[ Digital cinema, democratization, and other trends remaking the movies ]

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Thursday, October 23, 2008


I was not a copious note-taker at The Conversation last Friday and Saturday... too busy trying to keep the show running on time, and making sure our speakers were ready to go.

There's lots of video, photos, and blog coverage on the event's official blog. (The photo at right is from our lunchtime "picnic blanket" sessions, when participants could pick a topic and bring together a lunch group around a picnic blanket. Shot by JD Lasica.)

Here are some things that made such an impression on me that I had to jot them down:

    - John Batter from DreamWorks Animation showed some 3-D material from the upcoming 'Monsters vs. Aliens,' and also some remastered material from 'Kung Fu Panda.' Starting next March, everything the studio releases will be available in 3-D. "Current 2-D movies are the visual equivalent of the vinyl era," he said (referring to 33 RPM records, that lost technology.) Within five years, he predicted, we'll have 3-D displays in our living rooms.

    - Gregg and Evan Spiridellis from JibJab Media said that they'd tried to figure out a way for advertising to support their creative endeavors -- and given up (at least for now.) The average hit video on YouTube attracts about 3.7 million views. At a $20 CPM (cost per thousand advertising impressions), that produces $74,000 in revenue, they said. Not enough to support their studio. (And their videos have generally attracted more than 5 million views each.) Instead, they're focusing on both advertising and a subscription service, where subscribers pay $13.99 per year to be able to send digital cards and messages that integrate pictures of them and their friends. (Personalized, funny e-cards, basically.) The Spiridellis brothers refer to it as "content that's highly relevant to really small groups of people." They let people interact with their content (13 million, so far, have uploaded images of their heads), and help them be funny to their friends.

    - John Gaeta, the visual effects designer who brought you 'The Matrix' and 'Speed Racer,' suggested that before very long, movies and games will deliver exactly the same level of visual fidelity. Some viewers might prefer the interactive gaming experience, and some might prefer the "sit back and watch" narrative experience. And some, Gaeta suggested, might choose to jump back and forth between the two experiences through portals and trap doors... watching the narrative for a while, then choosing to participate at some crucial juncture.

    - Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix, participated in a great on-stage interview with filmmaker (and Conversation co-host) Tiffany Shlain. He mentioned that 'Crash' is the #1 most-rented DVD in the service's history. He said that the TV is turning into a Web browser, capable of displaying any content that can be published online. He suggested that a remote like the one that comes with the Nintendo Wii might be what we use to navigate this new world. Generating audience demand for your content is the new problem -- not producing or distributing it. Most provocatively, Hastings said that "the 90-minute-plus chunk of time is on the decline, as far as social relevance." Are we all still talking about films, and suggesting that our friends go see them -- or are we talking about the latest viral video we've seen? (I totally believe that people who insist on continuing to make only 90-minute features are missing the biggest opportunities of our era.)

    - Jim Sommers of ITVS said that his organization is interested in funding new kinds of digital storytelling, and he pointed us to the Electric Shadows initiative for some early examples.

    - The independent film producer Ted Hope proposed that filmmakers need to be think about creating material for their Web sites to pique viewer's interest before their film's festival debut.... and more material to bridge the gap between the debut and the theatrical release...and still more between the theatrical release and the DVD... and yet more after the DVD, to keep DVD (and digital) sales humming. To me, it sounds like the film is just one component of a story that you start telling before your first festival showing... and continue to build on and embroider even after you've released the DVD and digital download. The "movie release date" becomes just one milestone in this conversation between you and your audience. Some people who participate in the conversation may never actually buy a ticket or a download... while others may become so engaged that they buy everything you offer, and help market your movie to everyone they know.

    - I think it was Dean Valentine, CEO of and a big-shot former TV exec, who said that there is "no law that TV shows are 22 minutes, and come out from September to April." We're living in an age of content democratization, where anyone (not just the networks) has an opportunity to produce great content, in new forms and formats, that connects with an audience. But that content better be cheap (at least at first, before it proves its worth): Valentine said that a typical video produced by has a budget of about $2500.

    - YouTube's George Strompolos proposed that characters from your movie (whether narrative or a doc) ought to be stars of videos on YouTube. Most successful YouTube series, he said, are driven by larger-than-life characters. That extra content, he said, should be part of your marketing campaign.

    - Tiffany Shlain said that with her short film 'The Tribe,' she spent $130,000 on production and $130,000 on marketing and distribution. "Distribution spending should be half of the budget," she said. What good is making a movie if no one sees it, and you can't earn back your expenditures?

    - Ken Eklund, a developer of alternate reality games like "World Without Oil," said, "The culture war between movies and games is over... and movies lost." That provoked some good discussion and debate.

    - On that same panel, Peggy Weil, a filmmaker and game developer, asked, "How do you author when there is no authority? How do you direct when the viewer is the camera?" Both those things are challenges for people who come to the world of gaming with an auteur's mind-set.

    - Wendy Levy, moderator of that panel, said, "We are the people formerly known as the audience." That struck me in a big way. She also quoted Clay Shirky... observing that we are living in a world of "publish first, filter later."

    - Christopher Allen talked about the idea of turning movies into comic books and graphic novels, using simple software like Comic Life (which can put still photos from your movie into a comic book format, and allow you to write the captions.) Another option is hiring an artist on Craigslist and doing a print-on-demand book through something like Cafe Press, Lulu, or CreateSpace.

    - Ken Eklund said he is obsessed with Uniqlock. Now I see why. It got me thinking about the possibilities for telling a story through widgets that might be installed on viewers' Web sites, and serve up a new story segment, or introduce a new character, every day/week/randomly.

    - Philip Hodgetts showed off a demo of The Assistant Editor, new software he has created to do an intelligent, automated "first pass" edit.

There were so many sessions that I missed on Saturday... Peter Broderick's distribution workshop had people pouring out the doorway, and I heard great things about the Demo Session, which presented four new technologies, from 3-D home displays to green screen to motion capture. (The full event schedule is here.)

I wish I had taken more notes...

Thanks to everyone who supported the event the first time out! Feel free to post any ideas for future editions of The Conversation here...

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