Veronica Mars and Big Data

16 03 2013

Last post I talked about how Netflix‘s anytime-anywhere model will inevitably change the way that networks do business in the future — giving viewers a chance to watch as many episodes as they want, when they want to.  Now, if that wasn’t enough, along comes “Veronica Mars” to shake their previously solid ground a bit more.

For those of you who never watched it (and that includes me) “Veronica Mars” was a television series from 2004-2007 starring Kristin Bell and produced by Rob Thomas. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Bell plays Veronica,

a student who progresses from high school to college while moonlighting as a private investigator under the tutelage of her detective father. In each episode, Veronica solves a different stand-alone case while working to solve a more complex mystery.

Smithsonian Mag illustration about Big Data

Okay. I’m probably not the target market for this thing.  But it had its fans.  Not a bazillion of them, but a bunch of them (Thomas estimates about three million).  When Thomas decided to write a feature film based around the series, they got excited.  Not excited enough to convince Warner Bros to fund the film (they had produced the series and, I would assume, controlled the copyright) though. So the movie was never made.

Until this year.

In what I can only assume was a brilliant stroke of marketing savvy, Thomas approached Warners with the proposal that, if he could raise $2,000,000 outside, they would finance the film. But the brilliant stroke here was that he wasn’t planning on getting the money from a financier.  He said he would get the money through Kickstarter — from the very fans who would, therefore, presumably pay money to go see the film in the theaters. (Except for some high-priced donors, most pledgers don’t get a movie ticket. At best, they get a DVD or Blu-Ray, not enough for most fans to stay away from the theater, I’d venture.)

If he could raise enough fan interest to finance the film, would they agree that there was enough fan interest for them to support its release? Here is what he says happened:

I met with the Warner Bros. brass, and they agreed to allow us to take this shot. They were extremely cool about it, as a matter of fact. Their reaction was, if you can show there’s enough fan interest to warrant a movie, we’re on board.

Well, duh.  This is kind of a no-brainer, once you agree to think outside of your normal box.

The story that you’ve heard reported is that they raised the money.  Faster than any project had ever raised money on Kickstarter. In fact, as of today, they’ve raised over 3.4 million.

But the real story isn’t that they raised the money, it’s why Warners agreed to let them make the movie at all.  There are two main reasons, both of which should make for an interesting change in the way the studios do business.

First, the production cost.  They agreed to distribute a movie that was made for about $2,000,000.  Let’s assume that they raise twice that and put most of it towards production (a low-budget production, as far as the film union – IATSE – defines it is under five million dollars).  That is still probably the cheapest film Warners will make all year — unless Superman and The Great Gatsby and Hangover – Part III turn out to be a lot cheaper than I think. Understand, this is not a film like a Sundance movie that they pick up for distribution. This is a film that they already own the rights to.

This is their movie. They couldn’t get it any cheaper. Oh, they’ll probably have to give up some big profit participation points — what we in the business call “Monopoly money.”  And, if Thomas and Warners are smart, the company will cede a crap ton of creative control, and let the creative team make the movie their way.

If all of those things really happen, this is a sea change in the movie financing and distribution game. A major studio producing a movie for practically no money and letting the filmmakers make it for the people who they see as the film’s fans.

And they can do that because of the second reason – the research has already told them that they can probably make money on this.  And that research was called Kickstarter. And here’s where this story overlaps with last week’s story about Netflix.

The New York Times did a piece on how Netflix decided to finance the expensive House of Cards. Because the company delivers its programming through computers, rather than over the air, they have access to loads of data about how we watch our media. They knew that a lot of people liked movies with Kevin Spacey. They knew that a lot of people liked movies directed by David Fincher (even though he didn’t direct all of the episodes, he directed the first two and his name was on every episode in the Netflix pages for the series). They knew that a lot of people liked the British version of the show.

This is what’s called Big Data — making sense of enormous amounts of data. And the sense that Netflix made of it was that an American version of this series starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher would probably have a built in audience. As the Times put it “the ability to see into the future is the killer app.”

In the case of Veronica Mars, Thomas was able to use a smaller version of this Big Data to make his case to Warners that a successful Kickstarter campaign would increase the likelihood that they could “see into the future” and predict the film’s success.  If the film didn’t have enough supporters to finance their small budget then it was unlikely it would have enough viewers to fill a movie theater.  If they raised the money, it was a good indication to Warners that they could fill theater seats and get some ancillary income in their usual way.

As I said before — well, duh.

It’s a great test case for crowd prognostication (as opposed to crowd financing — this was never really a case of crowd financing). And I am positively agog with the possibilities for the future. What would happened if the script ideas and cast for Jack the Giant Slayer were floated on something similar to Kickstarter?  If they could convince (oh, let’s say) 20,000,000 people to kick in a few bucks they would have proved that there was 400,000,000 dollars of potential box office out there. That would not only give them confidence to move forward, but would also suggest a budget somewhere south of what they did pay for it.

What if television ideas were floated this way?  Would we have fewer turkeys like Pan Am?

I don’t know, but I think that’s it’s an interesting way to help filmmakers — large and small — test out concepts. Not every film or show is going to be able to do this. I can’t imagine what BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD would have done in a system like this. On the other hand, it was made for only two million.

But it is an interesting way to look at the future of programming and arts.  Watch out Neilsen!!

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Television, Addiction and Netflix

8 03 2013

I am always super suspicious when professional pundits draw sweeping conclusions based on their own personal experiences. I’ve heard tons of podcasts in which the panelists assume that their children’s Internet habits are those of every teenager, or that the way they navigate their web pages is the way that everyone does.

I doubt it. I truly truly doubt it. (Even though, truth be told, my blog posting will often fall into that trap)

The latest “We Know Eveything” topic is “binge viewing.”

House of Cards

Those of you who don’t have an addictive bone in your body might have missed out on the discussion about Netflix’s distribution of “House of Cards” – the 13-part series, based on the English drama about scheming politicians. Aside from the merits of the series (and there are many) the biggest news about the series is that Netflix released all of the episodes at one time, so you could theoretically have watched the entire series in one day.

And that’s what “binge viewing” is all about. (Even the New York Times has leapt into the fray, so you know that it’s official).

But, if I may be so two-faced as to make my own broad generalization, the focus on binge viewing misses the larger point.

As I’ve said before, many of us are in the process of creating our own networks — we don’t know when our television shows air because we watch them when we want to, either through DVRs or online. We aren’t as aware of what network they aired on because of syndication at search menus.

The point with Netflix isn’t so much that they made it possible to watch all of “House of Cards” in one day but that made it possible for us to choose to watch it in one day if we want to. My wife and I watched two episodes a night for a week. Others watched it all in a weekend. Still others watched it one a night over several weeks. It’s our choice. NBC can kiss their “Thursday evening comedy block” goodbye, because large segments of their audience don’t watch it on Thursday. We used to define “appointment tv” as shows that were so good that we made it our business to be in front of the television to watch them. Now it means something different — the shows make it their business to be in front of us when we want to watch them. The entire fallacy of the present network/advertiser model is that it’s based on grabbing eyeballs at defined times (which is why movie distributors used to run their ads on THursday nights, before Friday openings).

Sure, plenty of people still watch television that way, but an increasing number are creating their own personal networks, without regard to original network programming decisions.

So, the value of a Netflix/Hulu/etc. model is that it puts more options in our hands. Distribution models, like those of Roku, YouTube, and Apple TV, are acknowledging the trend lines established by DVRs. We want ubiquitous libraries of materials available when we want to view them, not doled out by intermediaries like the networks.

The true revolution isn’t going to be figuring out how to produce series that we will watch whenever and wherever we want. It’s going to be in figuring out how to pay for them, and at what level. It will be in discovering how to create shows that may be watched out of order, or over enormous spans of time. It will be in shaping stories that cannot count on the viewer spending six months waiting for a new season — with all of the attendant anticipation and fan activity.

In short, it’s about how those of us who produce and distribute entertainment can adapt to those of who watch it. Regardless of how my daughter watches it.

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Always Renting

1 02 2013

Just the other day, I got word that my wife and I will have to be moving again from our house. We’re renters (something I’ve stupidly held on to since my days in New York — where it seems everybody rents) and when we moved into our new house two years ago, we settled on a two year lease. We knew our landlord could raise the rent big time (not a good thing for a teacher), or sell the house.

In short, we’ve known every day that we’ve been in our house that we might have to move — sooner rather than later.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that this sense of never getting comfortable in this place was very familiar to me. It’s the world that most of us live in, as freelancers. And, to a larger degree, it is the feeling that all of us should have before we get comfortable with any technology or workflow. We are simply renting here, and the chances are great that our jobs are going to end and the technology will evolve before we are really prepared for it.

In that way, the best thing that we can do in our business is to get used to the idea that things will be constantly changing.

I can say this because I spent my entire life, before coming to USC’s film school, as a freelancer. My average job ran about nine or ten months (HAIR and THE COTTON CLUB went on for 18 months, but those were real rarities). When I took a job, I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that my life was going to be made up of simultaneously working and looking for work. On top of that, early on I knew that the skills I was learning as an assistant editor would be only slightly helpful when I moved up to being an editor.

You not only have to get used to that, you have to embrace that.

Today, of course, it’s even more prevalent. My wife, who is a career advisor and counselor and has helped many people who are in transition or crisis, told me 15 years ago that the typical worker in the 21st century would not only change jobs frequently, but change careers several times in his or her lifetime.

I thought about this the other day as I was doing an interview regarding the software that we use in our editing curriculum at USC. Who knows if Avid or Final Cut or Premiere is even going to be with us in five years? The only thing I know is that, if they are and if we are still using them, they will be doing different things and look and work differently than they do now. Otherwise, they surely Will Be Gone. A mere two years ago, the concept of a DIT must have seemed weird and alien to most on-set personnel. Now those job are evolving every month and the phrase “The DIT is asking for an umbrella” no longer elicits odd looks on set.

In a webinar that I did for Moviola, I said that one of the jobs of most people in our industry is R&D – research and personal development – and that we’ll have to spend around 1/4 of our weekly time unpaid teaching us new equipment, new workflows, new technology, new thought processes, etc. Those who won’t do that, and those who won’t do it until someone pays us to do it, are going to have the unfortunate job title of “Unemployed.”

Needless to say, this was not a popular statement, but it’s true. Sure, I can hide behind the fact that I can tell stories really well, but on the project I’m working on now, I’m creating an opening that requires that I know a set of plug-ins, and ways to manipulate images in new ways in order to get my storytelling ideas across. Those quick flashes to white are so 1980.

In that way, we are always renting our space on jobs and our currency. There are no editors today who can only know film. There are certainly no assistants who can get by without knowing sophisticated image manipulation techniques, server technology, codecs and compression details, etc. etc. etc. This is not a world where we can buy a plot of land, erect a house and never repair the boiler.

We are always renting, and I mean that in a good way.

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Metrics and the Future of Television

24 01 2013

I kind of think of Phil Hodgetts as the “Maestro of Metadata” – that practice of attaching as much data directly to our media as possible so we can more easily use and find those images, audio files, and video later.

Metadata has been getting a lot of play in the last year or two among those of us who create content. It will assist those of us involved in that task in making our lives easier, so we can concentrate on the creative tasks instead of the bookkeeping part of it.

But I want to speak about another kind of data that we don’t talk about enough – metrics – and how it might make the way in which we connect with our audiences easier.  Along the way it will also show just how tone-deaf old media companies are to the new world.

To my mind, metrics collection is the process of collating as much data as possible about the people who watch and listen to our media as possible as well as how they watch it.  This helps us to create programs that attract more people and, therefore, more advertisers — if that is how we want to pay for those programs. On the web those metrics are called “analytics” because why should New Media use Old Terms, right? Companies like comScore (their comScore Data Mine site usually present some interesting high level statistics), Nielsen (some of their reports are fascinating), and Experian’s Hitwise (their weekly online trends page is hilarious sometime; do you know that the number three search term this week is “pawn stars wedding” — more on that later) have developed sophisticated tools to gather those analytics and to sell them. Google Analytics does that as well.

For those of us who work in more traditional broadcast — like television — Nielsen has long been the top company for the gathering of television viewer data. There is all kinds of urban folklore about people who have those infamous “Nielsen boxes” or fill out “Nielsen diaries” which report viewing data to the company.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Is Film Dead? Then Why Do People Keep Wishing For It To Return?

11 04 2012

I am a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is that Academy.  The one that gives out the Oscars every year. Though, actually, that’s only one teeny tiny part of what the Academy does.

One other thing that it does is to recognize great student work from around the world — by giving out Student Oscars. I am one of a whole slew of members who watch shorts (defined as 40 minutes or under — which often doesn’t seem so short) from non-U.S. film schools so we can vote on the ones that we think represent filmmakers who we would love to see be nominated for feature films in the future.  It’s a great committee

But something odd happened the other night, and it dovetailed nicely with an annual survey that Harry Miller conducts for A.C.E. every year.

Here’s the odd thing that happened.  One of the committee members got up and noted that fewer and fewer of the films submitted to us are captured on film. This member wondered if there wasn’t some way that we acknowledge and reward films that were actually shot on film. He wasn’t suggesting that we vote with that in mind, he hastened to add. He just felt that the Academy awarded films. And he wanted to acknowledge those that were shot on film.

With that, my jaw nearly dropped to the floor and one of my row-mates asked if I wanted to stand up and kick some butt.  Well, I did want to do that, though it was not the forum for that. So I kept my seat, and put my jaw back in its proper place.

You see, it seems to me that what we really do in the Academy is honor good stories, well told (THE ARTIST notwithstanding). It doesn’t matter if they’re captured on a Flip Cam (well, not anymore, I guess) or 70mm. Entrancing, captivating stories know no format.

This was borne out by a survey that Harry Miller helps to conduct every year among members of A.C.E. who are editing movies and television. Since 2004 he has asked a number of questions. One of them is what format (“camera original” in his survey) the editors’ projects were captured on. Back in 2004, the breakdown went something like this:

16mm film 7.5%
35mm film 72.6%
70mm 0%
DV-HD 0%
HD (24p) 10%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) 0%

Now, let’s jump ahead a mere seven years to last year – 2011.

16mm film 2.48%
35mm film 15.53%
70mm 0.62%
DV-HD 15.53%
Digital (Drive/Tape/etc.) (includes 24p) 62.11%
Other 4.35%

If my math is correct (and I was pretty damned good at simple math back in high school) that is a six-fold increase in Digital acquisition, while 35mm film fell to one-fourth of its 2004 percentage.

Now Harry would be the first to confess that this survey was completely non-scientific. It includes pretty much whoever wanted to respond and doesn’t include anyone who either forgot or didn’t want to respond. But the trend is completely obvious. Kodak isn’t just in bankruptcy, its film side is dead, dead, dead. Labs may be making some decent money making prints worldwide, but more than 50% of U.S. theaters are digital now and the world is fast catching up. Those cinematographers who are still developing film negative are looking at a future in which it will get increasingly more difficult (and, hence, more expensive) to process film neg. Which means that fewer and fewer productions will shoot film. Which means that lab work will get even more expensive.

Which means that film will pretty much die. No, let me take that back.  It won’t “pretty much die,” it will totally absolutely die.

Since all of our theaters will eventually be digital projection (and nearly 100% of our films will go through a digital finish anyway), I defy anyone’s mother or non-industry friend to tell the difference between a digital capture film like THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or the upcoming SPIDERMAN 3, and a film capture. Either subconsciously or consciously.

Wishing that film would come back seems about as pointless to me as pining after those really great lemon cookies that Keebler used to make that I loved so much.  That now are dead, dead, dead.

I think it’s time to reward “good stories, well told” and forget how they were shot. Or, let’s bring those Keebler Lemon Cookies back.

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Do We Really Want To OWN Our Media?

7 04 2012
I spent some time, this morning, at the TRANSMEDIA:HOLLYWOOD conference, which is a joint conference between USC and UCLA now in its third year.

Transmedia (which you can read about on Henry Jenkins’ blog or on Wikipedia — since Jenkins is the man who came up with the term you might want to start there) is basically the idea that you can create a world with many different stories coming from it — and that those stories can exist in all sorts of media.  Films and television are only two of them, but if you think about having the characters in those works also tweeting as if they were real, or exploring other characters from those worlds in a graphic novel or short story, or any of a dozen other forms of media (think songs, think fan fiction, and then keep thinking).  I have been telling anyone who will listen that transmedia storytelling is the way that we’re going to survive in the future media/content creation world.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could present ourselves, not as editors of films, but as editors of the XYZ franchise?  Yep, I know the world and the characters in XYZ world so well, that you want to hire me for all of the manifestations of that world.  The same with writers, directors, actors, etc.

So the conference was interesting. But something that one of the participants said really piqued my interest. Jennifer Holt, who was the sole academic on the panel and who runs the Media Industries Project at UC Santa Barbara, said the following fascinating thing. “People don’t want to own media anymore.” People, she said, want to view (and, I assume, rent), not own.

This flies in the face of the prevailing wisdom of only two years ago, which said that people wanted to hold onto their media, that they would rather download music and films than stream them. But that is clearly no longer the case.  I prefer to listen to music on Spotify, rather than download it to my iTunes library. I prefer to watch movies on Netflix rather than buy the DVD or download. So it’s not only physical media that is dying, but bits and bytes on my drives.  Yeah, I like to download things on occasion, or for my classroom use, but I confess that I’m an outlier. The DVD of Matrix that I lent my daughter is still sitting in her internal DVD drive.  Not only does that mean that I don’t need it to watch, but it also means that she doesn’t have the need of her DVD drive. Mix CDs are gone.  Playlists are in.

And, old industry distribution models — buh bye.

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Apple and the App Store – Duck!!

16 12 2010

Bottom of New Delhi statueThe more observant readers of the blog will notice that I’ve been absent for a while from posting on the blog. I’ve been travelling during much of that time — in particular a great month-long trip to India. While there I learned a tremendous amount about the Indian economy and its media industry (while also eating a wonderful amount of wonderful food, but that’s another story) and I will be writing about it relatively soon.

But I also had a chance to mull over the Apple announcement from late October. You may remember that announcement for its announcement of the Air, and the hints about the new Mac OS – Lion. They also announced an App Store for Mac applications — to great whoops of joy among Mac pundits. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’m not thrilled — I’m more scared than anything. And I’m scared for the media creation community.

First, if you aren’t already familiar with the store, head on over to its holding page on the Apple site, where you’ll get a very short sales pitch for why the store is so great. The site itself is due January 6, 2011 and Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted in a MacNN story telling us why the store is so great.

“The App Store revolutionized mobile apps,” reads a prepared statement from CEO Steve Jobs. “We hope to do the same for PC apps with the Mac App Store by making finding and buying PC apps easy and fun. We can’t wait to get started on January 6.”

But the devil is always in the details or, in this case, in the reality, and I think we should all be worried.

First off, I’m going to remind everyone that one of the major complaints about the iPhone/iPod (iOS)  App Store as been its approval process. Some developers have withdrawn their apps from the store because of the capricious nature of that process. And while it is true that Apple won’t (for now) require that all apps for the Mac be downloaded through their store, it will most probably become the de facto standard for 90% of all users.

Apple will be taking 30% of all revenues, which is way better for developers than what a brick and mortar retail store would take, but totally blows compared to the percentage that an online store would take. Apple will provide the entire store infrastructure — including billing and download, which is way better for smaller developers than building their own store, but no big deal compared to a scheme like Kagi or PayPal. Apple won’t do anything for marketing except (if the iOS store is any indication) some staff recommendations. That is no different than what software developers deal with today, and is way better if you’re one of the apps selected as a Staff Pick. But it totally blows if you’ve got a good competing product to that Staff Pick. Not much different than competing for reviews right now, except that these reviews/picks will appear on a retail store.

Paramount Consent Decree anyone?

So, in many cases, you gets some and you lose some.

The biggest argument for this store that I’ve heard made is that it will exactly serve the needs of 90-95% of the average Mom and Pop Mac purchasers, who don’t want to type “Family Tree” into their Google or Amazon search bars, and wait for the delivery of the disk by their friendly UPS guy. Now they can type it into the MacOS App Store search bar and get the download immediately. And that’s completely true. For 90% of the total market, this store will probably serve all of their needs.

But nearly every media maker that I know doesn’t fit in that 90-95%. We live in the outlying 5-10%.

As an example, we know that Apple makes Final Cut Suite. We also know that there at least two competing NLEs — Avid’s Media Composer and Adobe’s Premier Pro — that compete directly with Apple’s software. There’s also the new Lightworks Open Source beta (not available for the Mac right now, but “someday”) and a few other NLEs. I’d be fascinated to see if Apple approves any one of those competitors for inclusion in the store. And, if so, how often they would get Staff Pick recommendations.

The fact that Adobe and Avid could and would continue to sell their products on their own sites and elsewhere is great and all, but that has increasingly less power, the stronger the MacOS App Store’s pull on the overall market becomes. I can see the day when it will be well nigh impossible to start a new product without its inclusion in the Apple App Store and, once again, we (as users) become captive to the Apple selection process.

============= ADDED 12-16-2010 ===================

Philip Hodgetts points out in his comment below that Apple’s rules for the store prohibit software that uses installers to be sold in the OS Store. This rules out Final Cut, Media Composer and a slew of other complex applications.

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Apple, on its own site, touts the ability to download updates.

Developers are always improving their apps. That’s why the Mac App Store keeps track of your apps and tells you when updates are available. Update one app at a time or all of them at once, and you’ll always have the latest versions.

All well and good and I’d be thrilled at this feature were it not for two huge points. First, nearly every application that I own (with the shocking exception of Avid’s Media Composer) will, if I ask it to, automatically check for updates and let me update automatically. And, second, I’ve heard enough stories about iOS app updates being delayed for weeks as they go through the Apple approval process. Personally, I’d rather update on the developers’ and my own schedules, not on a store’s — even if that store is operated by may favorite computer manufacturer.

Finally, for everyone who has ever been thankful for a 30 day trial period, let me tell you that on the new MacOS Store — you won’t have one. Apple is not allowing downloading of apps with trial periods. You download it, you pay for it. Simple policy for them, not so much for us. I often download plug-ins or conversion tools for trials so I can decide whether to buy them or not. I love experimenting with them, but not too many of my clients want to see “SAMPLE” or “TRIAL VERSION” splashed across their screens. So, if I use them, I pay for them. If I don’t find them useful, I delete them. No harm, no foul, no fowl. On the new app store — we get harm and foul. I cry “chicken!”

Those of us who live in the crazy 5-10% outlier group will have to continue to do what we’ve always been doing — use friends, Twitter, user groups, blog posts and reviews — to find software that helps me to do my job better. Luckily, that won’t go away — except in the case of marginal software companies who can’t afford to part with 30% of their revenue, as well as keep a functioning web site up for support and marketing. This strikes me as a no-win situation for small developers and I’d be interested to hear what someone like Philip Hodgetts thinks. Philip, along with his partner Greg Clarke, publishes some great tools for Final Cut Pro over at their company Intelligent Assistance, has his own online store to sell their many apps. I’d also be interested in what some slightly larger companies think — not larger to the degree of  Adobe, who can pretty well afford their own store, but places like GenArts or Boris, both of whom make great plug-ins.

Small companies, like Apple used to be, need more open markets. I question whether this new Apple OS Store, will create anything resembling an open marketplace. If not, small companies are going to start hurting even more than they do now. And while Mom and Pop won’t notice, those of us who work creating content at increasingly lower and lower margins are going to start suffering.

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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 mp3.com) 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.

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Just What Can Movie Theaters Charge? And how that’s good for indies.

6 08 2010

A recent article on THE WRAP discusses the very obvious downturn in box office for 3D films. This (they say) doesn’t prove that 3D is a fad but that “not every movie should be in 3D.”

While it’s easy to make broad generalizations based on very little evidence (hell, that’s what I do here, right?), it’s actually much more nuanced than that.

We’ll see what happens to STEP UP 3D this weekend, but we are clearly in the early stages of 3D adoption. I’m inherently skeptical that 3D is ever going to take over the film, tv and web content world, but I’m also waiting to see what will happen to movie 3D if television 3D becomes more popular. Once we become used to 3D on TV, will that make it a requirement in theaters, or will it simply cheapen the concept?

But it was a different sentence entirely that woke me up from this ongoing, every-present, 3D/2D discussion.

Speaking of Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the article says:

He also thinks exhibitors will have to move away from its age-old, one-size-fits-all pricing model.

“For the first time in a long time, I think you’re going to see some adjustment on that,” he added.

One of the things that may be damaging 3D admissions right now is the three to five dollar admission price premium that theaters are tacking onto their normal ticket prices. While that’s fine for a cool event film, it’s probably going to mean the difference between a Yea or a Nay for a family of five deciding whether to see a film on a weekend. Think about it — with three kids, you’re already laying out over 50 bucks for tickets and another 30 or 40 for food. That’s about $100 before you even think about 3D. Add another 15 to 20 bucks for that incredible stereoscopic experience in CATS AND DOGS and you’ll probably get as many people saying “Nah, I heard that the film wasn’t so good” as say “It’s worth it just to shut the kids up for two hours.”

But Katzenberg’s point is well-taken. We expect that first class air flight is going to cost more than economy. We know that putting premium gas in our tanks will cost us more than regular. Don’t we? Why should we expect that every seat, in every theater in a multiplex, for every movie, will cost the same amount. It’s long been accepted that people going to see the less popular matinee performances of a film will pay less.  Isn’t that just another way of saying that people going to evening films will pay more? If that’s the case, why shouldn’t people who decide not to put on the 3D glasses pay less than those who do?

The key here would be to create a sliding scale for films that better reflects the demand for that experience. Would you pay 15 bucks to see the next HARRY POTTER film?  Perhaps, if you can guarantee me that I won’t have to pay anything more than 9 or 10 bucks to see the latest Nicole Holofcener film. I’m not saying this because PLEASE GIVE isn’t as good a film as the 58th film about Hogwarts School of Magic, but because fewer people want to see it. Think about it — this could be great for small indie films. Incentivise people to see indie films in a theater. Make it cheap to see them on a Wednesday night in a smaller theater without 3D. Make it a great alternative on Saturday night to the 3D/super Dolby-ized, VFX-heavy/big theater Potter and Snape. Then give me the opportunity to upgrade my indie ticket with comfier seats, reserved seats and better placement in the theater.  I’m there for you baby!

I’m not talking about ghetto-izing these films. The success of the Laemmle or Arclight style experience (with comfortable seats, good food and advanced seat reservations) proves that people will pay for value. But your definition of value is almost certainly different than mine. And the next person’s. If lower ticket prices are more important to you than comfy seats, then you should be given the opportunity to act on that. But once you leave behind the idea of one ticket price for every seat in a theater, then you’ve really freed yourself up for some great opportunities to bring people into the theaters, as opposed to driving them away.

The tricky thing here will be to avoid having theater owners gouge their patrons, and to avoid having film distributors gouging theater owners. One valuable service that the defunct, though not lamented, Hollywood Stock Exchange gave was a number which roughly correlated with people’s desire to see a film. AOL’s Moviefone provides similar data. This doesn’t mean that those numbers are always right, but they do lead the way to a pricing model that studios would have to take into account in order for theaters to price their tickets on a sliding scale.

In a world where theaters are competing with the Net for viewers, taking a cue from the web and letting viewers pay for content that they want might not be such a bad idea.

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I’m Not Afraid Of Organization!!

22 02 2010

Shane Hurlbut is known for more than just being the guy on the other end of the Christian Bale shouting match. He is a DP who has been tirelessly touting the value of shooting high-end films using HDSLRs (High DEf still cameras that can also shoot HD video) like the Canon 5D Mark II. In fact, in a recent fxGuide podcast (podcast #56, about half way through) he makes a passionate case for why these cameras will eventually “kill film.” It’s a thought provoking and (frankly) pretty exciting podcast. For those of us who step back from a headlong rush into something new just because it’s new, this will raise some great issues about what earthly use celluloid film really has.

Shane also has an interesting entry on his blog at Hurlbut Visuals, talking about the digital workflow issues that he and his crew dealt with on a recent Navy Seals film (that he also talks extensively about in the podcast). In it he talks about media management, a skill which is sadly lacking in many crews who shoot file based cameras. There is an illusion that, because it’s easy to keep shooting, and because stopping to reload cards “interrupts the creative process” (as if decades worth of shooting 11 minute loads of 35mm couldn’t create good creative films), that media management is an impediment to creative filmmaking. Hurlbut takes the piss out of that one:

The unique skill set that my Elite Team brings is that they all have a film background and are comfortable with certain rituals that accompany being a motion picture film loader and 2nd assistant cameraman.  These include: managing the truck; keeping  track of the gear and specialty pieces of equipment; creating an inventory and log; assessing how many magazines you have to load and color coding it according to the stock; labeling the magazines with the date, job, film stock and amount loaded on the magazine itself; and writing a camera report with the same information.

When I see students of mine with disorganized editing bins, into which they’ve loaded unlabelled takes digitized from tapes that have not been sub-clipped for easy access, it drives me insane. One of the great advantage of digital editing is that it should make it easy to find anything that I need to create a finely edited sequence. If I have to scroll through a ten minute series of takes in order to find the one that I want, it’s going to stop my creativity much quicker than taking the 20 minutes to subclip and label each one of those takes before I edit them.

by the same token, dumping dozens of takes of unslated, unlabelled takes, into my NLE does nothing to help my creativity. And having to hunt through all of the dailies because the production people didn’t bother to create usable camera and sound reports, or script notes, makes the editing process so much more difficult.

One of the things that encouraged me to write my recent book on editing room procedures (THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK) was the awareness that filmmakers were wasting countless hours and brain cells because of lack of organization. And that this organization, which we use quite naturally on higher budget films that have assistant editors by the score, was easily adapted to low budget films with no assistants. A little bit of work at the start, saves a whole boatload of work later. And that work is complicated by the fact that the director will be standing over your shoulder while you’re scrolling through a 25 minute clip, looking for the one 50 second take that has the piece he or she wants to look at. Or that opening and clicking through a dozen badly-named sequences, in order to find the version of the cut that you liked from two months ago, is just a really stupid idea.

There are ways to avoid that nonsense and creative DPs like Shane aren’t afraid of them.

And neither should you.

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