How Can Filmmakers Avoid The Music Industry Debacle?

21 10 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a few editors a week or so ago. As is our wont, we were complaining about Things In The Industry — shorter schedules, lower budgets, having to do color, VFX and sound work in the editing room to a much greater degree than ever before. Then I brought up my favorite New Thing.

The film that I’m supposed to start working on soon was shot on the Canon 7DMkII.  No big deal there. It wouldn’t surprise me if more than half of you are working with HDSLRs right now. But what disheartening to these editors is that I was working long distance — the producer and director are in different cities on the East Coast of the US, and I’m sitting here in my lonely little office in the city of Angels (Hollywood in California).

Now, I’ve talked about this before.  I like working this way. It enables me to work with people who I could never work with otherwise. It allows me to work more on my schedule (on weekends and evenings, when I’m not teaching) which, in turn, means that I can charge a bit less for my editing.

You would have thought that i was preparing to kill these editors’ first born children. I was accused of devaluing the concept of face-to-face interaction (I wasn’t. That’s always preferable, but that would never have happened on these types of projects.) and of lowering pay scales for all editors. These editors aren’t Old Fogey Types, by the way. They are very happy to try out the latest technology, leapt into the digital editing world, and continue to stay active. They know one plug-in from another.

But I couldn’t help but think of the music industry’s demise after I thought through this conversation. Not too long ago, digital visionaries like Michael Robertson (at and Sean Fanning and Sean Parker (at Napster) used the digital technology that was becoming available in the music industry to change the distribution model of music. All of a sudden, it was much easier to copy music at high quality than ever before. That made it easier, of course, to copy and give music to your friends, or to download it for free off of the Net.

Music distribution exploded (though much of it was free music, I’d venture a guess that more music was distributed through ICQ and peer-to-peer than had been distributed through the Big Music Companies the year before. That is a distribution explosion.

The record industry’s reaction was slow in coming but when it finally did, it took the tack of lots of lawyers in suits (both the clothing kind and the legal kind). The first round of suits were filed in September of 2003 and reached their peak in 2005, when nearly 6000 suits were filed (according to this article in Wired). Though the RIAA, which is the trade association representing the Big Four music companies and the source of the lawsuits, has since backed off on suing individuals, I can’t say that I’ve noticed any appreciable affect on music downloading. In fact, the biggest effect of the lawsuits has been to alienate RIAA’s users (that is, music listeners and consumers) from the music of the major labels.

Rather than take the opportunity to change the way they did business, the RIAA spent tons of time and money investigating new and pricey DRM strategies. It’s only recently, with the arrival of digital “lockers” and the music industry’s dreaded nemesis — Apple and their iTunes product — that many listeners have started to see the value of legal music. In some ways, it’s easier to listen to Pandora, a semi-curated music service, not unlike a radio station on steroids, and purchase just the songs that you want, than it is to troll on peer-to-peer BirTorrent-y sites.

But even more importantly, the music industry has started to move away from the idea that their sole income needs to be from selling bits and bytes of music (or pieces of plastic, to be old fashioned). It’s in booking concerts, supplying music to other areas like film, television, ringtones, etc. (for awhile, the Universal Music Publishing Group — where I worked about ten years ago in Web Development — was a better earner for Universal than the label business). In short, it’s in the many things outside of what they thought their business was.

Film production and post-production is at the same crossroads, in a smaller way.  The hardest places to be right now, are in high-end post production finishing houses. What used to be a $600/hour business can now be done by a talented person at one-sixth of that price. And while you may not want to finish your 100 million dollar feature in someone’s garage on Color, there are more web, corporate and wedding/event videos out there that never leave their editor’s workstations. Low budget films are shooting HDSLR and editing and finishing using Avid, Apple or Adobe software, right in their editor’s living rooms.

I am not advocating that every editor needs to do all of this.  My wife thinks I’m color blind, so a producer would be a moron asking to do final color correction. But if you’re a talented editor with story and can do color correction, that would be attractive to many people at the edge of their budgets (and who isn’t, truthfully?).

The very things that we editors were complaining about (shorter schedules, lower budgets, having to do color, VFX and sound work in the editing room) are the realities of our world today. And that includes lower salaries. The days of editors making $15,000 a week, and doing very little except story structure are G-O-N-E.  Except for one or two superstars, the highest paid editors will be the ones who bring the most value to the storytelling process, and that includes the ability to work faster, with more tools and at lower budget ranges. Most producers would rather pay an editor $2000 more, if they know that they won’t have to hire a person to do temp VFX and color correction and a music editor and a temp sound editor. I read that some of the simpler VFX shots in THE SOCIAL NETWORK were done by Angus Wall’s and Kirk Baxter’s assistants using Adobe After Effects. Think about that. The amount of money and time saved here must have been substantial. In addition, it means that the editors could see the results of their creative thought processes much faster than if they had to send everything out to a VFX house.

So, what’s my point?

The world of editing is at the brink, like the music business was a decade ago. Technology has changed how we can do things. We can choose to embrace a selected subset of that technology (“I’m going to accept audio filters, but ignore color correction.”) like the music industry did (“We’re going to embrace digital production because it’s cheaper, but not digital distribution.”). And we’ll all end up standing outside the local supermarker begging for people to drop quarters into the spiffy coffee mugs that we got for free when we used to work at that spiffy post production house that went out of business.

The biggest favor we can do for ourselves — and this applies to production as well as to post — is to admit that we don’t know where our world is going to end up. And that we need to be as open as possible to changing our own business model, give up our second homes (well, I don’t have a second home, but never mind that) and our extra cars, and hunker down for the ride. It is going to be very worthwhile in the end if we do.



14 responses to “How Can Filmmakers Avoid The Music Industry Debacle?”

21 10 2010
Philip Hodgetts (19:40:46) :

Actually, the MUSIC industry is doing very, very well. Bigger than ever. The recorded music on physical media industry, otoh, has no real role needed left and should die and disappear.

21 10 2010
Joe Randall-Cutler (21:12:07) :

Very true. Couldn’t agree more.

21 10 2010
Bernard (21:58:39) :

Great article, Norm. I like the correlation between the music and film business models. It is the new reality we’re faced with and for the most part we have to embrace it.

I can also relate to expanding your knowledge base of all the tools available. Granted I’m more on the start then most, but just as an assistant I’ve done plenty of cut downs and even some graphics on top of all my normal tasks.

It defiantly makes sense on a business end, if you have someone who can do it, then let them take care of it and you can save some of your budget. For me I see it as a chance to really show that I know more then I what I am given and that I rather tackle bigger and better things.

The only fear I have is that it becomes expected from everyone, all the time. If I can do this stuff, right out of school, how much more is going to be expected out of those who have been firmly entrenched in their work for years… will they change? Do they have to change? I think they do if they want to survive. Its a tough reality for someone (anyone) to adjust to changes in budgets and income cutbacks. Especially in addition to new expectations.

It’ll make for something of an interesting future to see how all of this works out. Though I think knowing a variety of resources, platforms and technology will be at the core. We’ll have to wait and see.

21 10 2010
Norman (22:41:54) :


Right now, a director who is doing a comedy will go with one of two types of editors — the one he/she has always worked with (if they believe in loyalty) or a comedy editor. You don’t find too many directors/producers/studios looking for an editor who has not done that genre of project already. I think the same will happen with the additional tools. A producer (et al) will look for the person who has the tools to make the project successful. If that’s a consummate storyteller with good music skills but mediocre color correction skills, that combination might outweigh the weaker storyteller with great music and color correction skills. Or it may not.

And there will still always be room for those people who get hired because of loyalty. That’s not a bad thing at all. That is an acknowledgement that editors (and other collaborators) have more versatility than the resumés might show.

21 10 2010
Norman (22:43:57) :


Depends on how you define the music industry, which is what I was talking about. If you include Live Nation in the music business, things are quite fine, since they’re involved with performances. But the Music Industry, as defined by people who sell encased music (that is, pieces-of-plastic or individual album downloads) are still dinosaurs.

22 10 2010
Jamie t (06:29:35) :

Bernard asked

“will they change? Do they have to change?”

From Alice in Wonderland.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

24 10 2010
Harvey Glen (06:33:20) :

Hi great blog! I am a DOP and like most people in the industry have an edit suite at home. However, I do not confess to be an editor beyond simple offline cuts. I have no interest in learning After Effects or similar programmes. HDSLR’s & FCP make filmmaking universal and cheap, but to do it well you still need the talent and skill and people are always willing to pay for that. HG

25 10 2010
Zach (17:09:49) :

1.) “I was accused of devaluing the concept of face-to-face interaction (I wasn’t. That’s always preferable, but that would never have happened on these types of projects.) and of lowering pay scales for all editors. These editors aren’t Old Fogey Types……………”

As you may know, with iPhone 4 (if you have it) and a mac with iSight or other web cameras, you can communicate face to face via phone-to-phone, computer-to-phone or computer-to-computer any time via FaceTime no matter where you are! The fact that you point out many associates and fellow workers are tech-savy and willing to embrace, makes this ideal.

2.)”The hardest places to be right now, are in high-end post production finishing houses”.

What are high-end post production finishing houses? My understanding from self-education is the editor hired for the production was part of the ‘post-production’ process which finished the movie.

Lucky for me, it seems at this point where I’m trying to advance, I should humbly be fortunate that color-correction and sound editing to me are already normal parts of my vocab and post-production work even on a primitive beginners level in Final Cut by working with audio filters and color wheels. What’s “changing” to seasoned editors, seems to be “normal” to me. Am I correct in saying this?

I look dream of working with someone on a feature film as an apprentice whom I can learn a lot from. Yet, perhaps apprenticeships of today are mutually beneficial in that the apprentice can bring his knowledge of technology inherent in his/her (my) generation to benefit the work flow of the senior editor as he passes on his practical knowledge and experience to the protege.

26 10 2010
Judith (20:55:33) :

A month or so ago I expressed an interest in collaborating on a freebie project which I saw advertised on a national (UK) mailing list for such things. I explained my interest in the project and its medium, and mentioned that I wasn’t currently living in London because of work – but that I was able to visit frequently for face-to-face work (it’s a 90 minute train journey and I’m often there doing other things anyway), and that I had experience in sending project data across the internet/ via post if need be.

Nothing heard. I felt as if I were reaching out with some far-fetched idea involving risky technology across the vast openness of outer space. Living in London I’d heard others complain about there being little to nothing in the ‘regions’ but I’d always assumed that things could work if people worked at it – features filmed abroad may often be assembled in LA, after all…. but now that I’ve moved out it all becomes a little clearer how much of an ‘us and them’ mentality still exists. Even between and within the other, smaller, centres of production within the country (Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester, Edinburgh etc).

The medium of the project itself? It was a webseries. I imagine they’ll cast their net out further than the capital when it comes to seeking an audience. But then that part’s been a familiar concept for longer. It all takes time, seemingly.

2 11 2010
Michael Minard (20:30:47) :


Thanks for the insight. The question that continues to emerge during this paradigm shift is do we sacrifice quality as core-competencies are devalued?

As an audience don’t we suffer if a producer over-looks a cutter with solid story fundamentals because another cutter, who lacks the clarity of vision, can include a graphics package?

17 11 2010
Norman (12:58:38) :

Thanks for the comment Michael. Just got back in town from India and I’m catching up.

You are right. It is very possible, likely even, that we might be asked to sacrifice quality. On the other hand, there is the possibility that the increased value of our tools will enable us to fly freer and to go better quality work. We are stuck with the same dilemma that we’ve always had. We can deliver two out of the three points of the good-fast=cheap triangle but not all three. This involves a discussion with our clients/producers. The reality is that we really dont want to work with people who value fast and cheap over good — unless we’re starving. But, giving up good will always hurt us in the long run.

This also means that it is incumbent on us to get better at using the tools, so it’s not always a compromise.

17 12 2010
Thomas Moore (18:03:36) :

You used to work in Web development?

18 12 2010
Norman (01:04:34) :


Yes I did. I was a project manager and customer liaison for several large music-industry related projects. It gave me a great insight into how the labels/publishing companies ran their business — for good and bad.

Also, the uneasy fit between (for want of a better phrase) old and new media business models.


30 07 2011
איגרת האיגוד 30.7.11 | איגוד עורכי תמונה וקול בישראל (16:16:33) :

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