Thinking about pigeons and cardinals, at Sundance
The theme that keeps coming up (and maybe it's always me bringing it up) is an idea that I think of as "pigeons versus cardinals."
Have you ever looked at a pigeon and thought, "What a remarkable bird that is?" Probably not. Pigeons blend in. You often encounter them in flocks: dozens of pigeons, all moving the same, all looking alike, all pecking at cigarette butts on the sidewalk.
Cardinals stand out. It's hard to imagine the environment that they're designed to blend into, and you usually see them alone. It's hard not to notice a cardinal sitting in a tree branch.
For film- and video-makers releasing projects in 2008, the good news is that the distribution channels you need now exist. Without much work, you can find sites that will host your video for free, sell downloads, replicate DVDs, or insert advertising into a stream. With a little work, you might be able to get your work sold on iTunes, or delivered digitally onto TVs and mobile phones.
But that means that everyone else can use those distribution channels, too. Which creates far too many options, too many choices, for the viewer looking to be entertained or enlightened. We're in the midst of a "big bang" of video content. In the same way that desktop publishing made it easy for anyone to put out a 'zine or newsletter, and the Web turned everyone into a blogger, and MP3s made it easy for musicians to widely distribute their work, we're witnessing a real explosion of visual expression: one-off political videos, comic episodics, and full-length features -- we even see some mega-epics, I'm sure.
In 2008, standing out is now the challenge: getting people to first notice that your work exists, watch it, and then tell others about it. (Don't expect the number of choices your audience has to diminish any time soon.)
(In Park City, you pass bulletin boards where flyers promoting movies are stapled one over the other. There might be ten layers of flyers, and someone is inevitably stapling up another one as you stand there. That seems like pigeon thinking to me.)
There isn't going to be a formula that works for everyone. Creating a Facebook group might work amazingly for one project. Giving away the entire movie for free, in ten-minute snippets, on YouTube and other video sites (but selling the full work on DVD) might work for another.
One key is going to be focusing on communities of interest that might care about and support your project -- they undoubtedly exist online. Work with enough of these communities, and you'll have a core audience. (The major studios don't think so much about these niche audiences; instead, they try for big, broad demographic groups, like men under 25.)
I think we're going to see a lot of successful solutions this year to the problem of standing out and building audiences in a very noisy media environment. (If you've seen an example, or been working on one, post a comment or drop me an e-mail.) I also suspect that everyone who succeeds is going to do it by figuring out how to be a cardinal, not a pigeon.