The iPad, Film Editing, My Book and Delays

10 02 2010

My book sitting quietly in a Barnes and Noble bookshelf

Long time readers of this blog will realize that it has been a long time — since I’ve posted. There are some very good reasons for that, not the least of which is that my new book was being written, rewritten, rewritten again, and published — all of which required a time sucking amount of work.  All of which I’m thrilled about.

This is the fourth edition of my ancient book on editing room workflow, written originally back before anyone knew what the word “workflow” meant. It is a total page one rewrite and, because I’m not an assistant editor any longer, I had to do a ton of research with assistants (those that are left). I learned a tremendous amount about what assistant editors do today and much of that shows up in the new book. I’ll be dropping some of that on you in the weeks ahead.

Of course, I want each and everyone of you to go out and buy 50 copies each of the book.  But that’s not what I’m interested in talking about today. So, let me go on.

Another reason why this latest posting has been inordinately delayed is that I’ve been editing one or two films. One of them is a great comedy road movie that follows a self-destructive screenwriter as he drives across country accompanied by the young kid who’s been assigned by the film producers to babysit the guy . The film is, I think, going to be loads of fun, but what’s really interesting about it for me is that I’m editing it long distance. My co-editor is in Massachusetts and my director is in Rhode Island.

That means that the three of us are going to spend lots of time shooting copies of our Avid bins back and forth to each other so we can see what each of us are doing. This excites me a lot, but that may be because I’m slightly crazy about the future. A conversation I had a little while back, showed me that not everybody shares this mania.

Last summer, when Final Cut Pro 7 (or whatever they’re calling it) came out, I remember enthusiastically talking to a friend about the iChat Theater function, which allows the editor to play out anything in FCP over an iChat video conference, simply by pointing to it. It’s an easy way to play dailies or your sequence to any of your collaborators. It doesn’t have any of the real interactive functions that would make it a true shared editing platform (I’ll be looking at Fuze soon, which promises much more), but it certainly is a start to long distance communication in the editing process and I was telling my friend about it.

He looked at me horrified and said “I’ve got one word for you — outsourcing.” He was worried about his job going overseas.

“But you’ve got to look at it from the other side,” I told him. “You’re an accomplished Hollywood feature and television editor. There will be plenty of people around the world who would love to work with you. But they haven’t been able to because you live here in Los Angeles and they don’t.”

He agreed that this was possible but then said “A lowering tide lowers all boats. Even if I could get those jobs, my salary is going to go down. Way down.”

Hard to disagree with that.  Welcome to the 21st century. With the collapse of television syndication and the advertising market, the days of 10 month guaranteed jobs for tv editors are going away. As Hollywood moves more and more to large tentpole films, the number of mid-range films is also disappearing and, along with them, a sizable number of cushy mid-level jobs. Those of us who live off of these types of projects are going to have to get used to the fact that our incomes are going to go down, unless we adapt to the new markets.

And, miraculously, those markets are all over the world. What my friend, and all of us, are going to have to do, is to learn to juggle multiple jobs across multiple time zones. Some of us are doing that already. It’s really only the larger job markets that haven’t been doing it. No producer is going to share his/her editor’s time with someone across the globe. But if that same producer is hiring his/her editor for a few months, laying them off, bringing them back on again for a month or two, and then laying them off again — well, they’re going to have to get used to sharing them with the rest of the world.

So working long-distance is going to be a smart thing to learn how to do. And somehow I’ve stumbled right into it.

Apple's new iPad

Then, enter the iPad. I’ve been asked endlessly whether I’m ready to rush out and buy one. Honestly, not really. I’ll wait until the device matures a bit more (just like I waited for the iPhone 3G and am thrilled that I did). However, the possibilities that this new device gives us in the vertical market that is filmmaking are thrilling.

Imagine a producer pitching a project to a studio. Right now they send a script and, perhaps, some accompanying materials, to the studio where (if their readers like it) it is sent home with 50 or so executives to be read over the weekend. This is called, in a predictable burst of studio originality, the “weekend read.” Many studios have moved the weekend read from paper to the Kindle, which saves paper but does nothing to brighten the experience for those poor junior executives.

Now, imagine if you will, that the producer has loaded the script onto an iPad and that there are embedded links within the script to location photos, audition tapes, CAD drawings of sets, and 3D mockups of the worlds that are only hinted at in the script. That is going to be a clearer, more interesting vision of the story for every single one of those bored-to-tears weekend readers. It’s also going to be more helpful to me, when I read a script before an interview, or to an art director as he/she tries to figure out what’s inside of the director’s mind.

And that’s just one single use for this device. If you take a look at the dozens of applications for filmmakers available on the iPhone (Taz Goldstein has a great list, adapted from his recent Supermeet talk, up at his site Handheld Hollywood and, by the way, the Supermeet was a great event, even if I did have to watch it streamed on Ustream — you should go and look at it right now). There are slates galore, some of which even will help you import your footage into your NLE. There’s a very cool application to allow you to remotely control your f-stop settings on your camera. There are director’s viewfinders, storyboard creators, teleprompters and research tools. And that’s for the iPhone.

Imagine what we’ll be able to get with a 10″ screen.

Here’s my point. For years we’ve been on the cusp of something really new and exciting in the filmmaking world. We’ve gone all digital — from capture through editing. We’ve also seen the world of distribution change — so the need to print film for theaters is fast disappearing, and we will be easily distributing to each of the four screens that people watch their entertainment on (see an earlier post of mine about Four Play).

What’s been missing is the ease of getting from this digital creation, to the digital consumption in any way that resembles a realistic viewing format.

The iPad is more than a hint into that future, it’s the door ajar (not fully open yet, but not closed).



The Future of Television – Finally!

16 07 2009

Last week I ran a panel at the NATPE LATV Festival. NATPE, which is the National Association of Television Program Executives, describes itself as representing companies and people who are “involved in or wanting to become involved with the creation, development and distribution of television programming.” Along the way they promote discussion about television programming. And that’s what I was doing at the conference. Promoting Discussion. Hey, I’m all about talking (as anyone who knows me will sadly attest).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, unless I’m doing reality television, what the hell is there to talk about? Is there any television industry for me to create programming? And why should I care?”

Well, here’s why those of you who are in any part of the entertainment industry (or who would like to be) should care. The really interesting thing about the conference was just how aware the entire industry has finally becoming aware of the sea change. Of course, you’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see the changes. There are editors who I know who haven’t worked in eight or nine months; some are looking to sell their houses to make ends meet, and nearly every single person I know now says that they are working “below their rate” (which means, working for less money than they used to and waaaay less than they’d like to). And those changes are going to irrevocably affect how we all make and distribute our media.

The overall takeaway I got from the panels I visited and the one that I ran (“Animation: The Web Levels the Playing Field” with Chuck Williams, Producer, Walt Disney Animation Studios;  Allen DeBevoise, CEO, Machinima.com;  Uri Shinar, CEO & Founder, Aniboom;  Lifeng Wang, President, Xing Xing Digital Corp.) was that the television industry is changing mightily and those of us who can’t accept that change are totally hosed. That’s what I twittered after the conference.

I know, I know. But it’s interesting that this was coming from the real players in the industry.

There was much discussion about the collapse of the syndication market and the precipitous drop in ad revenue. The combination of these two things — the foundations of how this content gets paid for — means that content can’t be produced at the same level as before because it can’t be sold for as much money as before. There was plenty of discussion about the change in the broadcast model — 22 episode orders for (essentially) two network runs of a show, running primarily on broadcast with some nod to web streaming models like Hulu.

There was some discussion about how the web is beginning to suck away some of the ad revenue as well as some of the distribution, but the general consensus is that there’s no real money on the web yet — at least not at the levels that the Big Boys are used to. Uri Shinar, who runs Aniboom, said on my panel that he has to look at moving into traditional media to supplement his online, crowd sourcing method of distribution. Chuck Williams, who is directing at Disney Animation, said that they are approaching the dual distribution mode from the other direction — spreading into online to keep their franchises alive during the years in between theatrical releases.

The web is an established tool and it is growing in importance, the players agree. But there are still many people who don’t get it. For those of you who believe that you’ll be able to work below-the-line as you always have been (one show at a time, for a very good wage, guaranteed for 22 episodes a season), well you might as well line up at the state unemployment office now. Shows that once shot for eight days will move to six or fewer, episode orders will shrink to ten or so episodes with the possibility of renewals. That means that our contracts as editors won’t guarantee us more than two or three months of work.

We’re going to working on more things (sometimes simultaneously), for less money, than before. And that’s actually going to be exciting and dynamic. We need to embrace that reality.

Paradoxically, this means that those of you who are now graduating from college, with a decent skill set and some work behind you, are really going to be in a much better place than Old Farts (Disclaimer: I Am An Old Fart of a type), who have kids and mortgages and big car payments. We won’t be agile enough to catch the wave. More likely, we’re going to be buried under it.

Someone responded to my tweet about the conference with another one that “They’re five years behind.” That’s true. There are some people who began establishing a base in online programming years ago. They were greeted with jeers: “There’s no money in that.” Even today, people who are all about following the money will challenge us with the accurate claim that very few people have figured out how to make money on the Web with content or programming.

But those days are fast going away. The cable/phone company’s Four Play strategies (in which they will sell you a phone, your television programming, your wireless and your internet/data all through the same pipe) are moving your computer screen into your living room. The recent court decision to allow Cablevision to keep remotely storing viewers shows on their servers rather than our DVR boxes, will only accelerate that move. Within a few years, it won’t matter where we decide to watch our shows — on a large television screen, on our computer monitors, on our cel phones, or on a screen built into our refrigerators. The future of the Apple TV is finally here.

This means that there will be a million channels out there to fill with programming. No, make that an “unlimited number of channels.” There is always the danger proclaimed by Bruce Springsteen (“57 Channels and Nothin’ On“) but that depends more on who’s watching than who’s programming. As companies like Revision 3 show (check out their very cool Film Riot, a how-to-make cheap VFX show with Ryan Connolly), the real future is going to be creating much much cheaper content for a much smaller niche market.

If you guys want to have a future in the film world of the future — you should figure out how to do that. Then you’ll be way ahead of the professional Television Programming Executives and maybe be able to set your own agenda.



2 10 2010

The death this week of Arthur Penn, the great film, theater and television director, brought back some memories. I worked as a music editor with him on three films – FOUR FRIENDS, TARGET and DEAD OF WINTER and felt him an amazing collaborator, along with his long-time sidekick Gene Lasko, and a gentle man.

One of the first things I learned from him, though, has very little to do with music, but everything to do with how films grow organically and how none of us can know everything.

Craig Wasson, Michael Huddleston and Jim Metzler from FOUR FRIENDS (Courtesy Festivalblog)

It was on the set of the film FOUR FRIENDS, which we shot in the Chicago area. One of the very first days of shooting was a night shoot in which the four high school friends, living in the mid-1960s, met in the middle of a suburban street, approaching each other from opposite sides of the street.

Arthur, who by this time had directed ten films (including the amazing works BONNIE AND CLYDE, ALICE’S RESTAURANT, MICKEY ONE, and THE MIRACLE WORKER), a few TV movies, and something like three dozen episodes of television shows, set up the first master shot so that it followed three of the characters as they danced down the street playing the New World, until they stopped — out of breath.

As the music editor on the film, one of my responsibilities on the film was to work with the four actors so they knew their musical parts (we were recording live, even though we would eventually replace the music in post) and could play it together. I watched as Arthur set up that first wide shot, and worked it until we got it done. We followed two of the characters down the street, as they played a bit from Dvorak’s New World Symphony on their instruments with the other two — who were off camera for most of the shot. Eventually, the camera (which was on Garrett Brown’s Steadicam) moved to the center of the street as the shot turned into a four shot, with the four friends playing to each other. (I should mention that Jodi Thelen’s character was named Georgia, and they all had a major crush on her in some way — hence the choice of the piece by screenwriter Steve Tesich).

After getting a good take on that first master shot, Arthur proceeded to line up the camera for the first piece of coverage. He and the d.p. (Oscar winner Ghislain Cloquet) walked around for a bit with their director’s viewfinders, setting up the shot until Arthur finally looked up and told the first assistant director, Cheryl Downey, that he had actually set up the first (Steadicam) shot incorrectly. Instead of ending up in the middle of the street pointing to the four characters, he really should have ended up with the camera on the sidewalk, pointing to the opposite side of the street for the characters’ four shot.

In other words, the shot we had spent forever setting up and getting would have to be redone.

Arthur looked around, apologized to the crew, and we all went out and prepped for the revised master shot.  Which we got in record time. Happily.

Now, the point that I’m making isn’t that even a director of Penn’s stature can make a mistake. We are all human, and we all can make mistakes. No, what I’m pointing out is that the genius of Arthur leading this crew and allowing himself the ability to discover the best filmmaking approach as the film develops.  Despite an amazing career, a great cinematographer, and a professional crew surrounding him, Arthur learned something about the scene and wasn’t afraid to take his lumps in front of the crew as he admitted it.

He learned as he shot. And that is an amazing ability. In my book THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, I said it myself (I believe in the first or second edition). I have never had a job in which I didn’t learn something. When I get to the place where I stop learning, it’s time to quit.

There was another time when I found myself amazed at something that Arthur did on that film. We were shooting a scene in which a group of high school students, in an auditorium, stormed the stage during an Army recruiting speech, singing “Hit The Road Jack.” We were shooting coverage onto the audience and Arthur put the camera on a very short dolly track and as the students came up to the front of the stage he pushed in ever so slightly. It didn’t look like much on the stage where we were all standing behind the camera. In fact, it didn’t even look so impressive the next night when we all watched it in dailies.

But, several months later, when I saw the scene as editor Barry Malkin had cut it, as I was smoothing out the music for a screening, that short little dolly move took my breath away. Even on my tiny 35mm Moviola screen.

FOUR FRIENDS came and went relatively quickly, but I learned several things about learning from Arthur Penn on that movie — I learned to question my own assumptions — that shot that I was sure wasn’t that impressive turned out to be just right. And I also learned how to act when something I learned changed my thinking in front of my collaborators. It’s never too late to learn, I learned. It’s only when we stop learning that it comes “too late.”



Why Jobs’ Intro of the new Apple TV is Bull

8 09 2010

Sue Huang USC Presentation conclusion

I’m not saying that the Apple TV is bull, mind you. I’m talking about one or two of the points in the presentation.

But let me backtrack for a second. You’re going to have to bear with me for several paragraphs here, as I meander to my point.

It all started earlier tonight when I was down at USC (the University of Southern  California, for those of you who aren’t sure) watching a fascinating presentation by artist Sue Huang of the collective knifeandfork, which is doing some really fascinating interactive installation pieces which are site and audience specific.

Huang was showing samples of her work and discussing her influences using a PowerPoint (nope, not Keynote, but what are you going  to do?) presentation.  At the end, running out of time, she quickly put up a number of slides which discussed the various roles that different factors played in their work. One of them, at the left, was the “Role of the Audience” which was fascinating and very dense.  I reached for my iPhone (I was taking notes on it) and snapped the picture you see.

Now that I’m back home I can check out what I didn’t have time to read then.

Pretty obvious, right?  Pretty easy, right?

Well, then, why was the woman four people to my left frantically typing away on her iPad, taking the notes so she could read them at home?  My guess is because the freakin’ iPad doesn’t have a camera in it! I’m sure that some day that God-like device will have a camera in it — and then I’ll buy one — but for now, it’s one of the many things that it doesn’t have. Why? Because Apple decided that the public didn’t want a camera on this sleek, incredible, God-given device.

Uh, right. It would  look stupid, holding an iPad up to take pictures of Mom, Dad and your dog. Correct?

So, let’s leap back a few days. Last week, Steve Jobs introduced the new Apple TV (see this MacRumors report, one of about eight zillion stories written about it) by saying that they had listened to what their customers had said they wanted and they didn’t want. They wanted “Hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want them.” — check!  Makes sense. They wanted “everything in HD” — uh,  okay.  Check, maybe.  My Mom still can’t tell the difference between SD and HD, but let’s give this one to Steve since given a choice, everyone wants something better quality, so long as they don’t have to pay for it.

What else?  “They like to pay lower prices for content.” – check!  Makes sense.  Cheap is better than expensive.  So, score another one for the Steverino.

Next two? “They don’t want a computer on their TV.” and “They don’t want to manage storage.” — check.  We don’t like things that are complex. I get that. (though one could argue that people do rather well managing their music storage on something called iTunes, which Jobs managed to introduce a new version of just twenty minutes earlier). So what did Apple do?  They took out the hard drive and made the device completely streaming. Check!  Makes sense .. uh no. Wait a minute.

Wait a minute.

I get the “no hard drive” part. It makes it too much like a computer. And people don’t want that, right?

Maybe. But let’s phrase the question differently. Would you like to watch anything that you have on your hard drive, whenever you want to? I’ll bet you do. And you’d  like to watch things that might not be available from the few partners that Apple has lined up for the Apple TV, right?  You might like to watch something from the Net that isn’t on YouTube or Netflix, wouldn’t you? I bet you would.  But Steve Jobs doesn’t think so. If it ain’t on Netflix, YouTube, your MobileMe account (hah!) or Flickr, then you’d better stream it over their own proprietary Airplay connection from your computer.

Wait a minute!  Your computer!?  The one with a hard drive in it? Doesn’t that make it hard?

So, what’s my point here?  It’s easy to knock any shipping product for what it doesn’t have.  Almost every product has things missing that would be on your “Must Have” list.  That’s  simply a reality of the design process. You need to compromise. But the desire to dress up these missing items in a ball gown and call them God’s gift to Prince Charming is  laughable.

In fact, it’s almost as laughable as filmmakers that I’ve seen look out at an audience that fails to laugh at a joke that has been planted in a film, and chalk it up to audience stupidity. Just as it’s easy to tell everybody that they should run out and see CATS AND DOGS IV because it’s in 3D!! Because you really really want 3D, don’t you?

It’s very easy in our business (as well as technology, I suppose) to get caught up in our thoughts, reactions and desires and ascribe them to everybody. If we feel that something is necessary, than everybody must feel that way, right?

One of the greatest talents that a filmmaker can possess is the ability to step outside of his or her own reality and question themselves. It’s hard, and it’s rare as a result.

“They don’t want to sync to a computer.”



The Erratic Future of Education

8 06 2009

A recent episode of This Week In Tech, Twit 197, focused on education.  Along with host Leo LaPorte were Don Tapscott, Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Jeff’s son Jake Jarvis. Now, Don is the author of a number of books, including one of my favorites — Grown Up Digital, which looks at the generation of kids who have no memory of world without computers and the Net.  The group spent a large amount of time talking about what is wrong with high school and college education today.

They’ve mostly got it right, but not really.

Now, most of you know that I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, normally known as the USC Film School.  So I have a bit of vested interested in both improving education and making sure that it doesn’t get destroyed in the rush to improve it. Some of you are going to claim that I’m part of the problem, and I’ll cop to some of that, as well.

But, let me back up a few seconds. Just what were those Twitters talking about?

First, let’s say that I agree with them that much of 7-12 and college is broken.  There is way too much teaching to the test. Jeff made the point that Jake (who is beginning his college application thought process now) has to take these crazy AP courses, which force him to regurgitate facts, just so that he can apply to Really Great Colleges.  I’d add that here in California, high school students spend more of their valuable class time and homework time ingesting facts that normally don’t make it anywhere into their brain in any lasting way.  And, with a student/teacher ratior of 35 or 40 to 1, that’s completely wasted time.

At USC, I see a lot of teaching that is, what I’d call, “Sage On The Stage”  That is, it’s the professor dishing out The Facts to the student, who needs to take it in, so that he/she can get proper grades. I find myself guilty of that at times as well.  Sometimes, it’s just easier.

But there’s no class that I teach that doesn’t rely primarily on projects. Honestly, I can’t figure out how to teach otherwise. Projects are considered a vital part of what is called “learner centric education” (in which the curriculum takes into account the learning style and capability of each student).

The guests on TWIT 197 spent a lot of time talking about how formal education, as it exists today, just doesn’t work. Taking a look at the success of a number of tech entrepreneurs who didn’t complete college (or who never went at all) they surmised that it was better not to be taught in our present system.

But here’s the thing that the guests on TWIT 197, in their glee at piling onto the faults of the normal educational model, fail to take into account. Every student learns differently, and students in different cultures learn differently as well.

Right now, I’m working with a group of Vietnamese filmmakers who have come to USC to take a six-week course in digital filmmaking, in the hope that they’ll improve their world storytelling skills. I’ve done two lessons so far — in one I played a number of film clips and discussed the shape of the story with them. In another, we worked on the Avid to examine alternatives in cutting.

Surprisingly, this group wanted more of the film clip discussion. And we’ve added an additional class on just for that purpose (they’re going to be making four short films, so there’s going to be plenty of time for project work).

Some students in my regular classes look at the editing screen and need to start moving things around. Others need to understand some of the “why” behind it, before they can feel good about moving things around.

In short — everyone learns differently. Not everybody works better when they’re left to their own devices. And not everyone works the same way in every subject.

So, while I basically agree with most of what was said in TWiT 197 about the failures of education, a huge missing piece in the discussion for me was the acknowledgement that sometimes the Sage on the Stage does work — for some students, in some subjects, at some ages. Most of the time, it’s a combination of many different methods. At some point, I’ll tell you about a project on learning that I’m working on in New Mexico — that can be a real incubator for change in teaching. And some time, you’ll hear about the really exciting work that Nolan Bushnell is starting in education — something that can revolutionize that industry in the way that he did for gaming with Atari.

But, for now, what I’m going to say is that anytime anybody makes a broad statement about anything — look twice at it.



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?



Screens, Screens, Screens

5 07 2008

Gas Station ScreensStop me if I’ve mentioned this before, but I think that filmmakers who think that the only way to reach people is on the big screen (film theatres) or small screen (television) are so 20th century.

Uh, okay, so I have said it before. Often. Very often. And again and again. But you can’t stop me now.

In any case, at the recent WCA conference panel that I hosted, we ended up talking about thinking of distribution as a multi-faceted hydra and woe to the filmmaker who ignores that fact. I forget if it was Ken Rutkowski or I who said this, but someone said that it’s all about screens, and there are a multitude of new ones out there — try waiting in line at your local chain supermarket, or drive into a gas station. Some phenomenal percentage of South Korean users of cel phones actually watch media on their phones (I think Ken said it was 85%, if I’m not mistaken).

Now, in the latest issue (July/August) of FAST COMPANY, there’s an article called “Can’t-Escape TV” and it outlines five places where these new screens are becoming even more ubiquitous. They talk about five places:

  1. Big-box stores. Places like Costco and Best Buy. They have tons of screens on display, but obviously can’t take the chance of showing regular programming where ads for their competitors might show up. So they contract with various programmers (big player – PRN) to provide content into which are slipped very specific commercials. Which, of course, they can get paid for. Genius. The content, however, is mostly reculed from cable networks.
  2. Gas stations. Gasstation.tv reports that 84% of all people who pumped said they’d view or listen to GSTV on their next fill ‘er up. Frankly, I find the content unbelievably bland, created by CBS-TV in 4-1/2 minute blocks.
  3. Grocery stores. You got your basic captive audience here — a tedious wait for the person in front of you to count out all of his/her pennies, right before they run back to the deli counter for that order that they forgot to get (“Could you please hold my place for a minute?”). Once again, CBS seems to dominate this market (a division called “CBS Outerreach” — which is actually a pretty cool name). The article notes that screens at the deli and meat counter lines can be used to promote store items before the customers get to the checkout. Hopefully the content starts to get better than the bland E! type stuff I’ve seen so far.
  4. Doctors’ offices. Wow, speaking of captive audiences. As the health care system degenerates even further, the waits get longer and longer. CNN and others design programming for us poor schmucks who don’t want to read last year’s copy of Family Circle Magazine. I haven’t seen this yet (I really must get to the doctor soon!)
  5. The proverbial “third place”. This includes places like Borders, Jack in the Box, Coffee Bean, et al. The content, which is a live feed created by companies such as Ripple, consists (according to the article, I haven’t witnessed this yet) of Retuers, E! Entertainment (ho-hum), New York Times, Yahoo, CBS (again!!) and Clear Channel. Coolest of all, though, is that customers can buy — for a buck — “ShoutOuts” which will be broadcast in the store with content of their own choosing. Presumably we will soon see marriage proposals in Borders soon. [Preferred to the Jack.]

So, for content creators, here’s the $64,000 question. Just what do you notice all four of these sites have in common.

I’ll let you think about this for a minute. And… the … answer … is … crappy, unimaginative, repurposed content (with the exception of the ShoutOuts, which are pretty cool).

If you are smart content creator/filmmaker/digital artist, I think you’d do yourself some good if you’d hang out in front of these screens for a while and figure out just what  you can do that will fit onto these screens and more. You are all creative people. Why not give these captive audiences something more for their time, something that they’d like to see.

Once again, those of you who see the big screen and the be-all, had better start sharpening your burger-flipping skills.



Tivo and Disney Agree On The Future

28 05 2008

An article in today’s Electronista talks about a deal between Tivo and Disney Studios to offer videos on demand from Disney, some of them in HD. TiVo, for those of you living under a rock for the last four or five years, offers a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) service, tied into the consumer’s television — meaning that you can watch downloaded content on your own timeframe, as well as fast forward and backward through the program.

The problem with DVRs, as I talked about in yesterday’s posting, was that you could only watch material which had already aired (or was just then airing) — there was no way to get LITTLE MERMAID if it wasn’t playing on television. The great thing about this announcement is that you will be able to download and watch everything that Disney puts up on the TiVo site, regardless of whether it’s run on television recently. You might be able to see Steamboat Willie (hence the image on the left, courtesy of the BBC) anytime you want.

There is one huge “ah-ha” which is bound to make it much more difficult for the service to catch on than it should be.

TiVo made it clear movies in standard definition will be available for a 24-hour period, although how many HD movies will be available and if the timeframe for watching them will differ from the SD offerings was not specified.

Any number of people have talked about why 24 hours is a ridiculous time frame, myself included (in the post “How Do People Watch Films? And How Does Apple Rent Them?“). Especially for households with children, the idea that you’d be able to rent any film, watch it all in 24 hours, and then never have to watch it again, is preposterous. When my daughter was two, she would have watched THE WIZARD OF OZ about 50 times a week if we let her. The idea that she could complete watching a film in one 24-hour period and then not want to watch it again that week defies belief.

This is going to turn people away from this business model, and dig into the purchase or disc rental side of things, effectively killing this very valuable TiVo concept. It’s too bad, and it’s another example of the entrenched film industry not seeing beyond the tip of their nose, the same nose that they will cut off to spite their face.



Audience Response

14 04 2008

Years ago, I remember there was a movie called CLUE, based on the board game. The gimmick of this movie was that there were four versions of the film distributed to theatres with different endings. The “who did it?” was dependent on which print you saw. Wikipedia says that the alternate endings were “filmed” to prevent the ending from being revealed by the press, though I remember it had a marketing spin as well.

In any case, the film stunk and dropped dead at the box office.

But I digress.

The idea of audience interaction with film has been a holy grail for some filmmakers for a long time. After all, it’s all about how we impact our audience, isn’t it?

[The side issue of how much we want the audience to control our works is another one entirely. Personally, if I never have to sit through another bogus focus group, that will suit me just fine.]

There are some who want more control by the audience than others. It’s up to the filmmakers and that’s how it should be.

Still, I’m intrigued by this article from Che-Wei Wang, entitled Feedback Playback, on his blog.

The interactive piece is basically a real time bio-feedback mechanism that use skin and heart monitoring to change the way a film is edited and presented to the audience. Here is part of Wang’s description of the experience:

In a darkened, enclosed space, the user approaches a screen and his or her rests fingertips on a pad to the right of the screen. The system establishes baseline for this users physiological response, and re-calibrates. Short, non-sequential clips of a familiar, emotionally charged film– for example, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror masterpiece “The Shining” –are shown. If the user responds to slight shifts in the emotional tone of the media, the system amplifies that response and displays clips that are more violent and arousing, or calmer and more neutral. The film is re-edited, the narrative reformulated according to this user’s response to it.

In other words, if the user is excited by scenes from THE SHINING then the content is changed as well (no word on whether the cutting pace changes). If the user responds to a slow-paced scene of a landscape then, presumably, the content would be changed to reflect that. It is unclear whether positive and negative reactions are differentiated and how they might be treated differently.

It’s fascinating and, I’d imagine, could portend some interesting trends for the future. Can’t you just see automatic surfing on the Web based on links that you react positively to?



Awareness Test

11 03 2008

The Transport For London has an online test that’s part of their campaign to ‘look out out for cyclists.” It’s a video of two teams of four basketball players passing a basketball around. You’re asked to count the number of passes that the team dressed in white makes.

I’ll let you go away and watch the video. Then, come back here for my point (which will be continued by clicking on the “Read The Rest of This Entry’ link below).

Click here for the video.

Read the rest of this entry »