METal Media Festival

10 06 2009
Taste of METal Media Festival

I’m part of a group of people who get together about every week or so to talk about events in the Media, Entertainment and Technology spaces (don’t you just love when someone uses the term “space”?). The group, which is called METal — for the Media Entertainment Technology Alliance — is run by Ken Rutkowski, who you have heard me talk about in the past.

This Thursday, June 11th, for those of you who will be in the Los Angeles, Ken and Michael Kaliski, will be hosting a very low-cost Media Festival, which will a cross between a film festival and the TED conferences. Excerpts from a large number of films will be shown, and each one will be followed by a short talk by someone representing the film. Here is how the Taste of METal site describes it.

The Media Entertainment Technology Alliance (METal) presents its inaugural media festival on Thursday, June 11th displaying an eclectic selection of meaningful shorts accompanied by speakers who will give brief, insightful presentations following each film. Moderator Ken Rutkowski will be wielding “the hook” to keep things zipping along. It’s speed dating for the mind!

The event will take place at the state-of-the-art 400 seat screening room at Los Angeles Center Studios. 450 S. Bixel Street LA, CA 90017.

Arrivals and refreshments will begin at 7:00PM with the program kicking off at 8PM.

Details can be found at the TASTE OF METal site and you can RSVP at

I am totally going to be there. It looks like it’s going to be a very interesting and provocative evening.

Cell phone bills and media makers

3 02 2009

It’s hard to know exactly what these numbers mean, but someone recently sent a long some statistics on the change in cell phone spending since the beginning of the decade.

The numbers below are pretty interesting, especially when you look at the younger demographics and their percentage of total telephone services spent on cell phone service.  These numbers of from the Bureau of Labor, show that spending on cell phone service increased tremendously from 2001 to 2007.  Somewhere in 2006, we started spending more on cell than on landlines. And that’s across all age groups, even the landline-bound Over 64 group, whose percentage of cell phone spending nearly tripled over that time. About one-third of these people are now spending more on cell phones.

That, to me, is an even more awesome statistic than the fact that about 3/4 of people under 25 are doing the same thing.

Cell phone usage has increased tremendously since 2001

Cell phone usage has increased tremendously since 2001

The article goes on to say,

In 2001, the ratio of spending on residential phone services to spending on cellular phone services was greater than 3 to 1. In 2007, cellular phone expenditures accounted for 55 percent of total telephone expenditures compared to 43 percent for residential phone expenditures.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) show that cellular phone expenditures increased rapidly from 2001 through 2007. Cellular phone expenditures surpassed spending on residential landline phone services beginning in 2007. Chart 1 shows that annual expenditures for cellular phone services per consumer unit increased from $210 in 2001 to $608 in 2007, an increase of 190 percent. Expenditures for residential phone services per consumer unit decreased from $686 to $482 over that period, a decrease of 30 percent.

There are obvious reasons that this might be so, including large cel phone bills — I don’t think that my landline (which I still keep going — my cel service in my own home being less reliable than the cel service I experienced in the Jordanian desert several years ago) accounts for more than 20% of my total monthly phone bill.  I’ve got a lot of services hanging off of it — including my miserable DSL service (more on that in another post).

But it’s clear that, with manhy people jettisoning their landlines in favor of cel service, that a sizable chunk of money (and our expectations) is going into cel phones.  Worldwide as well as in the United States.

If you ask me, this is great news for those of us who make media. As I told a class today, for those of us who love the idea of making media for screens above and beyond the television and the Big Silver, we’ve got a great expanse of wild and wooliness out there.  It will be necessary for the phone companies to compete with each other in even stronger ways, once it’s clear that their landline business is going away. Between business VoIP (like Skype and Avaya) and residential cel service, they’re going to want to shore up their cel services.

And that is going to mean providing additional content for the smart phones of the future.

If I were you, I’d start learning Big Time about puting media that you want to create, onto someone else’s cel phones. Then, after the dust settles, if you’re in there, you’re going to make some money.

Unconfuse Yourself About Blu-Ray

27 01 2009

Some of us, for some reason, think Blu-Ray is the wave of the future.  Me? I think that it’s the wave of a little blip in time — like now. As I’ve said before, I don’t really think that most people care enough of image quality (or see the difference in image quality) to make them want to go out and repurchase all of their favorite DVDs in their library. It’s no shock that Blu-Ray disks, therefore, haven’t been selling the way the geniuses at the AMPTP would have hoped. New DVD player purchasers may want to go to Blu-Ray, and people who rent may be inclined once they get those players, but I don’t see the population running en masse to the format.

That having been said, it’s important for those of us in the content creation field to be savvy about Blu-Ray and have it in their arsenal of talents. And that ain’t always easy.  Until now.

On a special edition Larry Jordan’s great audio show/podcast, Digital Production Buzz, Larry and Bruce Nazarian (DVD guru, president of the Inernational Digital Media Alliance, and owner of the web site Recipe4DVD) give an amazing overview of Blu-Ray history, technology and methodology.  Bruce, who gave an amazing talk at Macworld this year about burning a Blu-Ray disk using regular old fashioned DVD disks, is incredibly knowledgeable about all of these topics and Larry is his usual great interviewer — asking questions that he obviously knows the answers to but which help explain the topic to people like me who don’t have a clue.

Go over to the website right now and get the podcast, if you haven’t gotten it already in your podcast feeds.  It’s a fantastically educational tour through this complex subject.

Editing and The Best Picture

23 01 2009

I love an article in today’s Los Angeles Times.   Called “Can ‘The Reader’ win best picture without an editing nomination?”  It basically lays out the statistics about how few films have ever won for Best Picture without a Best Editing award.

The article doesn’t examine any of the whys behind this, but I’ve long said that most Oscar voters don’t really have a good enough idea what editing is (“It’s cool cutting, right?”) to separate best film and best editing.  If they like a film they’re generally going to vote for it for best editing. That’s why Best Editing winners are often good predictors of what’s going to win for Best Picture later in the awards show.  For me, this means that something that the editors have not judged worthy of a nomination (to reiterate, only editors members can nominate for best editing — everyone can, however, vote in the category once the nominees have been chosen) is rarely going to inspire a filmmaking awe in the Academy as a whole.

Any thoughts on this?

Why Paramount’s Decision To Pay to Go Digital Is Good For FIlmmakers

23 01 2009


Do you know what the acronyms DCIP and VPF mean? Hey, in a world where we’ve needed to learn what DSL means (or at least what it does) what’s a few more letters between friends, right? And it could be very important for your future, if you’re an independent filmmaker.

Well, J. Sperling Reich has a great blog that I found called Celluloid Junkie which basically talks about the business of exhibition. That means, what happens when your film gets into the theaters. In the latest posting, “Paramount Goes Direct-To-Exhibitors With D-Cinema Deal” Sperling talks about how digital projection is going to end up in our local movie theaters.

Many of you may have seen ads for Hollywood movies that announce that they will be screening “digitally” in some theaters. In essence, what this means is that the movie theaters have installed large video projectors, capable of screening films at 2K resolution — slightly higher than High Def video. Now, these systems (along with their hookups to higher quality audio) are not cheap to install. An article in Gizmodo puts the costs at roughly $70,000 per installation. The article goes on to say:

The five major studios involved will help out by paying a “digital print fee” of about $800 to $1,000 per film, which is about how much it cost to send out physical prints. By doing so they’ll help offset the billion dollar bill the theaters will be stuck with when upgrading all of their projectors. This means we’ll be seeing more films shown digitally, as well as more films shown in digital 3D, a gimmick that you’ll learn to loathe soon enough. But hey, more digital projectors is definitely something I can get behind.

That fee that the distributors finally agreed to pay is also the aforementioned VPF (“virtual print fee”). And it took years for the studios to realize that it was the only way they could encourage theater owners to buy those expensive projectors, an argument that still lacks weight among many theater owners. That is why the two organizations that are pushing the Digital Cinema Initiative (the DCIP, and Cinedigm) have been been looking for ways to entice the owners into jumping into the pool.  For awhile it looked like the distributors were going to pay some of the installation costs in some way — partnerships, loans, etc. That approach didn’t attract much enthusiasm from either side. And that’s when the VPf came along.

And hasn’t really taken off.

Sperling’s blog entry talks about Paramount seems to be returning to the idea of offering exhibitors direct financial assistance in some form. And, for that, who needs the DCIP? Sperling notes:

What’s significant about Paramount’s announcement is that previously studios have refused to cut deals to reimburse exhibitors for digital cinema installations directly with exhibitors for fear of future anti-trust litigation.  Instead, they relied on digital cinema systems integrators to provide a buffer between themselves and theatre owners.  But, with the digital cinema rollout at a near stand still, Paramount seems to be throwing caution to the winds.

Sperling’s reasoning behind this is that Paramount would like to see more digital theaters because they’d like to use the technology to see more theaters that could easily show 3-D films like their upcoming MONSTERS VS. ALIENS. I spoke a few posts ago about the distributors’ illusion that 3-D will save their worlds, so I buy into Sperling’s argument that this is why Paramount is breaking ranks, even while I disagree with Paramount’s reasoning. And I certainly like the idea that studios are thinking beyond the simple “let’s lay off the workers” model to saving their financial future.

But the most exciting thing, for me, about Paramount’s decision  to throw their money behind Digital Cinema has little to do with 3-D. I’m much more interested in how the projection technology can help the indie filmmaker.

My favorite film at Sundance this week was, bar none, Ondi Timoner’s documentary WE LIVE IN PUBLIC, which is about Josh Harris, a 1990s New York internet entrepeneur who used streaming video technology, and a very art-event orientation, to convert a Soho basement into a month-long living experience for a large group of people and which would be on camera every minute of every day. Every room — living rooms, bathrooms, bedrooms — had video cameras in it, recording the action. The film, which is uses this even as a mere starting point for a discussion of privacy and innovation, was a powerful experience (someone who sat next to me at the screening, looked at me at the end and said “That film freaked me out.”).

Ondi sat on a panel that I ran and mentioned that she had been editing the film up until just a day before the festival and it is truly a testament to the development of digital non-linear editing technology (she worked on an Avid) that she could be editing and finishing so late in the game, it is equally amazing to me that she was able to output a digital tape or two, bring it up to Sundance and simply show it. There was no need for complicated lab runs — color correction had already been done, sound was already added, multiple copies could be created rather quickly.

Observant readers will note that this is hardly new — filmmakers have been able to finish video for television on this very timeframe for years. But that’s only because each and every one of us agreed to buy the projectors that made this possible. We called them “televisions” but that didn’t matter. The public, acting as the exhibitors, agreed to shoulder the cost for the distribution of the studios’ content.  Paramount has finally admitted that that very model won’t work in theatrical distribtution but that it is still important to get that technology into theaters.

So they’re going to pay for some of it themselves.

What this means for us, as filmmakers, is that we’ll be able to create all sorts of films, using all sorts of capture formats, and finish them at our own pace and in our own manner and there will be thousands of theaters able to help show them. With high-end HD camers out there (JVC just announced a sub-$4000 camera at Macworld, RED has a more expensive series that are still within reach of the serious filmmaker) it might just throw some of the balance towards us. We can leave 3-D behind us, and take advantage of the digital theater that the studios hunger for 3-D brought us, and bring really great images to an audience that just might get interested.

Who knows, the studios might just be helping out the indie filmmaker.  You can say “thank you” in a few years.


A side note here — I met Sperling by stumbling across him on Twitter. The mass, social-networking, text-message service proved to be a real boon for me at both Macworld and Sundance as I was able to keep up with people, parties, announcements, etc. from people who I thought would be interesting. The service, which was initially mocked because its users were posting mere status reports on their life (“Going to bed now, see ya!”) has now transformed into a great referral service for information. Guy Kawasaki, for instance, uses Twitter to post links to news and analysis articles. Services like Twitpic allow users to post images of events as they are happening. A number of people like John C Dvorak and Dave Hamilton have used it to get personalized information (Dave asked his followers today for dinner recipes that “involed sundried tomatoes” and within five minutes received great responses.).  It’s turned into a great resource and information finder. For those of you who are looking to develop networks in this difficult job climate, you’d be smart to start using Twitter, to figure out whether it works for me.

I know that I would have never found Sperling’s great web site without finding him on Twitter.

3-D, This Year’s Savior

19 01 2009

3D Film Image

3D Film Image

There’s an exhibit here at this year’s Sundance Festival, at the Sheffield, which highlights two different 3D technologies (the correct phrase, I’m told, is not 3D, but stereoscopic). And while I really loved the expansive, trippy, artwork that was displayed on the screens (created by the talented Justin Knowles, from CGI Studios) you have to wonder if stereoscopic is really something that audiences are clamoring for.  

Back in the 1970s, I remember a few 3D films which always involved the filmmakers tossing something directly at the audience. It was the fastest way to create the “oooh” effect in the audience. Last year, when I was at the CILECT Conference in Beijing, I saw an incredibly impressive 3D experience which was completely controlled by the viewer. So, the technology is impressive. But, like HD televisions, it’s hard to see how the audience is going to need to buy into the technology, especially if it requires buying anything.

The problems with convincing people to buy into the stereoscopic world were obvious at the exhibtion, just from the physicality of the presentation. First off, there were two incompatible technologies (how did that work for you HD-DVD??) — one with two stacked projectors and the viewer wearing a pair of glasses that combined the two into one brain image. Then there was the Mitbubishi style — 60fps projection, which alternated left and right eyes. It required a pair of expensive glasses that blinked the alternating eyes, synchronized with the screen so each eye saw only the frames designed for it. This amounted to, sorta, a 30fps image with depth.

Two competing technologies. Let me say that again — two technologies.

Each required a computer to play back the movies, but each required different standards. Good luck with that.

Second, in both cases, there were a limited supply of glasses and when too many people were using them, you got to stare at an unwatchable image.  Very 60s trippy, but not very satisfying. Unless the consumer is willing to buy a large supply of glasses, you’re going to have a limited supply at home as well (especially with the Mitsuibishi electronic glasses). And as soon as your seven year old kid marches off with one of your pairs, someone’s not going to be able to watch 3D in your house.

[I actually offered the kind Mitsubishi sales woman some advice — the company that invents a pair of glasses with a cheap tracking device, is going to make a mint. Think of how many times you use your car door remote to locate your car in a large parking lot.]

In its defense, at least the 3D experience offers enough different from the 2D one to make the average viewer notice (as opposed to HD, which I still maintain is not different enough to convince most of the American public to repurchase all of their SD DVDs). But if filmmakers spend the next three years throwing objects at the camera, in order to create that “oooh” moment, we’re going to grow tired of this gimmick rather quickly. It’s hard to believe that there are millions of people ready to throw away their 2D movies so they repurchase a more expensive experience that won’t involve things being thrown at them. And while people didn’t mind watching Ted Turner’s colorized movies on TV years ago, I don’t know anybody who refused to watch those movies in black and white when they were at more convenient times. In other words, 3D doesn’t rise to the level of “must have” or “it will change my life so it’s too cool to pass up.”

Except in games. The Beijing experiment, in which I could control how I perceived the space around me, was so immeasurably more satisfying than its 2D equivalent, that I was immediately thrust inside the experience.

Films are, basically, a directed experience — someone else is helping us through the story.  Games are much more player-driven and, as such, benefit from an expanded world. There is much that 3D can do to help us explore our world in film (I edited one short in 3D and it was not a wonderful experience), and I assume that as filmmakers get better at telling stories in that landscape, we will get more mature works. But it is in the world of immersive entertainment, where presenting the audience with a world that they can control, that steroscopic has some value.

To that end, everyone would get a better return on their investment if they stopped paying to give us Miley Cyrus in 3D, and instead invested in giving us Master Chief in 3D.

Why Kvetching About Small Screens Makes You Look Stupid

3 01 2009

lofaDavid Lynch’s infamous hissy fit about how horrible it is to watch Big Movies on small screens was one of the funny viral videos of 2008. But now three commentators on the New York Times’ Tech Talk podcast start out 2009 with the same dumb comment.

Talking about Slingbox’s new beta software which will let Blackberry users see some of their DVR’ed content streamed to their phones, they make the point that no one wants to watch LAWRENCE OF ARABIA on a two-inch screen.

Well…. Duh. Who does? And who’s making you?

The problem with a comment like that is simple – users will always find their preferred level of experience and content producers/filmmakers will follow.

I doubt I’d want to watch 2001 on a Blackberry or iPhone screen. But I’m happy to watch “Ask A Ninja” or ZiO’s “Designing Minds” that way. That way I can get those experiences at the gym, or waiting in my doctor’s office, or in a room in my house without a TV.

I’ve said it before, now I’ll rephrase it. “It’s all about the screens baby.” There are many different types of content. Why shouldn’t there be many different ways to absorb it?

(As a side note, that means that there should be many different ways to MAKE it.)

What I worry about is these complainers whining about the problem of forcing square pegs into round holes and convincing people to stop making square pegs. What they should be doing instead, is encouraging people to make more square holes.

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.


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.


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.

Online Television Reaches The Mainstream

2 09 2008

Gemini Division (image courtesy of

Gemini Division (image courtesy of

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.]