get the First Annual IBC FCPUG SuperMeet. What is a supermeet? Simply, it is a gathering of FCP fans, who listen to a group of fantastic speakers, and compete for raffle prizes.

There is an annual supermeet at NAB in Las Vegas every year. But this year, organizer Michael Horton is taking the Supermeet on the road to Amsterdam.  On September 14 the inaugural edition of the IBC FCPUG Supermeet will debut. If you’re anywhere in the neighborhood you should, without a doubt, drop in and listen to some great speakers (such as Paul Saccone from Apple and TRAITOR editor Billy Fox) and put your tickets in for a raffle to win a bunch of prizes. Here is an excerpt from a note about who will be speaking there:

Jeffrey Nachmanoff (subject to availability) and editor Billy Fox will discuss how Final Cut Studio helped bring this taut international thriller to life.

From Spain, Director of Photography, Miguel de Olaso will show clips from his work utilizing the Red Digital Cinema Camera and talk briefly on workflow with Final Cut Pro.

Adobe’s Simon Hayhurst and Jason Levine will show how Adobe Production Premium’s suite of applications can compliment the Final Cut Pro workflow.

Final Cut Pro Guru and filmmaker Rick Young, who is editor of Macvideo.tv and founder of the UK FCP User Group will share his “Top Ten FCP Tips and Tricks.”

And that’s only part of it.

I’ve got no dog in the race. I’m not speaking there and I won’t make a penny from your attendance. But Michael Horton is a great and giving guy and, for anyone interested in editing, this is a great place to spend some time, meet some new friends, and learn learn learn.

Go to the LAFCPUG IBC Supermeet page for more details.



Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

Gemini Division (image courtesy of newteevee.com)

When I was growing up, long ago in the dark ages (read the 1970s) there was one thing that we could always rely on. When the mainstream media, usually Time or Newsweek magazines, had an article on a rising trend, it was always dead by about a year. The media was always a year or two behind, and by the time their editors figured out what was “hip” and could safely be reported on, it was time for the rest of us to move on.

I remember reading an article about “youth speak” which purportedly described the “lingo” that we “younger generation” actually talked in.  The article got passed around at school, usually at parties when we could bearly see straight and needed something to laugh at. No one, of course, had ever heard of most of the “hip lingo” and those terms that were vaguely familiar had been dumped years ago.

And this was before the Internet.

So, it is with a major grain of salt that I bring up an article in today’s New York Times by Mike Hale entitled “Television Keeps a Hand in the Online Game With Serialized Shows“. In it, Hale talks about several shows that the mainstream media is producing in an attempt to get viewership on the web. Shows such as “Gemini Division” the Rosario Dawson starring vehicle that seems to have learned none of the real lessons of lonelygirl15, and presents its form without its content.  A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan, in the Times’ Sunday Magazine attempted to compare the failure of many web serials to television and radio shows like “The Shadow” and “24”, somewhat missing the point. In one section of the article, entitled “Serial Killers” she says:

Time will tell, but right now Web serials — no matter how revealing, provocative or moving — seem to be a misstep in the evolution of online video. Introduced with fanfare again and again only to miss big viewerships, shows like “Satacracy 88” and “Cataclysmo” have emerged as the slow, conservative, overpriced cousins to the wildly Web-friendly “viral videos” that also arrived around 2005, when bandwidth-happy Web users began to circulate scrap video and comedy clips as if they were chain letters or strep. Top virals — “I Got a Crush . . . on Obama,” “Don’t Tase Me, Bro!” “Chocolate Rain” — never plod. They come off like brush fires, outbursts, accidents, flashes of sudden unmistakable truth.

Now, I’ve written about Internet memes several times already, so I like pontificating on the subject as much as Heffernan does, but she doesn’t seem to get the difference between web serials and memes. To compare a series like “Satacracy 88″ to “Chocolate Rain” is about as misguided as comparing the Ed Sullivan Show to a Beatles concert (to keep the 60s/70s thing going).

Still, both Hale and Heffernan score a few points as they talk about how nobody seems to know what to do with web video. Talking about the web series “Steven King’s N.” (which comes from King’s publisher and is meant to attract interest in King’s new short story collection, coming this fall). Hale says:

What “N.” really demonstrates is that the Internet could use more Stephen King. The story, involving therapy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and an evil presence trapped in a New England field, is C-grade King. (It was adapted for the serial by Marc Guggenheim, a creator of “Eli Stone.”) But it still has enough narrative pull to drag you from snippet to snippet, even when there’s less than a minute of new material.

The emphasis on the word “narrative” is mine, and completely shows my point of view.  I create content and firmly believe that you cannot divorce story from the economic equation of what will work for audiences.

What is interesting about these shows is not the content themselves, but the advertising and business model behind them.  Frankly, I almost gave up on Gemini Division because it seemed so-much watered down network television.  It’s bad cinema — with too much narration and not enough visuals. There has been a lot of discussion in content creation circles about just what the new rules of content should be — are wider shots not viewable on mobile phones?  Is faster cutting too much for the compression and bandwidth? Are three minute episodes too long?  How long should the pre-rolls be? NBC is, obviously, still experimenting.

The results — if Gemini is to be believed — are to take properties destined for wider distribution, create cheap pilots for them (as opposed to the standard dictum, which is to spend loads more time and money on the pilot than they’ll ever be able to put into the actual pattern budgets of the shows) and flush them out on the web.  Looking at lonelygirl15 without understanding the mindset behind it, leads to static “talk to the webcam/phone” shows which might as well be radio. They’re copying form here, not content.

The King series is more interesting — it is a trailer for the book, in some ways.  An expansion of the market outwards, rather than a contraction simply as a pilot.

I’m far more interested in web series like “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy88” which focus on a single character in bite-sized bits, but present those bits in interesting, cinematic ways (even if the cinema is on a small screen). I can watch these series on my iPhone without losing anything, largely because they don’t talk down to me. There is a real arc of character in their episodes, other characters that don’t seem paper thin, and plenty of story places for the audience to explore. It’s not handed out in prescribed dosages. It also helps that they work in genres that lend themselves to introspection and, therefore, storytelling closeups.

So, what are the major companies doing in my opinion? When I worked over at Universal Music Group, I remember an exec there saying that since no one knew anything about the web, they would just keep throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck. That’s not a terrible strategy, I suppose. It’s the sibling of the strategy of buying every company you can find/afford and seeing which ones survive. The basic problem is that the MET space needs a combination of technologists with ideas, entrepreneurs with commitment, and artists with energy and passion and stories that they need to tell.

Simply putting Rosario Dawson in front of a camera, plastering Microsoft and Cisco logos all over the place to spread the financial exposure around, isn’t a real content strategy.  It’s more of a safe business strategy, one in which no one is going to win in the long run. It also violates everything we know about storytelling, especially in bite-sized pieces.  We know that we need to grab them early with your concept, not slowly. We need to suck them in with something interesting, not voice-over dialogue that happens to be spoken on camera.

They’ll keep trying.  They’ve got the money for it and that will certainly help (the Steven King series benefited from money, along with an interesting idea, though I lost interest after a few episodes because of its stilted format).  But, right now, the more interesting work is still being done in the independent, unsupported market.  I can’t wait for the two sides to meet.

Phew, I didn’t mean to go on for that long. Remind me to tell you about what Cisco is doing on our campus here to develop their own content.

[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING DEPARTMENT: My upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, uses both “Drawn By Pain” and “Satacracy 88″ as examples and I’ve contacted both filmmakers about that usage. So, I guess you can say that I “know” them, in a 21st Century, Webby kind of way. But I’m using both series here for the same reason I used them in the book — I think they’re great examples of the form.]



The Music Industry Crawls Towards The Web

20 08 2008

Courtesy of polyvore.com

Courtesy of polyvore.com

An article in a recent SocalTech (Benjamin Kuo’s long running group devoted to the technology sector here in Southern California) noted that music web site ArtistDirect, which has for a few years been a growing site about the major music industry, is starting a section this fall that will post lyrics to popular songs.

According to ARTISTdirect, it will provide lyrics to popular songs from EMI Music Publishing and Universal Music Publishing Group, which will allow the firm to add a new lyrics section to its site. Financial details of the licenses were not disclosed. The deal with EMI gives ARTISTdirect access to more than one million lyrics for EMI songs; extent of the deal with Universal Music was not given.

Leaving aside the question of just what those “undisclosed financial details” are, this is still an interesting development for the business. [Huge Disclaimer Here: For a number of years, the Internet development company I own did consulting and development for Universal Music Publishing. I actually found everyone there pretty cool and it gave me a great insight into the workings of major company thinking.] For years they have stood by as sites like Lyrics.com, songlyrics.com, and Elyrics, have amassed large quantities of song lyrics in their databases and have become the de facto place where anyone — fan, researcher, business professional — can find lyrics to most any major pop song.  Since these music publishing companies’ job is to maximize profit for their stockholders, and to earn some money for their songwriters along the way, they’ve been trying to figure out for years how to earn money off of these lyrics.

When I was at UMPG they started doing things like marketing greeting cards with their lyrics as catch phrases, as well as imprinted tee shirts and coffee mugs. Billy The Bass, the singing fish, was also among the ancillary money-making uses of their songs.

But notice that every single one of these ideas was a brick-and-mortar concept.  No one ever quite knew how to sell music or their other intellectual property on the web, other than licensing songs or downloading recordings.

The surprise with this deal with ArtistDirect is that it took them so long to figure out how to do it, when they had several examples of a business model right in front of their web-directed eyes.

Here’s how UMPG announced the deal in a press release:

The licensing partnership opens the vaults of the publisher powerhouse to give ARTISTdirect fans for the first time easy access to legal, accurate song lyrics from top music acts past and present from current chart toppers to beloved classics.

“Universal Music Publishing Group has an amazing catalog of award-winning music and we are privileged to be able to provide the words to songs that have so profoundly impacted our culture,” said Dimitri Villard, Interim CEO of ARTISTdirect. “This partnership helps create one of the largest repositories for official lyrics as written by the songwriters.”

“Our search for new revenue opportunities for our songwriters and artists continues and this deal marks another positive step in monetizing the legal use of lyrics online,” said David Renzer, Chairman & CEO, Universal Music Publishing Group. “We are happy to partner with ARTISTdirect for this new service.”

Now I’ve never noticed any glaring inaccuracies on those web sites and I’ve used them a ton of times for research, so I’m not sure that I buy this reasoning from the companies.  However, it is true that this will be more legal, now that the companies have decided that the lyrics are intellectual property that has value on the web.

The good news for the music industry in this is not that they’ll be able to monetize another peice of IP. No, the real news is that they’ve figured out a way to do it. The music industry has historically been slow to see where the value of the net is, even down to the ludicrous RIAA lawsuits. They’ve held onto old business models long after they’ve made no sense.  I’ve long said that the big music companies should get out of the business of developing artists — they’re not really great at that. However what they are good at is distribution. With their international reach and their huge capitalization, they can raise the consumers’ awareness of a particular artist better than the smaller independents can. The recent deals, such as the one between Madonna and Live Nation, point the way towards a better use of major company resources. If you can package an artist across his or her entire output (concerts, physical or digital product, ancillary, etc.) than you can promote and market it better.

The problem, of course, is that this works a lot better with artists who have already established a marketable name. But, even with that issue to overcome (and it will be overcome, trust me on this), there is no doubt that, once again, when the music industry stops stumbling, it will point a way towards a viable model for the film and television industry.

Someday we’ll see the majors, who will (of course) still retain their prominence in the film world because of their sheer size, figure out how to distribute someone else’s content ubiquitously. And when they do that, that will be a great world for content creators.



Jury Duty, iPhones and Personal TV Programming

10 08 2008


My new book, The Lean Forward Moment


It’s been quite a while since I’ve been on the blog, an absence caused primarily by an upcoming deadline on my December book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, editing a documentary called RIVERS, and posting on another blog, Film Industry Bloggers. But two recent events, as well as a comment on the podcast Slate’s Political Gabfest, have combined to prod me into some thoughts about where we’re moving towards as media makers and consumers.

I recently sat on a preliminary panel for jury duty selection at my local courthouse in Los Angeles (a courthouse that was so satellite, so small, that it didn’t have a place to eat, if you didn’t count the hallway by the vending machine).

I never got onto a jury — they just didn’t need anyone that day — but I noticed something interesting in the waiting room. Lined up along one wall were a series of computers which were, we were told, put there so we could “play on the web” while we passed the time waiting to not be called onto a jury.  Now, that’s interesting in and of itself, since I remember when they could not have cared less if you were bored to tears.  (“Bring a book or a newspaper and read ferchrissakes!”). So, we can chalk one up for government advancement into the 21st century.

Of importance to this story was that fact that each and every one of the computers was broken. Every one (there were three or four) had a sign on its monitor explaining that the computer wasn’t working and “We apologize for any inconvenience.” So we can erase the chalk mark that I gave government for its 21st century advancement.

But what was really interesting to me is that not a single one of the 40 or so people in the room cared one bit about not being able to get onto the computers. Not one person complained.

You can ascribe that to several reasons. First, there were two people there who had brought their own laptops and were typing away the entire day. But that’s only two people. Second, you could say that most people aren’t Internet savvy enough to care, and they were perfectly happy to read their books or papers.

However, when I looked around the room, it became obvious to me that the largest reason why people didn’t care if the computers worked or not was that they were connecting online anyway. They were just doing it on their cell phones.

Nearly every single person in the room was texting, or surfing or listening to their iPods. Ironically, I was one of the few people actually reading a book (I didn’t bring my laptop for various reasons and my Treo was just a completely painful experience for surfing online).

No one cared about the broken computers because they already had all the computer they needed in a tiny little package in their purses or their pockets.

Then, a few weeks later, when my Treo 650 stopped being able to email anyone, I finally caved in and joined the second week line at the local Apple Store and got myself an iPhone 3G. Now, I live in Los Angeles where there is a lot of 3G service available (except, ironically, in a number of rooms in my house) so my experience might differ from yours. But this phone has drastically transformed the way I connect online. It is now as easy to go onto a webpage on my phone (though somewhat slower) as it is when I’m sitting in front of my computer.

The repercussions of this are huge. In the first few weeks of owning my iPhone, I’ve used it for maps, movie times, restaurant recommendations, playing Sudoku, reading the New York Times, getting weather and sports scores, and much more — all without going into the Safari browser that comes built into the phone. With Apple’s App Store for the iPhone selling and giving away a ton of separate appplications for the “Jesus Phone”, it has not only gotten possible to surf the web easily on your phone, but to do it with separate apps, something that doesn’t exist as ubiquitously on your very own computer where most applications are built to run inside your web browser (Firefox, Opera, Safari or — gasp — Internet Explorer).

This isn’t a small paradigm shift for us here in the United States. In much of the rest of the world, in places that aren’t hamstrung by conflicting cell phone standards, consumers are already using the web on their portable devices (usually cel phones) and are using it for more things as each month goes on. It’s great for the users and a bonanza for those smart and well-connected enough to provide the content.

John Dickerson, on Slates Political Gabest this week talked about the Olympics and the web.

John Dickerson, on Slate's Political Gabest this week, talked about the Olympics and the web.

Then, there was an interesting comment on this week’s Slate’s Political Gabfest, Slate Magazine’s always interesting three-person podcast examining political issues of the week.  John Dickerson, asked for  comments about the start of the Beijing Olympics, made the statement that with the 302 events being run this year, he felt that this event was ideally suited for the web. His implication was that it was no longer necessary for him to watch endless hours of television to get to the three or four events that he was interested in.

True that.

For all of you who aren’t as interested in archery as you are in kayaking, this is a godsend. (By the way, the kayak competitions start on August 11th and run through the 17th, but NBC won’t tell you just when that sport is on — it’s jumbled together with the rest of its coverage on its website) It is now possible to hone in on just what interests you in the events, and to surf around the rest of them if you want to discover other fun things.

Dickerson, however, missed the larger implications of his statement because he is a political analyst and not a techie hack like me. The brilliance of this thought process comes when NBC starts to deliver the content that you want directly to you (not at this Olympics, sadly). If you like kayaking, you’ll click on that select box and get news, audio and video of those events sent to you in discrete packages. And get charged a small amount for it.

This is the kind of programming that companies like U-Verse (the AT&T computer Video on Demand service), and set top boxes like the Apple TV, are just poised to deliver.

I’ve often said that services like Tivo have blown away the concept of television networks. Most people who have services like these can program their boxes to find the content they like and play it back for them whenever they want without every knowing where and when it originally “aired”. Except for the station ID bug down in the bottom right of the screen and the few commercials for other network programming that we don’t skip over, most of us have no idea what network the show was originally broadcast on and even less sense of when it ran. This is breaking down the concept of network loyalty.

The concept of personal delivery of sports (and other) events takes it one step further. Not only will you not care where and when the event originally ran, but you won’t give a rat’s behind about any of the surrounding events unless you want to care. You’ll get more complete coverage of the events that matter to you, rather than smaller bites of all of the events.

The idea of smorgasboard programming, where cable users can select just what channels they want rather than buy into packages, scares the hell out of most cable operators and small channel providers. They correctly assume that, in this model, many of the smaller stations would lose most of their perceived viewers and shrivel up and die. I don’t disagree with this except to note that this is going to happen anyway. Cable networks can already determine which channels you are watching and which you aren’t. Services like U-Verse are only exacerbating that. How long will it be before those networks that don’t attract many viewers are faced with the same fate, as programmers realize that they’re carrying a network that attracts only six model airplane builders?

But, I’d gladly pay for channels that come with the programming that I want. And, to take this back to its starting point, I’d gladly pay for that to come to me on my iPhone. I already receive sports score on my phone now — Sportacular is a great application. If developer Jeff Hamilton isn’t already working on business partnerships that will enable the user to connect that to video playback of the events, then he’s dumber than a brick. It is a completely directed, niche, market.

Total Personal Programming. That’s where you should invest your venture capital money everyone, okay?