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Friday, January 25, 2008

Sundance Panel on Digital Opportunities for Creatives

This afternoon's panel at the New Frontier was a heap of fun. I especially enjoyed the interplay between Maria Maggenti, a writer/director in the true indie mode (her last movie, 'Puccini for Beginners,' was made with InDigEnt and shown at Sundance two years ago), and Evan Spiridellis, co-founder of JibJab, a digital "microstudio" in Venice Beach.

Maria talked about her experience making a three-minute film for cell phones -- she loved it -- but asked Evan a lot of questions about how JibJab has cultivated an audience (and an e-mail list) over time, and how they're making money from their work.

A few bullet points that stood out from the conversation (and the audience questions):

- It's still hard to find industry types who "get it," and are willing to experiment with new production/marketing/distribution models. Evan referred to Walt Disney's embrace of TV in the 1950s as a way to promote his movies... and I think it's still unclear which studio will follow in Disney's footsteps with the Net.

- Though Paramount and its MTV Films division could be a good candidate. MTV Films released 'Jackass 2.5' in December directly to the Net, as a full-length streaming feature. The Internet release (free, but ad-supported) was followed by a DVD and paid download offering. (The movie didn't have a theatrical release at all.) David Harris from MTV New Media said that there were three issues they encountered with the experiment: first was that someone posted the film to BitTorrent almost immediately, which meant that Paramount/MTV lost control over it (no way to tally views or deliver ads); second, that the site's age verification process created hassles for viewers; and third, that to watch the movie during its Internet premiere required downloading a new bit of software (Microsoft's Silverlight video player.)

- Evan noted that JibJab's goal when it makes its short animated music videos is to have one visual and one textual joke in every line of the song. I mentioned "Kirsner's 10-Second Rule of Internet Video," which says that if you don't give someone a reason for continuing to watch in the first ten seconds, they're going to close the window, and you've lost them for good. (Think about TV, typically thought of as the medium for short-attention spans. But when a sitcom or drama is starting, you likely give it a minute or two to get you involved. Not so on the Net.)

- David talked about the idea of navigable documentaries...MTV and Electronic Arts are working on one about videogamers, in which viewers will be able to dive deeply into topics (and games) they care about, skimming over those they don't.

- Someone in the audience asked about subscription models for indie content. We couldn't really think of any great examples (beyond porn and sports) of someone who is cranking out content and charging a monthly fee.

- John Pattyson with Ustream Entertainment sounded like he was happy to leave the world of Nielsen ratings behind; he and Evan agreed that it's nice to have real data about how many people are viewing your video on the Net (even if most sites still don't have good data about how much of it they're watching, versus just starting to watch.) Evan also said that having comments from viewers is nice, but the real sign that you've done something great is when they decide to pass it along and tell others about it.

- We reinforced the importance of collecting e-mail addresses (and perhaps ZIP codes, too) from people who express any sort of interest in your work. When JibJab's first viral video took off in 2004, they already had a list of 130,000 e-mail addresses that they could notify whenever they released new work. I likened it to LL Bean and Crate & Barrel: catalog retailers understand the importance of maintaining a mailing list; creatives are just starting to.

- Not every filmmaker is going to want to become a DIY demon and take control of their own destiny... there's a spectrum of entrepreneurship, and some will be game to think creatively about business opportunities, while others will want someone else (a studio or distributor) to do it for them.

- We talked about the model of releasing work on the Internet and then producing a DVD. JibJab did that with some success, and so has AskANinja.

- A filmmaker came up to me afterward and asked a few questions about promoting a documentary that won't be out for another year or so. I suggested that there was no downside in starting plant seeds around the Internet, sharing clips or full interviews (longer than what will end up in the film) with communities that care about the topic (it's about a paralyzed fellow -- didn't get much more than that.) Sharing this free content is a way of building interest and buzz, and also collecting e-mail addresses of people who'll appreciate a notice when the doc is available on DVD, or being shown on TV or in theaters.

- Joel Heller from Docs That Inspire was in the audience, and I saw him wielding a recorder -- so he may have audio at some point.

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  • Scott -

    It's David Harris from MTV New Media - really enjoyed the panel. While I did point out the obvious challenges of the jackass 2.5 release (adding user verification and a software download to the already novel experience of watching a movie online), I didn't have a chance to defend the Silverlight release.

    It's definitely a better user experience to forego plug-in downloading, but the ubiquitous Flash player requires pretty regular downloading/updating. I don't notice, because I'm use to it. If I'm going to get use to Silverlight (or any other format), at some point, as a user, I've got to make the jump... So, was it a drag for users to download something? Sure. But, now that they've done it for jackass, they won't have to do it again.

    It's inevitable that some users will attempt to circumvent this with BitTorrent, and obviously that doesn't make us happy, but I don't think this makes the fundamental premise of having users pay for their admission with a software download unsound.

    If anything is going to push users into new video formats, it's going to be content that they're passionate about. Jackass 2.5 was definitely an experiment in what users are willing to pay in inconvenience for content they care about. While it wasn't perfect, fans watched the movie, Blockbuster got subscriptions, and Microsoft got its player onto the computers of people who seek out and watch long-form online video.

    Until the model of releasing features online has been fully hashed out, I think we're going to see a lot of experimentation to find the balance between an ideal user experience and a worthwhile experience for sponsors and partners. It's easy to point out the problems, but it's good for studios and indies alike that there are sponsors and tech partners with a stake in making it work who are willing to be a part of the experiment.



    By Blogger David Harris, at 1:17 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Paul Harrill, at 7:33 PM  

  • Scott -

    Do you have a sense of how successful -- or unsuccessful -- David Lynch's subscription-based website is?

    Obviously, Lynch has a very large and loyal fanbase, so his model might not be so useful for emerging filmmakers. Still, it's not a sports or porn site....

    By Blogger Paul Harrill, at 7:35 PM  

  • I don't have a sense for that...But we should've mentioned it during the panel.

    By Blogger Scott Kirsner, at 6:16 PM  

  • "Not every filmmaker is going to want to become a DIY demon... there's a spectrum of entrepreneurship"

    As an indy myself, I'm certainly interested in digital opportunities, but am more interested in actually making the films. Where are these entrepreneurs, and how can I get in touch with them?

    By Blogger Daneeta Loretta Jackson, at 4:48 AM  

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