I. The Wheels Fall Off the Cart
In mid-1994, sometime shortly after Tony Parisi and I had fused the new technology of the World Wide Web to a 3D visualization engine, to create VRML, we paid a visit to the University of Santa Cruz, about 120 kilometers south of San Francisco. Two UCSC students wanted to pitch us on their own web media project. The Internet Underground Music Archive, or IUMA, featured a simple directory of artists, complete with links to MP3 files of these artists’ recordings. (Before I go any further, I should state that they had all the necessary clearances to put musical works up onto the Web – IUMA was not violating anyone’s copyrights.) The idea behind IUMA was simple enough, the technology absolutely straightforward – and yet, for all that, it was utterly revolutionary. Anyone, anywhere could surf over to the IUMA site, pick an artist, then download a track and play it.
This was in the days before broadband, so downloading a multi-megabyte MP3 recording could take upwards of an hour per track – something that seems ridiculous today, but was still so potent back in 1994 that IUMA immediately became one of the most popular sites on the still-quite-tiny Web. The founders of IUMA – Rob Lord and Jon Luini – wanted to create a place where unsigned or non-commercial musicians could share their music with the public in order to reach a larger audience, gain recognition, and perhaps even end up with a recording deal. IUMA was always better as a proof-of-concept than as a business opportunity, but the founders did get venture capital, and tried to make a go of selling music online. However, given the relative obscurity of the musicians on IUMA, and the pre-iPod lack of pervasive MP3 players, IUMA ran through its money by 2001, shuttering during the dot-com implosion of the same year. Despite that, every music site which followed IUMA, legal and otherwise, from Napster to Rhapsody to iTunes, has walked in its footsteps. Now, nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we have a broadband infrastructure capable of delivery MP3s, and several hundred million devices which can play them. IUMA was a good idea, but five years too early.
Just forty-eight hours ago, a new music service, calling itself Qtrax, aborted its international launch – though it promises to be up “real soon now.” Qtrax also promises that anyone, anywhere will be able to download any of its twenty-five million songs perfectly legally, and listen to them practically anywhere they like – along with an inserted advertisement. Using peer-to-peer networking to relieve the burden on its own servers, and Digital Rights Management, or DRM, Qtrax ensures that there are no abuses of these pseudo-free recordings.
Most of the words that I used to describe Qtrax in the preceding paragraph didn’t exist in common usage when IUMA disappeared from the scene in the first year of this millennium. The years between IUMA and Qtrax are a geological age in Internet time, so it’s a good idea to walk back through that era and have a good look at the fossils which speak to how we evolved to where we are today.
In 1999, a curly-haired undergraduate at Boston’s Northeastern University built a piece of software that allowed him to share his MP3 collection with a few of his friends on campus, and allowed him access to their MP3s. This scanned the MP3s on each hard drive, publishing the list to a shared database, allowing each person using the software to download the MP3 from someone else’s hard drive to his own. This is simple enough, technically, but Shawn Fanning’s Napster created a dual-headed revolution. First, it was the killer app for broadband: using Napster on a dial-up connection was essentially impossible. Second, it completely ignored the established systems of distribution used for recorded music.
This second point is the one which has the most relevance to my talk this morning; Napster had an entirely unpredicted effect on the distribution methodologies which had been the bedrock of the recording industry for the past hundred years. The music industry grew up around the licensing, distribution and sale of a physical medium – a piano roll, a wax recording, a vinyl disk, a digital compact disc. However, when the recording industry made the transition to CDs in the 1980s (and reaped windfall profits as the public purchased new copies of older recordings) they also signed their own death warrants. Digital recordings are entirely ephemeral, composed only of mathematics, not of matter. Any system which transmitted the mathematics would suffice for the distribution of music, and the compact disc met this need only until computers were powerful enough to play the more compact MP3 format, and broadband connections were fast enough to allow these smaller files to be transmitted quickly. Napster leveraged both of these criteria – the mathematical nature of digitally-encoded music and the prevalence of broadband connections on America’s college campuses – to produce a sensation.
In its earliest days, Napster reflected the tastes of its college-age users, but, as word got out, the collection of tracks available through Napster grew more varied and more interesting. Many individuals took recordings that were only available on vinyl, and digitally recorded them specifically to post them on Napster. Napster quickly had a more complete selection of recordings than all but the most comprehensive music stores. This only attracted more users to Napster, who added more oddities from their on collections, which attracted more users, and so on, until Napster became seen as the authoritative source for recorded music.
Given that all of this “file-sharing”, as it was termed, happened outside of the economic systems of distribution established by the recording industry, it was taking money out of their pockets – probably something greater than billions of dollars a year was lost, if all of these downloads had been converted into sales. (Studies indicate this was unlikely – college students have ever been poor.) The recording industry launched a massive lawsuit against Napster in 2000, forcing the service to shutter in 2001, just as it reached an incredible peak of 14 million simultaneous users, out of a worldwide broadband population of probably only 100 million. This means that one in seven computers connected to the broadband internet were using Napster just as it was being shut down.
Here’s where it gets more interesting: the recording industry thought they’d brought the horse back into the barn. What they hadn’t realized was that the gate had burnt down. The millions of Napster users had their appetites whet by a world where an incredible variety of music was instantaneously available with few clicks of the mouse. In the absence of Napster, that pressure remained, and it only took a few weeks for a few enterprising engineers to create a successor to Napster, known as Gnutella, which provided the same service as Napster, but used a profoundly different technology for its filesharing. Where Napster had all of its users register their tracks within a centralized database (which disappeared when Napster was shut down) Gnutella created a vast, amorphous, distributed database, spread out across all of the computers running Guntella. Gnutella had no center to strike at, and therefore could not be shut down.
It is because of the actions of the recording industry that Gnutella was developed. If legal pressure hadn’t driven Napster out of business, Gnutella would not have been necessary. The recording industry turned out to be its own worst enemy, because it turned a potentially profitable relationship with its customers into an ever-escalating arms race of file-sharing tools, lawsuits, and public relations nightmares.
Once Gnutella and its descendants – Kazaa, Limewire, and Acquisition – arrived on the scene, the listening public had wholly taken control of the distribution of recorded music. Every attempt to shut down these ever-more-invisible “darknets” has ended in failure and only spurred the continued growth of these networks. Now, with Qtrax, the recording industry is seeking to make an accommodation with an audience which expects music to be both free and freely available, falling back on advertising revenue source to recover some of their production costs.
At first, it seemed that filmic media would be immune from the disruptions that have plagued the recording industry – films and TV shows, even when heavily compressed, are very large files, on the order of hundreds of millions of bytes of data. Systems like Gnutella, which allow you to transfer a file directly from one computer to another are not particularly well-suited to such large file transfers. In 2002, an unemployed programmer named Bram Cohen solved that problem definitively with the introduction of a new file-sharing system known as BitTorrent.
BitTorrent is a bit mysterious to most everyone not deeply involved in technology, so a brief of explanation will help to explain its inner workings. Suppose, for a moment, that I have a short film, just 1000 frames in length, digitally encoded on my hard drive. If I wanted to share this film with each of you via Gnutella, you’d have to wait in a queue as I served up the film, time and time again, to each of you. The last person in the queue would wait quite a long time. But if, instead, I gave the first ten frames of the film to the first person in the queue, and the second ten frames to the second person in the queue, and the third ten frames to the third person in the queue, and so on, until I’d handed out all thousand frames, all I need do at that point is tell each of you that each of your “peers” has the missing frames, and that you needed to get them from those peers. A flurry of transfers would result, as each peer picked up the pieces it needed to make a complete whole from other peers. From my point of view, I only had to transmit the film once – something I can do relatively quickly. From your point of view, none of you had to queue to get the film – because the pieces were scattered widely around, in little puzzle pieces, that you could gather together on your own.
That’s how BitTorrent works. It is both incredibly efficient and incredibly resilient – peers can come and go as they please, yet the total number of peers guaratees that somewhere out there is an entire copy of the film available at all times. And, even more perversely, the more people who want copies of my film, the easier it is for each successive person to get a copy of the film – because there are more peers to grab pieces from. This group of peers, known as a “swarm”, is the most efficient system yet developed for the distribution of digital media. In fact, a single, underpowered computer, on a single, underpowered broadband link can, via BitTorrent, create a swarm of peers. BitTorrent allows anyone, anywhere, distribute any large media file at essentially no cost.
It is estimated that upwards of 60% of all traffic on the Internet is composed of BitTorrent transfers. Much of this traffic is perfectly legitimate – software, such as the free Linux operating system, is distributed using BitTorrent. Still, it is well known that movies and television programmes are also distributed using BitTorrent, in violation of copyright. This became absolutely clear on the 14th of October 2004, when Sky Broadcasting in the UK premiered the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, Ron Moore’s dark re-imagining of the famous shlocky 1970s TV series. Because the American distributor, SciFi Channel, had chosen to hold off until January to broadcast the series, fans in the UK recorded the programmes and posted them to BitTorrent for American fans to download. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the episodes circulated in the United States – and conventional thinking would reckon that this would seriously impact the ratings of the show upon its US premiere. In fact, precisely the opposite happened: the show was so well written and produced that the word-of-mouth engendered by all this mass piracy created an enormous broadcast audience for the series, making it the most successful in SciFi Channel history.
In the age of BitTorrent, piracy is not necessarily a menace. The ability to “hyperdistribute” a programme – using BitTorrent to send a single copy of a programme to millions of people around the world efficiently and instantaneously – creates an environment where the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. This seems counterintuitive, but only in the context of systems of distribution which were part-and-parcel of the scarce exhibition outlets of theaters and broadcasters. Once everyone, everywhere had the capability to “tuning into” a BitTorrent broadcast, the economics of distribution were turned on their heads. The distribution gatekeepers, stripped of their power, whinge about piracy. But, as was the case with recorded music, the audience has simply asserted its control over distribution. This is not about piracy. This is about the audience getting whatever it wants, by any means necessary. They have the tools, they have the intent, and they have the power of numbers. It is foolishness to insist that the future will be substantially different from the world we see today. We can not change the behavior of the audience. Instead, we must all adapt to things as they are.
But things as the are have changed more than you might know. This is not the story of how piracy destroyed the film industry. This is the story how the audience became not just the distributors but the producers of their own content, and, in so doing, brought down the high walls which separate professionals from amateurs.
II. The Barbarian Hordes Storm the Walls
Without any doubt the most outstanding success of the second phase of the Web (known colloquially as “Web 2.0”) is the video-sharing site YouTube. Founded in early 2005, as of yesterday YouTube was the third most visited site on the entire Web, led only by Yahoo! and YouTube’s parent, Google. There are a lot of videos on YouTube. I’m not sure if anyone knows quite how many, but they easily number in the tens of millions, quite likely approaching a hundred million. Another hundred thousand videos are uploaded each day; YouTube grows by three million videos a month. That’s a lot of video, difficult even to contemplate. But an understanding of YouTube is essential for anyone in the film and television industries in the 21st century, because, in the most pure, absolute sense, YouTube is your competitor.
Let me unroll that statement a bit, because I don’t wish it to be taken as simply as it sounds. It’s not that YouTube is competing with you for dollars – it isn’t, at least not yet – but rather, it is competing for attention. Attention is the limiting factor for the audience; we are cashed up but time-poor. Yet, even as we’ve become so time-poor, the number of options for how we can spend that time entertaining ourselves has grown so grotesquely large as to be almost unfathomable. This is the real lesson of YouTube, the one I want you to consider in your deliberations today. In just the past three years we have gone from an essential scarcity of filmic media – presented through limited and highly regulated distribution channels – to a hyperabundance of viewing options.
This hyperabundance of choices, it was supposed until recently, would lead to a sort of “decision paralysis,” whereby the viewer would be so overwhelmed by the number of choices on offer that they would simply run back, terrified, to the highly regularized offerings of the old-school distribution channels. This has not happened; in fact, the opposite has occured: the audience is fragmenting, breaking up into ever-smaller “microaudiences”. It is these microaudiences that YouTube speaks directly to. The language of microaudiences is YouTube’s native tongue.
In order to illustrate the transformation that has completely overtaken us, let’s consider a hypothetical fifteen year-old boy, home after a day at school. He is multi-tasking: texting his friends, posting messages on Bebo, chatting away on IM, surfing the web, doing a bit of homework, and probably taking in some entertainment. That might be coming from a television, somewhere in the background, or it might be coming from the Web browser right in front of him. (Actually, it’s probably both simultaneously.) This teenager has a limited suite of selections available on the telly – even with satellite or cable, there won’t be more than a few hundred choices on offer, and he’s probably settled for something that, while not incredibly satisfying, is good enough to play in the background.
Meanwhile, on his laptop, he’s viewing a whole series of YouTube videos that he’s received from his friends; they’ve found these videos in their own wanderings, and immediately forwarded them along, knowing that he’ll enjoy them. He views them, and laughs, he forwards them along to other friends, who will laugh, and forward them along to other friends, and so on. Sharing is an essential quality of all of the media this fifteen year-old has ever known. In his eyes, if it can’t be shared, a piece of media loses most of its value. If it can’t be forwarded along, it’s broken.
For this fifteen year-old, the concept of a broadcast network no longer exists. Television programmes might be watched as they’re broadcast over the airwaves, but more likely they’re spooled off of a digital video recorder, or downloaded from the torrent and watched where and when he chooses. The broadcast network has been replaced by the social network of his friends, all of whom are constantly sharing the newest, coolest things with one another. The current hot item might be something that was created at great expense for a mass audience, but the relationship between a hot piece of media and its meaningfulness for a microaudience is purely coincidental. All the marketing dollars in the world can foster some brand awareness, but no amount of money will inspire that fifteen year old to forward something along – because his social standing hangs in the balance. If he passes along something lame, he’ll lose social standing with his peers. This factors into every decision he makes, from the brand of runners he wears, to the television series he chooses to watch. Because of the hyperabundance of media – something he takes as a given, not as an incredibly recent development – all of his media decisions are weighed against the values and tastes of his social network, rather than against a scarcity of choices.
This means that the true value of media in the 21st century is entirely personal, and based upon the salience, that is, the importance, of that media to the individual and that individual’s social network. The mass market, with its enforced scarcity, simply does not enter into his calculations. Yes, he might go to the theatre to see Transformers with his mates; but he’s just as likely to download a copy recorded in the movie theatre with an illegally smuggled-in camera that was uploaded to The Pirate Bay a few hours after its release.
That’s today. Now let’s project ourselves five years into the future. YouTube is still around, but now it has more than two hundred million videos (probably much more), all available, all the time, from short-form to full-length features, many of which are now available in high-definition. There’s so much “there” there that it is inconceivable that conventional media distribution mechanisms of exhibition and broadcast could compete. For this twenty year-old, every decision to spend some of his increasingly-valuable attention watching anything is measured against salience: “How important is this for me, right now?” When he weighs the latest episode of a TV series against some newly-made video that is meant only to appeal to a few thousand people – such as himself – that video will win, every time. It more completely satisfies him. As the number of videos on offer through YouTube and its competitors continues to grow, the number of salient choices grows ever larger. His social network, communicating now through FaceBook and MySpace and next-generation mobile handsets and iPods and goodness-knows-what-else is constantly delivering an ever-growing and increasingly-relevant suite of media options. He, as a vital node within his social network, is doing his best to give as good as he gets. His reputation depends on being “on the tip.”
When the barriers to media distribution collapsed in the post-Napster era, the exhibitors and broadcasters lost control of distribution. What no one had expected was that the professional producers would lose control of production. The difference between an amateur and a professional – in the media industries – has always centered on the point that the professional sells their work into distribution, while the amateur uses wits and will to self-distribute. Now that self-distribution is more effective than professional distribution, how do we distinguish between the professional and the amateur? This twenty year-old doesn’t know, and doesn’t care.
There is no conceivable way that the current systems of film and television production and distribution can survive in this environment. This is an uncomfortable truth, but it is the only truth on offer this morning. I’ve come to this conclusion slowly, because it seems to spell the death of a hundred year-old industry with many, many creative professionals. In this environment, television is already rediscovering its roots as a live medium, increasingly focusing on news, sport and “event” based programming, such as Pop Idol, where being there live is the essence of the experience. Broadcasting is uniquely designed to support the efficient distribution of live programming. Hollywood will continue to churn out blockbuster after blockbuster, seeking a warmed-over middle ground of thrills and chills which ensures that global receipts will cover the ever-increasing production costs. In this form, both industries will continue for some years to come, and will probably continue to generate nice profits. But the audience’s attentions have turned elsewhere. They’re not returning.
This future almost completely excludes “independent” production, a vague term which basically means any production which takes place outside of the media megacorporations (News Corp, Disney, Sony, Universal and TimeWarner), which increasingly dominate the mass media landscape. Outside of their corporate embrace, finding an audience sufficient to cover production and marketing costs has become increasingly difficult. Film and television have long been losing economic propositions (except for the most lucky), but they’re now becoming financially suicidal. National and regional funding bodies are growing increasingly intolerant of funding productions which can not find an audience; soon enough that pipeline will be cut off, despite the damage to national cultures. Australia funds the Film Finance Corporation and the Australian Film Council to the tune of a hundred million dollars a year, to ensure that Australian stories are told by Australian voices; but Australians don’t go to see them in the theatres, and don’t buy them on DVD.
The center can not hold. Instead, YouTube, which founder Steve Chen insists has “no gold standard” of production values, is rapidly becoming the vehicle for independent productions; productions which cost not millions of euros, but hundreds, and which make up for their low production values in salience and in overwhelming numbers. This tsunami of content can not be stopped or even slowed down; it has nothing to do with piracy (only nine percent of the videos viewed on YouTube are violations of copyright) but reflects the natural accommodation of the audience to an era of media hyperabundance.
What then, is to be done?
III. And The Penny Drops
It isn’t all bad news. But, like a good doctor, I want to give you the bad news right up front: There is no single, long-term solution for film or television production. No panacea. It’s not even entirely clear that the massive Hollywood studios will do business-as-usual for any length of time into the future. Just a decade ago the entire music recording industry seemed impregnable. Now it lies in ruins. To assume that history won’t repeat itself is more than willful ignorance of the facts; it’s bad business.
This means that the one-size-fits-all production-to-distribution model, which all of you have been taught as the orthodoxy of the media industries, is worse than useless; it’s actually blocking your progress because it is effectively keeping you from thinking outside the square. This is a wholly new world, one which is littered with golden opportunities for those able to avail themselves of them. We need to get you from where you are – bound to an obsolete production model – to where you need to be. Let me illustrate this transition with two examples.
In early 2005, producer Ronda Byrne got a production agreement with Channel NINE, then the number one Australian television network, to make a feature-length television programme about the “law of attraction”, an idea she’d learned of when reading a book published in 1910, The Science of Getting Rich. The interviews and other footage were shot in July and August, and after a few months in the editing suite, she showed the finished production to executives at Channel NINE, who declined to broadcast it, believing it lacked mass appeal. Since Byrne wasn’t going to be getting broadcast fees from Channel NINE to cover her production costs, she negotiated a new deal with NINE, allowing her to sell DVDs of the completed film.
At this point Byrne began spreading news of the film virally, through the communities she thought would be most interested in viewing it; specifically, spiritual and “New Age” communities. People excited by Byrne’s teaser marketing could pay $20 for a DVD copy of the film (with extended features), or pay $5 to watch a streaming version directly on their computer. As the film made its way to its intended audience, word-of-mouth caused business to mushroom overnight. The Secret became a blockbuster, selling millions of copies on DVD. A companion book, also titled The Secret, has sold over two million copies. And that arbiter of American popular taste, Oprah, has featured the film and book on her talk show, praising both to the skies. The film has earned back many, many times its production costs, making Byrne a wealthy woman. She’s already deep into the production of a sequel to The Secret – a film which already has an audience identified and targeted.
Chagrined, the television executives of Channel NINE finally did broadcast The Secret in February 2007. It didn’t do that well. This sums up the paradox distribution in the age of the microaudience. Clearly The Secret had a massive world-wide audience, but television wasn’t the most effective way to reach them, because this audience was actually a collection of microaudiences, rather than a single, aggregated audience. If The Secret had opened theatrically, it’s unlikely it would have done terribly well; it’s the kind of film that people want to watch more than once, being in equal parts a self-help handbook and a series of inspirational stories. It is well-suited for a direct-to-DVD release – a distribution vehicle that no longer has the stigma of “failure” associated with it. It is also well-suited to cross-media projects, such as books, conferences, streamed delivery, podcasts, and so forth. Having found her audience, Byrne has transformed The Secret into an exceptional money-making franchise, as lucrative, in its own way, and at its own scale, as any Hollywood franchise.
The second example is utterly different from The Secret, yet the fundamentals are strikingly similar. Just last month a production group calling themselves “The League of Peers” released a film titled Steal This Film, Part 2. The first part of this film, released in late 2006, dealt with the rise of file-sharing, and, in specific, with the legal troubles of the world’s largest BitTorrent site, Sweden’s The Pirate Bay. That film, although earnest and coherent, felt as though it was produced by individuals still learning the craft of filmmaking. This latest film feels looks as professional as any documentary created for BBC’s Horizon or PBS’s Frontline or ABC’s 4Corners. It is slick, well-lit, well-edited, and has a very compelling story to tell about the history of copying – beginning with the invention of the printing press, five hundred years ago. Steal This Film is a political production, a bit of propaganda with an bias. This, in itself, is not uncommon in a documentary. The funding and distribution model for this film is what makes it relatively unique.
Individuals who saw Steal This Film, Part One – which was made freely available for download via BitTorrent – were invited to contribute to the making of the sequel. Nearly five million people downloaded Steal This Film, Part One, so there was a substantial base of contributors to draw from. (I myself donated five dollars after viewing the film. If every viewer had done likewise that would cover the budget of a major Hollywood production!) The League of Peers also approached arts funding bodies, such as the British Documentary Council, with their completed film in hand, the statistics showing that their work reached a large audience, and a roadmap for the second film – this got them additional funding. Now, having released Steal This Film, Part Two, viewers are again invited to contribute (if they like the film), promised a “secret gift” for contributions of $15 or more. While the tip jar – literally, busking – may seem a very weird way to fund a film production, it’s likely that Steal This Film, Part Two will find an even wider audience than Part One, and that the coffers of the League of Peers will provide them with enough funds to embark on their next film, The Oil of the 21st Century, which will focus on the evolution of intellectual property into a traded commodity.
I have asked Screen Training Ireland to include a DVD of Steal This Film, Part Two with the materials you received this morning. You’ve been given the DVD version of the film, but I encourage you to download the other versions of the film: the XVID version, for playback on a PC; the iPod version, for portable devices; and the high-definition version, for your visual enjoyment. It’s proof positive that a viable economic model exists for film, even when it is given away. It will not work for all productions, but there is a global community of individuals who are intensely interested in factual works about copyright and intellectual property in the 21st century, who find these works salient, and who are underserved by the media megacorporations, who would not consider it in their own economic best interest to produce or distribute such works. The League of Peers, as part of the community whom this film is intended for, knew how to get the word out about the film (particularly through Boing Boing, the most popular blog in the world, with two million readers a week), and, within a few weeks, nearly everyone who should have heard of the film had heard about it – through their social networks.
Both The Secret and Steal This Film, Part Two are factual works, and it’s clear that this emerging distribution model – which relies on targeting communities of interest – works best with factual productions. One of the reasons that there has been such an upsurge in the production of factual works over the past few years is because these works have been able to build their own funding models upon a deep knowledge of the communities they are talking to – made by microaudiences, for microaudiences. But microaudiences, scaled to global proportions, can easily number in the millions. Microaudiences are perfectly willing to pay for something or contribute to something they consider of particular value and salience; it is a visible thank you, a form of social reinforcement which is very natural within social networks.
What about drama, comedy and animation? Short-form comedy and animation probably have the easiest go of it, because they can be delivered online with an advertising payload of some sort. Happy Tree Friends is a great example of how this works – but it took producers Mondo Media nearly a decade to stumble into a successful economic model. Feature-length comedy and feature-length drama are more difficult nuts to crack, but they are not impossible. Again, the key is to find the communities which will be most interested in the production; this is not always entirely obvious, but the filmmaker should have some idea of the target audience for their film. While in preproduction, these communities need to be wooed and seduced into believing that this film is meant just for them, that it is salient. Productions can be released through complementary distribution channels: a limited, occasional run in rented exhibition spaces (which can be “events”, created to promote and showcase the film); direct DVD sales (which are highly lucrative if the producer does this directly); online distribution vehicles such as iTunes Movie Store; and through “community” viewing, where a DVD is given to a few key members of the community in the hopes that word-of-mouth will spread in that community, generating further DVD sales.
None of this guarantees success, but it is the way things work for independent productions in the 21st-century. All of this is new territory. It isn’t a role that belongs neatly to the producer of the film, nor, in the absence of studio muscle, is it something that a film distributor would be competent at. This may not be the producer’s job. But it is someone’s job. Someone must do it. Starting at the earliest stages of pre-production, someone has to sit down with the creatives and the producer and ask the hard questions: “Who is this film intended for?” “What audiences will want to see this film – or see it more than once?” “How do we reach these audiences?” From these first questions, it should be possible to construct a marketing campaign which leverages microaudiences and social networks into ticket receipts and DVD sales and online purchases.
So, as you sit down to do your planning today, and discuss how to move Irish screen industries into the 21st century, ask yourselves who will be fulfilling this role. The producer is already overloaded, time-poor, and may not be particularly good at marketing. The director has a vision, but might be practically autistic when it comes to working with communities. This is a new role, one that is utterly vital to the success of the production, but one which is not yet budgeted for, and one which we do not yet train people to fill. Individuals have succeeded in this new model through their own tireless efforts, but each of these have been scattershot; there is a way to systematize this. While every production and every marketing plan will be unique – drawn from the fundamentals of the story being told – there are commonalities across productions which people will be able to absorb and apply, production after production.
One of my favorite quotes from science fiction writer William Gibson goes, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” This is so obviously true for film and television production that I need only close by noting that there are a lot of success stories out there, individuals who have taken the new laws of hyperdistribution and sharing and turned them to their own advantage. It is a challenge, and there will be failures; but we learn more from our failures than from our successes. Media production has always been a gamble; but the audiences of the 21st century make success easier to achieve than ever before.