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The Sky Is Not Falling: Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System // submit a post -- nelson@nelsoncarvajal.com

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Understanding The Value Behind Your Free Content

Figuring out how to transform the free online content that we produce (almost on a daily basis) into currency that can someday pay the bills isn't just a growing concern--it's an indie industry-felt dilemma. Yet, for the longest time, I've been insisting that my peers continue to make work (mostly digital shorts, blog entries, images, RSS Feeds, etc.) and just put that content out there--for free. I still feel this is a vital behavioral-business model.

Other indie digital filmmakers have actually asked me, "Yes, but how do I make money with my short film?"

My answer usually is, "Well, that's a tough question. First of all: Who are you? Do you have a following? Is your work actually good ("good" meaning it's content that is engaging, interesting or of some niche value)?"

I think those questions need to be answered first before any artist makes the leap from 'independent creator' to 'financially successful creator.' Today's new media landscape provides a sometimes-impossible-to-navigate terrain where your content can easily be overlooked. But don't be scared. Good content will always reign (and be of historical or sociological value). Our first--and perhaps most important--set of tasks is to curate our own content, make it accessible and continue to build audiences.

In his piece "In The Digital Era Free Is Easy, So How Do You Persuade People To Pay" Cory Doctorow brought up some good fundamentals to employ:

"If your strategy is to convince the public that the "real item" is reliable and the unauthorised ones are dodgy, then you must do everything in your power to increase the reliability of the real item, otherwise word will get around and the campaign will fail."

That "real item" that Doctorow is referring to can be your labor of love digital short film. It can also be that incubating idea your trying to fund on IndieGoGo or Kickstarter. Whatever it is, it is wholly unique and emblematic of you the artist. Which brings us to my earlier question: "Who are you?"

The answer to that question is built upon the very practice of producing free content on the web. With every image, word and piece of sound, you're telling a narrative about you the artist. There is tremendous value in that.

If you can bring yourself up to believing that there is a worthwhile value in building your public image and engaged audience, then Doctorow's reasoning begins to feel more tangible:

"Buy this because you're supporting something worthwhile.

This is the proposition made by indie artists and it's one reason so many major entertainment companies hive off "indie" labels, imprints and brands. Supporting the arts feels genuinely good – knowing that your money is going to someone who made some work that moved you and entertained you. This may be the most powerful motivator of all, but it's also the trickiest.

For this to be really effective, the customer needs to have a sense of the person or people behind the work. That means this proposition favours artists with highly visible, personal public profiles, and not every artist has it in them to hang out there in the world with their audience. Some people are just shy. Some are worse than shy – some artists have negative charisma, and every time they appear in public (physically or virtually), they reduce the business case for buying their works."

For our arena, negative charisma is the offspring of an indie filmmaker's inability to embrace change. Connectivity is everything, so that curtain of mystery you may want to depend on might be your Achilles' heel. When it comes to the Internet, there is nothing wrong with being an open book. The more accessible your work is--heck, the more accessible you the artist are--the greater the value your content can attain.

Think about the last piece of work that you purchased. Was it from an artist you had no idea of? Or was it from someone whose work/image/persona/philosophy has already engaged you?

Outside of tapping into niche channels hosted by appropriate content curators (for example, experimental filmmakers might want to look into having their work hosted on Bad Lit: The Journal Of Underground Film), it's still up to us--the independent content creators--to continue to produce selected pieces of free content with the aims of building an audience that finds our work valuable. So when the time comes for our work to be given that platform of mass or mainstream exposure (iTunes downloads, VOD deals, etc.), our audience will be there, happy to purchase the content and sustain the desired business model we hope to reach.

Note: Storify is now open to public, so I suggest you add this platform to your pool of resources of storytelling and online visibility. There are lots of way to get creative with this tool. Remember: Get your work out there!

Monday, April 11, 2011

We Know We Can Engage An Audience But Can We Engage Each Other Into Forming A (Necessary) Community Of Supportive Peers?

I need you.

And you need me.

It's that simple. Our rising new media industry--you know that always changing frontier for independent filmmakers--is going to live or die by our willingness to cross-promote, engage, inspire and sustain work for each other. I'm beginning to sense that something remarkable will happen soon among the independents. What is it? An aggressive, hard-to-ignore community of innovative DIY digital filmmakers will take to the frontlines. It HAS to happen.

In his latest Hope For Film post, producer Ted Hope expressed:

"I’ve written a lot about the increasing responsibilities of filmmakers and the absolute need to focus on audience/community building.  How to we get our work seen in an entertainment economy that has shifted from being based on scarcity and control, to one of super-abundance and ever-increasing access?  The tools get better daily, and slowly we start to map out a series of best practices."

It's a very real set of feelings to use as a driving force because the tools--social media, niche online platforms for streaming/distribution, prosumer filmmaking gear--are not only getting more sophisticated but much of the time they're FREE (online exposure through social media pages making up much of that). This temperament is even bleeding off to a new wave of distributors who are looking to align themselves with the next wave of valid, VISIBLE new media independent filmmakers. Consider the mission statement for Variance Films:

"Variance Films is committed to the model of "DIWO" - Doing It With Others. This model empowers filmmakers to take control of the future of their films by ensuring they receive the loud, noisy theatrical release necessary to launch a film into the crowded marketplace while retaining 100% of their rights.

We believe that the only way to achieve this is to ensure filmmakers have access to open, honest ideas about the new paths of distribution that exist for them."

I like that acronym: DIWO. Doing It With Others. It's as simple and vital as that. It's a new fundamental that will be hard to implement in some artists. That's because up until now, the idea of the "independent filmmaker" was largely demystified by the majors. In the past, everyone was out for themselves in hopes of a Sundance success story or landing that studio contract. But things are different today. We're on our own. The good thing is that we have the keys to the car.

In his terrifically thought out article "A Blueprint For The Next Indie Generation," independent filmmaker Ben Hicks proposes:

"The Old Bars of Success were: 
 1) Validating yourself as an Independent Filmmaker by getting into a good film festival (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto etc.).
2) Getting a distribution deal.
3) Getting your films into theaters resulting in exposure, “credible” reviews and a growing fan base.
4) Being able to continue making films and earn a living through studios who finance and believe in your work.

These are the NEW Bars of Success:
1) Validating yourself as an Independent Filmmaker by getting tens of thousands of views on the internet.
2) Earn fans, reviews, credibility, exposure and money by engaging and interacting with fans, selling your own merchandise and getting your film seen and spread  with the help of your fans.
3) Leveraging the demand for your films so you can negotiate fair deals with online platforms (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, etc.), and so you can negotiate with movie theaters, to have your film screened, resulting in “credible” reviews, more exposure, money and more new fans.
4) Being able to continue making films and earn a living through fans who finance and believe in your work.

So let’s start breaking it down. What do these old and new models have in common? At the core the new and old bars of success are exactly the same.

1) Validation.
2) Earning Money.
3) Theatrical Screenings and Credible Reviews.
4) Sustainability.

Deep down it is really only these four things that we are looking for. I think most of us don’t really care how we attain these bars of success, we just want to be able to make enough money to sustain and continue making films. Right? We have been looking backwards so longingly because the indie filmmaker success stories of the 90’s were able to attain all of these bars of success but we have yet to see models and filmmakers that have been able to pull off this list today."

And the only way we're going to be able to successfully attain a new business model like this is through interaction, cross-promotion and ENTHUSIASM for each other's work. I think it's a common fact that audience building is becoming more routine for most digital filmmakers (crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and intuitive marketing through social media channels have cemented this notion). So now let's start turning our gears toward REALLY helping each other. If we can inspire each other and encourage one another, the doors for our future will open with more ease.

I'll close this post with an ideal I preached in an interview I did with The Independent Collective last month:

"A common hiccup I see in the DIY arena come from those individuals who refuse the embrace change. So many indie would-be-auteurs are stuck on landing in that Tinseltown backlot right out of the gate. They don’t want to believe in social media. They don’t want to shoot digitally. They don’t want to collaborate or cross-promote. These folks need to get with it. Their refusal to recognize the movement around them only causes a dangerous dissonance. Nobody likes a diva. Independent artists only endure with some kind of support system and these days that system is online. If we can continue to curate good content online and really promote the hell out of each other on every possible page and platform, we will send an important message to the masses. That message: DIY is here to stay."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Open Creativity Will Ensure Our Innovative Exhibition Future

At a recent film industry event I attended, I found myself picking up my jaw from the ground a lot. I ran into a number of individuals--all indie producers and content creators--who were hellbent on landing that "theatrical run" for their micro or modest projects. The relentless DIY-digital filmmaker inside me kept erupting with "Are you fucking nuts?" expletives. You see, I have a deep concern for my peers not seeing the big picture. Like any other independent artist, I would love to have all of my work tour the nation on big multiplex screens but we know that the current exhibition infrastructure is not built to program all of our work (whether their current programmed content is any good is an entirely different discussion), so why bother with waiting around and hoping to be "discovered"? We know the major film festival route is becoming a slimmer opportunity every year; since when do films that star Tinseltown marquee names earn the label of being "indie"? We also know that our current democratic state of indie moviemaking gives us the unique advantage of creating good-looking content that can go viral instantly. So why aren't more indie filmmakers just following the obvious yellow brick road to the new media industry (i.e. on demand services, mobile and tablet devices, streaming service platforms)?

In a (hopefully) eye-opening article from TheWrap titled "The New Indie Arthouse: Is It Moving Online?," writer Steve Pond points out:

"...If filmmakers still hold out dreams of showing at the arthouse down the street rather than the arthouse inside the computer, independent film and digital media consultant Mark Lipsky offered some cautionary words to TheWrap last year.

"Unless your film has been fully acquired by a well-capitalized distributor," he said, "then you’re not only kidding yourself about the value of traditional theatrical but you’re contributing to the delay in establishing a sensible, vital and self-sustaining film ‘nursery’ online where everyone gets a chance at life and the cream naturally rises to the top."

"Once that begins to happen, no one will ever remember wanting to scratch and claw and mortgage their way into brick and mortar cinemas."

When asked on Thursday if he felt that a true online "film nursery" was any closer, Lipsky told TheWrap that it was, but that progress  been slow because industry leaders like Netflix and Amazon have not been forward-thinking enough. True innovation, he said, is "clearly not going to come from any of the existing players."

"But it will come," he said. "Later than sooner, perhaps, but yes, closer every day.""

The good thing about us being indie content creators is that we're not "existing players" in the bigger scheme of things. Thus, we find ourselves in the pivotal roles that can create some true innovation. Look: We're all online. Promotional platforms via social media pages like Facebook and Twitter are free. Now is the perfect time to become a "name" talent without ever having to go to Hollywood. Isn't it beautiful? Your work will speak for itself. Plus, it's easily sharable and available on the web.

So how can you be one of those lucky names that "naturally rises to the top"? The answer is in two parts. First, the simple fundamental of continuing to brand yourself via web 2.0 remains crucial. For some textbook background, I'll point you to a concept I utilize called "microcontent." A good breakdown comes in the piece "Web 2.0 Storytelling: Emergence Of A New Genre":

"Microcontent suggests that authors create small chunks of content, with each chunk conveying a primary idea or concept. These pieces are smaller than websites in terms of information architecture and are meant to be reused in multiple ways and places. They are also often much smaller than websites in terms of the amount of storage that each chunk takes up: blog posts, wiki edits, YouTube comments, and Picasa images are usually only a few thousand bytes. Some types of microcontent, ironically, can be quite large from a storage perspective but are self-contained—namely, audio (podcasts), video (for web platforms, such as YouTube), or embeddable Flash applets. Their uploading to the web is a simple matter for the user and does not require anything in the way of web design expertise."

In short, put your content, your ideas and YOUR VOICE out there on the web! The second part comes in being inspired by your peers. It may sound cheesy but any artist of value is really more like a sponge: they take in all forms of content that relates to what they're trying to create. Only from this reawakening of our artistic senses can we truly create something of meaning. Once this happens on a mass scale, we can attract new types of distributors--for online, on demand and tablet platforms--and can redefine our idea of "exhibition."

After all is said and done, we all need each other. If we're going to steer our independent industry into its rightful future as a new media industry, we need to come together and make this happen. With an open network, we can lead to open creativity.

We can have something really special.