The Future of Filmmaking: Seizing back control of the Six Pillars of Cinema

*I first published this post for SPAA (Screen Producers Association Australia) on 23/10/2009.

After attending the forum ‘OZ Films vs OZ Audiences’ put together by Metro Screen last night and moderated by Andrew Urban at the Chauvel Cinema I came away despondent that the same people are having the same conversations about the same problems in the Australian Film industry and in most cases we are asking the wrong questions and spending too much time discussing the problems and not enough time addressing realistic & feasible solutions.

As a marketer who lives, breathes and dies around my skills and ability to understand Joe Average consumer and in this case the average moviegoer, I get totally fed up and angry at the pretentious and elitist attitude actively demonstrated by some filmmakers and commentators towards the intelligence and tastes of the average person who pays to see movies. It’s their money and they’ll choose what they like & don’t like! If Australian films were really that good AND in tune with what people want to spend their money on AND we got the marketing right then we would have more Australian films seen by more Australians. But, generally speaking we aren’t making films which appeal and resonate with Australian audiences and if filmmakers and commentators keep deciding to blame consumers and consumer tastes instead of looking at what we are making then sadly our industry will never change. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If you are interested, here is the video of the OZ Films vs OZ Audiences forum so you can draw your own conclusions:

Anyway rather than whine and whinge I will try and address some more of the concepts which I think Australian filmmakers should grasp and innovate around which in turn highlights how out of touch some filmmakers really are to today’s audiences, filmmaking, marketing and distribution.

In my previous blog post I raised the question of ‘Can Australian Films Make Money?’ I tried to provide some insight into the realities of filmmaking, the significant changes which have transpired these last 3-4 years in consumer behaviour, the consumption and distribution of entertainment and of course marketing and lastly I tried to touch on some of the specific weaknesses I see around Australian films.

In this post I wanted to talk more about the future of filmmaking, in particular following the theme of my previous post in that filmmakers should be more actively involved in all aspects of filmmaking from creative to production to distribution and marketing and thinking more broadly than storytelling just for cinema. We know that the Australian film industry is not Hollywood and that at this stage it’s unlikely that we are going to become an industry competing on an equal footing with the US Studios. So, filmmakers need to think smarter and more laterally. Ironically the digital revolution has created more opportunities for filmmakers to make money (relative to the production & marketing investment) and more opportunities to reach the long tail of audiences (niche interests) than ever before.

Before I explore this premise in more detail I first want to highlight the recently released ultra-low budget film ‘Paranormal Activity’ as it is a very unusual success story and a great case study in doing marketing at the right time, across the right channels and to the right audiences with the right messages, the filmmakers and marketers knew exactly who their audience was.

Paranormal Activity was made on a budget of USD$15k and as at 23 October has taken USD$39m at the US Box Office (Dec 2010 Update: World Wide box office of USD$183m as at Dec 2010). However, it initially opened only as a limited release film across 12 screens and took only USD$78k. But, this was a deliberate distribution & marketing strategy by the distributor Paramount.

Paramount acquired this film for $300,000 and has gone on to invest $10m on P&A (Prints & Advertising). The P&A budget started out at around $2m but with early attendance patterns and the success of its social media efforts in building buzz, Paramount widened the number of screens and therefore the P&A.

I want to highlight this film for three reasons:

  1. The size of the budget isn’t necessarily a panacea for our problems – at the end of the day you still need a good, entertaining story that’s told well.
  2. They got the marketing right – knew their audience, embraced digital & traditional marketing
  3. They turned the film & artform into an experience

First a little background to Paranormal Activity

This $15,000 horror movie first gained a cult following over a year ago after screening at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival, eventually catching the attention of Steven Spielberg.

Directed and co-produced by Oren Peli, a video game designer, ‘Paranormal’ was shot in Peli’s San Diego home and made for $15,000, a figure so low even studio heads who liked the movie were put off.

Hardly any micro-budget movie ever escapes its creator’s basement, and to travel all the way to the slate of a studio that releases “Star Trek” and “Transformers” — that’s beyond exceptional.

“Once every five years, a guy makes a movie for a nickel that can cross over to a broad audience,” says “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum, who, as a senior executive at Miramax Films, had a producing credit on “The Reader” and acquired the supernatural thriller “The Others.” “And there are about 3,000 of these movies made every year, so this film is about one in 15,000.”

In late 2007, Blum’s producing partner Steven Schneider came across “Paranormal Activity,” which follows a young couple who videotape themselves (including their nocturnal activities) to figure out who — or what — is tormenting them at night. An assistant at the Creative Artists Agency had seen Peli’s movie in 2007’s Screamfest Film Festival, and CAA, which signed Peli, sent out DVDs to anyone who would take one, looking for a theatrical distributor for the film and future jobs for Peli as a director.

No one stepped up to distribute the movie, but Schneider and Blum thought Peli’s first feature was so compelling that it deserved better.

Peli had grown up fearing phantoms – he couldn’t even stomach “Ghostbusters” – and channelled that fear into a relatively simple story about a young couple (Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston play the man and woman, also named Micah and Katie) who hear some very strange bumps in the night. Determined to discover the source of the disturbance, Micah starts videotaping everything, taunting the demon to show itself – which it ultimately does (in a manner of speaking). The acting is intentionally unpolished, as is the herky-jerky camera work.

Blum worked with Peli to trim “Paranormal Activity” and tried to place it with the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance passed, but the nearby Slamdance Festival accepted the film. Still, no one stepped up to release it.

Ashley Brooks, a production executive at DreamWorks, was one of the only studio types who believed in “Paranormal Activity,” and continually pestered her boss, production chief Adam Goodman, to watch the movie. Goodman finally did, and on his and studio chief Stacey Snider’s recommendation, so did Spielberg.

“It’s what you don’t see that scares you,” Goodman says. “What’s really scary in the movie is a door closing half an inch.”

The DreamWorks deal for “Paranormal Activity” didn’t include a theatrical release. Instead, the studio planned to remake the film; with the greenhorn Peli directing the bigger-budgeted version (his original film would be included with the remake’s DVD). “They didn’t really know what to do with it because it’s not part of a usual studio business plan,” Blum says. “But they wanted to be in business with Oren.”

Blum and Peli, knowing that the movie played much better in a theatre than on a TV set, wrote language into their deal that DreamWorks had to hold one “Paranormal Activity” test screening before starting the remake.

“You watch it in your bedroom, it can look like your kid made it,” Blum says of the low-tech movie shot almost entirely inside one house. “You watch it with an audience and it’s an entirely different experience.”

Goodman had invited several screenwriters to the March 2008 test screening in Burbank in the hopes of seeing not only which scenes worked but also whether the writers were interested in working on the new version. Not long into the screening, some of the moviegoers started walking out. “I thought this was one of the worst previews I’d ever been a part of,” Goodman says.

The exiting audience members said they weren’t bored but scared (other early spectators have echoed that sentiment while a handful have found the movie implausible and silly). Before the movie was finished, Snider and Goodman started talking about abandoning their remake and instead releasing Peli’s original movie, perhaps a bit shorter and with a new, more surprising ending that Goodman and Spielberg suggested.

Not long thereafter, however, the rift between the heads of DreamWorks and Paramount (which bought DreamWorks in 2005 and distributed the company’s films) grew toxic, and “Paranormal Activity’s” future turned uncertain. “Basically, everything between DreamWorks and Paramount was put on hold, and we didn’t know where the movie was going to end up,” says Peli, who’s about to start filming his second feature, an original, found-video thriller called “Area 51.” Yet even as it sat on Paramount’s shelf, “Paranormal Activity” continued to generate interest.

In November 2008, Ford’s IM Global showed the film to international buyers. Just as Peli and Blum had done, Stuart invited dozens of older teens and young adults to sit alongside 150 buyers in a Santa Monica theatre. “It was nothing short of riotous,” Stuart says. “In the next 24 hours, we sold out all the international rights in 52 countries.” But it was not until Goodman took Paramount’s top production job in June 2009 that “Paranormal Activity” found a place on the studio’s fall schedule.

Marketing & distribution: Paranormal Activity

“When we started out, we were excited and happy to let this movie exist as a great cult movie. That could’ve potentially been the road we took,” said Megan Colligan, Paramount’s co-president of marketing. “When you’re sitting down to market any movie, you have to look at the assets for the film. But in this case, the hugest asset is the film itself.”

Paramount began with free midnight screenings in college towns like Lincoln, Nebraska, and then encouraged fans to demand the movie in their town via an online petition campaign. The decision to shoot a new, more conventional ending (suggested by Spielberg) actually worked to the studio’s buzz advantage; film geeks who saw ‘Paranormal’ on the festival circuit are breaking down the differences between various endings and debating which is better.

Ms. Colligan and her co-president of marketing, Josh Greenstein, teamed up with Eventful, a user-generated entertainment booking site of sorts, for a campaign that goes far outside the traditional route.

High-speed Web connections are ubiquitous these days, so Paramount looked for a new way to create a similar sense of mystery and generate pent-up demand for “Paranormal Activity.” It found the perfect place — in movie theatres, and the lines snaking into them.

By intentionally booking the film into just a few theatres and then limiting the showings to midnight, Paramount turned “Paranormal Activity” into a sometimes impossible ticket to get.

Hundreds of would-be moviegoers were turned away across the nation, and the lines into theatres (some “Paranormal Activity” audience members would start queuing up five hours before show times) became walking advertisements for the movie.

“In this era of the 10,000-print release, the idea that there’s a movie out there that you can’t get into — that created even more interest,” says Moore. “It’s that sense of discovery — that you know something somebody else doesn’t. There’s a sense that you are part of the discovery.”

Maurice Peel, a manager at Santa Cruz’s Nickelodeon & Del Mar Theatres, says patrons drove from as far away as Santa Barbara and Sacramento to see the movie in his 500-seat auditorium last weekend, where every show sold out hours before the curtain. “It’s an event unto itself,” Peel says. “And I do think it has a chance of stretching beyond its limits. The intrigue factor is so big right now. People are saying, ‘What is this thing? Can I see it? What is it?’

Eric Brembeck, the owner of the Studio 35 Cinema & Drafthouse in Columbus, Ohio, says he hasn’t seen audiences as feverish to see a movie since “The Dark Knight,” the second-highest-grossing release in Hollywood history. Last weekend, Brembeck says, “Paranormal Activity” fans drove from Pittsburgh and Indianapolis — “and that’s about four or five hours away.” While there were no empty seats in any of Brembeck’s weekend midnight shows, sales dipped slightly on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

In the weeks ahead of its broader national release on Oct. 23, Paramount started to buy more traditional advertising – in television, on radio and in print. For the most part, though, Paramount has let the film’s patrons sell the movie for them, and try to keep the studio and the filmmakers in the shadows. This broader release saw the film open on 760 screens across the USA taking a screen average of USD$25,813 (compared to its limited opening on 12 screens for $6,489 avg) and USD$19.6m in its first wide opening weekend. With extensive demand and positive audience attendance patterns Paranormal Activity peaked at 1,945 screens.

Paramount has made the most of an initial $2 million Print & Advertising (P&A) budget (boosted to $10m after initial attendance patterns and word of mouth) and this ultra-low budget thriller has now set a per-screen box office record. But what is really exciting is how perfectly Paranormal Activity has successfully used the fabric of the social web to identify a dedicated fan base and give them a platform to evangelize about it.

Twitter made it easy for fans to immediately create a legitimate word-of-mouth buzz about the movie (which, of course, requires that you start with a product that generates that level of sincere excitement).

But it was the movie’s Facebook page and Eventful’s Demand It website that were the lynchpin of the social media marketing strategy. By allowing fans to vote for Paranormal Activity to come to their city, Paramount was able to instantly quantify the demand for the film to an incredibly precise degree, and it also gave each of those voters a personal stake in the movie’s success.

Fans across the country could demand – literally, it turns out, by hitting a “Demand” button on its website – that the movie screen in their area. That, in turn, determined which markets Paramount would select for a series of midnight screenings and eventually the wider release – all initially achieved by using a bare minimum of select TV spots featuring reaction shots from Hollywood screenings and a smattering of online and radio ads.

Eventful has also had to set new benchmarks, having initially anticipated a maximum of 100,000 participants. “We blew past that in days and have reached more than 1,000,000” CEO Jordan Glazier said. Previously, the site had been used primarily by the concert industry to gauge touring schedules, most notably for Kiss and Dane Cook, who each booked multiple dates on their recent tours based on demands in excess of 500,000. “Paranormal Activity” has become Eventful’s most-demanded movie to date, and could be used as a benchmark for other indie films’ theatrical distribution strategies.

“For the music industry, it’s essential because they’re making financial decisions about where to send the convoy. For the studios, they’re making a financial decision about how many tickets they’ll sell in a given market,” Mr. Glazier said. “To advertisers who tap into that vein of helping people achieve their goals, it’s the ultimate win.”

Paramount has also been savvy in the placement of relevant key words in their messages and site content across social media channels to help them improve their relevance with organic search (SEO).

Once those already enthusiastic fans came out of the theatre with their expectations exceeded, the Facebook page and Twitter gave them forums for posting their immediate reactions (the Wall) and Twitter (@TweetYourScream) or to have more in-depth conversations about the movie with fellow fans (via the Discussions tab).

The film’s also uses an unusual trailer focusing on an audience’s freaked-out reaction more than the movie itself, a creative decision dictated mostly by necessity, according to Paramount’s Colligan. “The fact of the matter is the movie is a 90-minute slow burn,” she said. “The scares come from the tension that’s created. It’s difficult to cut a two and a half-minute trailer for that tension.”

Paranormal Activity didn’t just promote itself on the cheap; it promoted itself in an intelligent way to the right audiences and through the right channels with the right messages. It’s a campaign which was also authentic in the sense that Paramount didn’t try and make out that the film was some slick $30m Hollywood film, it is what it is. By using existing social media options in combination with some traditional media to inspire and energise the conversations and ultimately to publicize the film, it has achieved substantially better per dollar ROI by giving fans a sense of ownership and a place to share their enthusiasm. The filmmakers and marketers have facilitated the ability of fans to truly embrace the film and its success or failure as their own and have given them a sense of engagement and participation which is crucial in today’s digital and participatory era.

Back to Ted Hope and the Six Pillars of Cinema and the future of Filmmaking

Ted Hope Producer of 21 Grams recently spoke at the Pixel Cross-Media Forum, held in London on October 14. The New York based producer told the audience at the event, which is part of the 53rd Times BFI London Film Festival, that the current business models for creation, financing and distribution were based on “exclusionary practice of isolated control, and that they were running on fumes these days”.

“How long can the controlling studio model survive when the wall of the control has already come down?” he asked.

Hope, whose credits include 21 Grams and In The Bedroom, said that producers had, for too long, been only concerned with ‘content and production’, but that they should be embracing what he called the “other four pillars supporting the film industry – discovery, promotion, participation and presentation.” This is the same concept I also proposed in my other SPAA blog post ‘Can Australian Films Make Money?’

He went on to say that it was “not just a possibility but a necessity to take part in the other four pillars. We have to embrace in these opportunities to engage in those aspects, or frankly we will lose it.”

As part of his speech, which opened two-days of discussions dedicated to bringing the film industry into the digital age, Hope offered a list of ‘best practice’ tips to film-makers.

These included:

  1. Expanding the narrative along a common thematic premise
  2. Opening up narratives and erasing the ‘ending’ or giving multiple opportunities for endings, because audiences want to be able to be engaged in different ways at new and different times.
  3. Offering alternative points of view in the narratives, so that the experiences are no longer single character centric experiences.
  4. Shedding the notion that it is distancing for audiences to have the same characters played by different actors.
  5. Embracing collaborative brainstorming sessions with other likeminded story tellers on how to expand the narrative. For example, are supporting characters worthy of their own stories?
  6. Providing access to the production process at every step of the way, by pulling back the curtain and letting others see how the work is being done. This would include allowing crew and cast be broadcast in the process.
  7. Recognising that it is the job of film-makers to curate and reference those other works that they love.
  8. Offering different points of access to the audience and designing characters that will easily travel into other creator’s hands.

Here is some media coverage of Ted’s keynote presentation:

You can read Ted Hope’s full presentation transcript on his own blog, but here are some of the core elements:

  1. By shedding the false construct of a line between the form and its delivery, we transform our art form.
  2. By extending the narrative in the direction of what once was called marketing or business, cinema itself is no longer a line, but a sphere — a full world and no longer just a slice of life.
  3. By removing the constrictions of the where and when we encounter cinema, it becomes a greater influence on our lives.
  4. By spreading the opportunities we have to engage, both back and forth, across multiple platforms, cinema is no longer an impulsive location-centric activity, but an ever-present and consistent choice.
  5. By changing from a monologue to a dialogue with our audiences, we return ownership to the commons and gain back loyalty in exchange. I think Ted must have read my own (Martin Walsh) slide deck on Conversational Marketing!

As storytellers we have been trained to think predominately in the form of the feature length narrative; it is the by-product of our tunnel vision, of our acceptance of a limited definition of cinema restricted to singular aspects of a far more rich communal experience. For our art form and our business to both reflect the realities of the world we are now living in we have to embrace a new set of ‘best practices’ for the narrative form, solutions that attract new audiences, experiments that can lead to new business models.

We have to erase the division between content and marketing, between art and commerce, between creation, presentation, and appreciation. As creators, entrepreneurs, and audiences we have to leap into the whole of cinema, abandon the trees, and enter the forests. I don’t have an answer yet, but I suspect that the list of what we all need to embrace will include aspects of all six pillars of cinema and not just the two we have aligned ourselves with. In the days ahead the ‘best practices’ for engagement in the six pillars of cinema will become clearer, but some things are already evident, and by no means is what I have to offer is a comprehensive list, but I do think that if my future collaborators entered my offices, already armed with the following considerations, the solutions to some of the struggles we have in our industry currently would feel far more evident.

Here is a peak into a cross platform narrative and storytelling concept for The Dark Knight movie developed by 42 Entertainment. Obviously this was part of the marketing for the film but the concept & execution is something which could & should be explored in its own right. I also wanted to highlight the marketing campaign for Nine Inch Nail’s – Year Zero Album. Trent Reznor and 42 Entertainment developed an entire narrative and storyline behind the music and played it out across the virtual and physical worlds. They are both typically called ARG’s (Alternate Reality Games) but the concept is representative of experiences which take the audience directly into the narrative in and around the film. N.B. Both of these initiatives won first prize Cyber Lions for 42 Entertainment at Cannes in 2008 & 2009.

Ted Hope outlines his ‘best practice’ ideas for the Six Pillars: (sorry for using numbers instead of bullet points but bullet points aren’t working on this website!)

CONTENT & ITS CREATION:

  1. Expand the narrative — along a thematic premise — from just a feature format to also include multiple short form works, that can be used to seed, corral, and bridge audiences from one work to the next.
  2. Create storyworld instructions that will allow others to also enter and participate in the narrative. This guide will describe what rules must be followed in the creation of characters and their actions.
  3. Open the narrative and erase the end, or rather give multiple opportunities for endings, as audiences want to re-engage in new and different ways at different times.
  4. Open the narrative and offer alternative points of view, so that the experience no longer is single character-centric.
  5. Consider opportunities for off-line discussions and individual customization to re-enter and even influence the narrative.
    1. Should characters, in addition to audiences, comment on the choice creators make?
    2. Where can user-generated modifications enter the narrative later on?
    3. Beyond story & character, can audience-generated image-overlays play a role in the experience?
  6. Shed the notion that is distancing for an audience to have characters played by different actors.
    1. As the great works of both Shakespeare and Dr. Who demonstrate, we can derive pleasure from witnessing the interpretation of a role by many performers.
    2. Even within a singular narrative
  7. Embrace collaboration; there is so much work to be done, a singular author cannot build the entire world.
    1. Where can the crowd provide material in an organic way that will enhance their relationship to central work?
    2. Be willing to just think wildly at times.
    3. Have a collaborative brainstorming session with likeminded storytellers on how to expand the narrative.
  8. Is there a way that multiple people could collaborate around this idea?
  9. Are supporting characters worthy of their own stories, own experiences, own environments?
  10. Could alternate futures and alternate paths be sketched out now?

PRODUCTION:

  1. Record data and provide access to it every step of the way. Show how fans how it is done. Pull back the curtain and let others see the mystery.
    1. Record the recording.
    2. Let the crew broadcast and comment.
  2. Recognize cast, crew, & vendors as our work’s initial community. Bring them into the discussion.

DISCOVERY:

  1. Provide many points across many platforms for discovery by audiences.
    1. This can come from websites and blogs, video content, or games.
    2. Trailers, clips, and posters are the most traditional way, but even in these arenas there is still much room for expansion and innovation.
    3. These introduction mechanisms can be used not just for the whole, but also for each step in the process and narrative.
  2. Provide the audience with the proper context for appreciation.
    1. This usually comes from providing some ongoing curatorial services for audiences to understand how it fits in the entertainment and cultural chains.
    2. If you like x, then you will also like y.
    3. Provide other cultural artefacts for comparison.
    4. Curate and show what else you love.
  3. Brainstorm participatory opportunities:
    1. What are the gaming structures inherent to the narrative?
    2. Are there a missions and obstacles that your characters face that could be mirrored in a basic game environment?
    3. Can players interact in a gaming world via the appropriation of character traits that the story originates?

PARTICIPATION:

  1. Provide multiple areas of participation on a casual level.
    1. What aspect of the story would be a fun application or widget that is spreadable?
    2. Does story development, trivia, or gaming warrant prizes, cookies, or contest provisions?
  2. Offer different points of access for audience participation on a creative story level.
    1. Design characters that can travel into other creators’ hands.
    2. Iconic costumes or behaviour alleviate the need for spector actor identification and thus increases spread ability.
    3. Totemic props, dressing, & design allow story environments to permeate the boundaries of our real world as fans appropriate such objects and display them.
  3. Provide fans the opportunity to create on the same lines as the story’s originators.
    1. Allow for remixing and reposting. Alternate POVs and approaches to the material make for a richer experience for the hard-core.
    2. Examine how some narratives encourage fan fiction — for isn’t this something every storyteller wants: the fan-fiction user/creator to become also the advertiser/promoter.
  4. Accept that audiences like to both be directed and to participate;
    1. Both the truly active and the somewhat passive experiences are pleasurable.
    2. It is up to us to show how this duality can be enabled.
  5. Demonstrate to audiences how they can participate more with (and in) our stories.
    1. Instead of defining ourselves as the creator, we should accept ourselves as enablers.

PROMOTION:

  1. Offer different points of access for audience participation on a fan/appreciation level.
    1. Let them in on the details of how and why. Where and when and on what was it shot? The details should be built into all data you deliver.
    2. What themes within the narrative allow for aggregation on single subject websites?
      1. I.e. ‘If only there was a man who could’,
      2. ‘The worst day at the worst job is when’
  2. Provide insight into the process. Allow audiences to get to know the creators. Build a friends & family fan-base.
  3. Offer (and reward) fans opportunities to create and thus aggregate different promotional tools
    1. Posters & trailers
    2. Fan fiction
  4. Build referral activities into the narrative and engagement processes.
  5. Provide individual curators with unique opportunities throughout the process.

PRESENTATION:

  1. Make presentation (exhibition) an event.
    1. Add a live social component.
  2. Know your fans in advance.
  3. Make it something that’s a once-in-a-lifetime event.
  4. Provide opportunity for deeper appreciation.
    1. Furnish study notes and
    2. Moderate discussions that allow the content to more fully resonate with audiences.
  5. Keep the experience alive long after the work has ended.
    1. Provided totemic items (aka merchandising)
    2. How can fans demonstrate their passion?

Hope himself is keen to stress that his ideas are not a template for future cinema: just a series of proposed best practices.

“It keeps me awake at night thinking there’s so much to do,” he said. “But whether we call [the result] cross-platform, trans media or good old cinema, we will do it.”

What do you think?

Sources: WSJ.cocm, AdAge.com, Ted Hope – http://trulyfreefilm.blogspot.com, LA Times.com, Box Office Mojo.com


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