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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

ITVS: Case Studies of Indie Filmmakers Working with New Technologies

One of my big projects for 2008 was collaborating with ITVS on a series of case studies focused on indie filmmakers who are pioneering new ways to:

- Open up the production process to more audience participation

- Find and connect with new audiences for their work

- Distribute their finished film in new ways.

The first seven case studies are up on the ITVS site now, along with a list of the "Top Five Connection-Creating Strategies" and "Top Five Marketing and Promotion Strategies" for social issue filmmakers. (Many of these would work for any kind of filmmaker, but the whole project has a social issue doc focus.)

The filmmakers I interviewed include Byron Hurt ('Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes'); Katy Chevigny ('Election Day'); Curt Ellis ('King Corn'); David Iverson and Michael Schwarz ('My Father, My Brother and Me'); Hunter Weeks and Josh Caldwell ('10 MPH'); Tiffany Shlain ('The Tribe'); and Brad Lichtenstein ('What We Got'). One last case study, with Patrick Creadon (director of 'Wordplay' and 'I.O.U.S.A.'), should be up soon.

Here's part of the intro to the project:

    ...Chasing every new opportunity can be a waste of a filmmaker’s energy and resources. Which ones will generate the biggest return, in terms of attracting viewers, making change in the world and producing positive financial results?

    The ITVS Digital Initiative: Report from the Field, a series of case studies published on the ITVS website, aims to answer that question. By sharing the stories of filmmakers who are experimenting with new technologies, and trying whenever possible to quantify the results, we’ll seek to inspire other filmmakers to innovate—while trying to avoid raising unrealistic expectations.

    The Report from the Field will focus on three main changes, or pillars: opening up production, finding new audiences and taking advantage of new distribution opportunities:

    Opening Up Production to Participation
    During pre-production and production, how are filmmakers communicating with audiences, widely dispersed teams, funders and prospective subjects in new ways? What new opportunities for involvement and participation are they exploring?

    Finding New Audiences
    Once a project is completed and ready for release/broadcast, how are filmmakers using blogs, social networks, games and other technologies to reach audiences that will care about their project?

    New Distribution Opportunities
    How are filmmakers presenting their work on websites, cell phones, iPods and the new generation of Internet-connected TVs and set-top boxes? Do these distribution avenues create conflict with more traditional outlets? Are there substantial economic benefits or simply promotional positives?

Thanks to Sally Jo Fifer, Matthew Meschery, Cathy Fischer, Jim Sommers, and the rest of the team at ITVS for supporting this work!

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dr. Horrible DVD: The Reviews are In

NewTeeVee ran a very positive review of the Dr. Horrible DVD, released just a few days ago as an exclusive.

What's interesting is that director Joss Whedon decided to publish the DVD using CreateSpace, Amazon's DVD-or-download-on-demand division.

Also interesting to check out how the Dr. Horrible fan community is evolving on the official site.

From NewTeeVee's assessment of the DVD:

    As for special features, the centerpiece of the DVD is definitely Commentary! The Musical, a full-length commentary track that is a completely original musical in its own right. Redefining post-modernism (”I think you just broke the ninth wall” is a remark made towards the end), Commentary! is actually a fun, behind-the-scenes glimpse of the production, heavily laced with inside jokes set to music very nearly as good as that in the actual production. There is an entire ballad about the video game Ninja Ropes, which they all played on their iPhones while on set (Nathan Fillion holds the high score), and co-writer/Groupie No. 2 Maurissa Tancharoen sings a song about how she didn’t get cast as Penny because “no one’s Asian in the movies.”

Here are some earlier pieces where I've written about the significance of the Dr. Horrible experiment.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

3-D Gets 'Bloody'

What do you think.... will Lionsgate's 'My Bloody Valentine 3-D' help or hurt the deployment of digital 3-D equipment?

The New York Times wrote today about the mid-January release:

    If “My Bloody Valentine 3D” is a success — and with a modest budget of about $20 million, success is easily within reach — the next big thing in horror could be at hand, said Joe Drake, the co-chief operating officer of Lionsgate and the president of the studio's motion picture group. “We see 3-D horror as financially lucrative and creatively exciting,” he said. “We want to break some new ground here in R-rated fare.”

    ...For studios like Lionsgate that focus almost exclusively on young moviegoers, the rush to 3-D technology is an attempt to adapt to the demands of the texting-while-driving-while-eating crowd. Teenagers and young adults, crucial to the health of movie exhibition, are increasingly unaccustomed to sitting still for two hours in a theater, studio executives say.

    “I was excited to pursue the 3-D element because it feels really fresh and unique,” Patrick Lussier, who directed the “My Bloody Valentine” remake, said. “It’s visually stunning and a new way for this audience to experience a film but isn’t painful in the way some of the old 3-D films were, where they just rammed stuff in the audience’s face.”

The last time I talked with James Cameron about the spread of 3-D cinematography, he did express some worry about "down-market" 3-D releases. "Hopefully [3-D] doesn’t fall into that ghetto where it used to live, with 'Friday the 13th' or 'Jaws 3,'" he said.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

One Last Christmas for the VHS Tape

From the LA Times, 'VHS Era is Winding Down. The article is a brief history of the VHS format (though it neglects to mention Betamax, the predecessor to VHS.)

Here's a snippet:

    The last major Hollywood movie to be released on VHS was "A History of Violence" in 2006. By that point major retailers such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart were already well on their way to evicting all the VHS tapes from their shelves so the valuable real estate could go to the sleeker and smaller DVDs and, in more recent seasons, the latest upstart, Blu-ray discs. [Ryan] Kugler, [president of Distribution Video Audio Inc.] ended up buying back as much VHS inventory as he could from retailers, distributors and studios; he then sold more than 4 million VHS videotapes over the last two years.

    Those tapes went to bargain-basement chains such as Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Family Dollar, and Kugler's network of mom-and-pop clients and regional outlets, such as the Gabriel Bros. Stores in West Virginia or the Five Below chain in Pennsylvania. If you bought a Clint Eastwood movie at the Flying J Truck Stop in Saginaw, Mich., or a "Care Bears" tape at one of the H.E. Butts Grocery stores in Texas, Kugler's company probably put it there. He also sells to public libraries, military bases and cruise ships, although those clients now all pretty much want DVDs.

    Kugler estimates that 2 million tapes are still sitting on shelves of his clients' stores across the country, but they are the last analog soldiers in the lost battle against the digital invasion. "I'm not sure a lot of people are going to miss VHS," he said, "but it's been good to us."

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Box Office Mojo + IMDB

I'd totally missed this deal. IMDB (an arm of Amazon) gets even more powerful...

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tinch on 2009

Roger Erik Tinch of CineVegas has a great post today on 'Distribution & Consumption in 2009.'

Here's a salient tidbit:

    Short form content is online king

    Duh, right? Then why are companies still trying to push for feature film distribution through widgets and the like? Who wants to watch a two hour movie on a 2-inch by 2-inch size player? Go to what’s this year’s success story, Hulu, and see what the top 20 viewed videos are. Most are between 10 - 20 minutes with a smattering of 44 minute episodes. The first feature film doesn’t show up until #27 with the THE FIFTH ELEMENT. The fact that a big Hollywood film on a popular video site that’s being shown for free can’t even break into the top 20 reveals a lot about our viewing habits.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sports Fans: See the BCS Championship or NBA All-Star Game in 3-D

In January and February, you'll have a chance to see two live sporting events in 3-D, at digital cinemas around the country. Cinedigm Entertainment (formerly known as AccessIT) has the info. The BCS Championship happens on January 8th; the NBA All-Star game on February 14th. Cinedigm has a list of all the theaters that will carry the games.

Thanks to 3ality Digital for sending along the press release.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Seeking Your Help with My Next Book

The project I've been working on for a few months now is about building a fan base in the digital era.

If you are a filmmaker, musician, artist, or writer, how do you attract a big audience online...and ideally build a self-sustaining career with the support of that audience?

So I'm looking for people who have really built their careers on the Internet, not necessarily established bands or filmmakers who've also done cool stuff with the Web.

One example of someone I've interviewed already is Michael Buckley, the YouTube star who recently quit his day job and signed a development deal with HBO.

Other examples of people I've been talking to: the guys at JibJab...Ze Frank ... OK GO ... and Natasha Wescoat. Essentially, people who have figured out how to attract and interact with lots of people online, and who've built business models around that without ticking off their fans.

Would love to hear any ideas you have...

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Friday, December 12, 2008

IndieVest: Pay Us Thousands for the Privilege of Investing in Indie Films

Got a press e-mail today from IndieVest, yet another company trying to reinvent the way the indie films are financed.

They were profiled in Fast Company recently. From that piece:

    IndieVest's plan has three tiers, beginning with a $20 "guest membership" that lets potential investors review only the current project. The premier portfolio membership -- $2,950 up front and $1,950 annually -- lets investors consider the company's future films, and includes invites to special film screenings. The all-access studio plan -- $4,950 up front and $2,950 annually -- adds opportunities to attend exclusive film festivals and the Independent Spirit Awards.

    Members can enjoy these goodies even without investing in individual films, although most choose to buy shares (starting at $50,000) in at least one of the dozen projects Bradley and his production chief Mark Burton have lined up. To help investors decide whether to help fund a movie, they get a "prospectus": It contains a plot synopsis; info on the writer, director, and any attached actors; and an eight-page script sample.

According to VentureBeat, the company raised $2.5 million last year, and said that it planned to produce and distribute six films by the end of 2008.

So far, they haven't released any films. But their first film, 'Saint John of Las Vegas,' is characterized as in pre-production on IMDB. Monsters and Critics says that filming started in August. IndieVest says it is in post. The first-time director, Hue Rhodes, is best known as a co-founder of, Kmart's e-commerce subsidiary.

Both the Fast Company piece and an October story from the Las Vegas Sun say that 'Saint John,' which stars Steve Buscemi, is "expected to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival."

That's sort of a weird promise for anyone to make... the kind of thing that only novice film investors would believe.

Well, unless Sundance is planning a last-minute announcement that 'Saint John' will be included in the 2009 festival, that ain't happening.

I'm all for new experiments in financing films... but something seems amiss here.

This is my favorite quote from the Fast Company piece, from IndieVest founder Wade Bradley:

    Bradley reports that calls from curious advisers and independent investors are up fivefold in recent months. "People understand that entertainment is going to outcapitalize the rest of the market during a recession," he says. "They're looking at us as a safe haven."

Dude, a safe haven is a place where your money is guaranteed not to vanish, and perhaps even to increase. No film-related investment in history has ever been a safe haven.

Update: Wade Bradley called me today (12.17.08) to tell me more about his company's "managed risk" approach to movie-making. He said that the media had misunderstood his promise to screen at the Sundance Film Festival. What he meant was that they'd try to get in, or else screen it in a rented hotel ballroom. Turns out, though, that 'Saint John' didn't get submitted to the fest, and it isn't ready to screen. But they will show a trailer in a ballroom at the Hotel Park City. Film should be finished by February or March, he said. Bradley said there will also be a dinner and after-party for IndieVest members in Park City.

Also, he said their plan is currently to make two or three more films in 2009 or by early 2010. Those films are not yet in production, though.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Universal: Let's Stamp Out $1 Movie Rentals

The Journal has a great piece today about Universal's campaign against Redbox, a company that operates 12,000 DVD rental kiosks in the US.

The basic issue is that while consumers love renting movies from the kiosks for $1, Universal feels that, A, the kiosks threaten important partners like Blockbuster Video, and, B, don't cut Universal in on a share of the rental revenue. (They just purchase the DVD, and that's it.)

From Sarah McBride's story:

    Blockbuster, which must rent and staff stores, might charge as much as $4.99 for the same rental. Last week, Blockbuster said it was testing renting some classic movies for 99 cents, because of factors such as the poor economy. It is also rolling out DVD kiosks of its own, starting with about 50 kiosks during the next few weeks at various retail locations such as convenience stores.

    Big retailers such as Blockbuster typically give studios a portion of rental revenue on top of purchasing the DVDs they rent out. But Redbox doesn't cut the studios in on rentals.

    ...In addition, studios claim that stuffing DVDs in kiosks may cheapen the underlying product. "The studios have been worried about the Redbox model from day one," says Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research. As a studio, "Why would I help you build a business that charges a dollar for a product I'm trying to sell for $20?"

So let's recap: New technologies that make movies more accessible and affordable to consumers... Hollywood still hates 'em.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Monday Links for Your Reading Pleasure

- The Wall Street Journal offers a round-up of technologies changing the way we watch movies, from BD Live to iTunes to holograms to in-store DVD kiosks.

- Bloomberg News says that the continuing credit crunch will likely slow the deployment of 3-D projection technology in U.S. cinemas.

- The New York Times assesses two new video search technologies from VideoSurf and Digitalsmith. Both use facial recognition software to try to determine who is appearing on screen.

- Last week's 3-D broadcast of an NFL game didn't go off sans snafus, according to Wired News.

- Filmmaker Rob Spence is installing a camera in his eye socket, to replace the prosthetic eye he has previously worn.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

MIT Panel on Media, Tech, and Entertainment

Moderated a panel earlier today on media, technology, and entertainment at the 11th annual MIT Venture Capital Conference. My panelists included:

    Jeremy Allaire
    CEO, Brightcove

    John Lanza
    IP Practice Group Leader, Choate Hall & Stewart, LLP

    Lucy McQuilken
    Investment Director, Intel Capital

    Neil Sequeira
    General Partner, General Catalyst

We talked about Facebook, Twitter, set-top boxes, Internet video, the Kindle, Blu-ray, iTunes, copyright, piracy, videogames, and the music industry.

The MP3 is about 50 minutes long. Some of the questions during the Q&A period are a bit quiet. The file is here.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Great Reading from the Times

In late November, the NY Times published a special edition of its Sunday magazine called the "Screens" issue. There's so much in there.... a great piece by Kevin Kelly on "screen literacy," a piece about Netflix's recommendation technology, and interviews with David Lynch and Jennifer Aniston. Also an A.O. Scott piece about whether the movie theater is endangered.

Here's the explanatory intro:

    Every fall the magazine publishes a special issue about Hollywood, a celebration and investigation of that unique experience called moviegoing: sitting in a dark theater for two hours with a few hundred strangers and being entertained by flickering lights and amplified sound. This year, we’ve stretched the issue to reflect a new reality: when you watch moving pictures these days, a theater is the last place you are likely to be. Cable, YouTube, DVDs, DVR, news briefs in the elevator and cartoons on your cellphone — through a variety of media, we now consume fragmented narratives on multiple screens. From a 16-second panda-sneeze video to 60 straight hours of “The Wire,” this is the way we watch now.

And in today's paper, Laura Holson has a piece headlined, 'Who Needs a TV? I'm Watching on a Laptop'

Just as more and more people have abandoned land-line telephones for their cell phone, it seems that the next trend is abandoning your home cable connection (and TV) for laptop video viewing.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

'Inventing the Movies': Video, Magazine Article

Fora.TV attended a book presentation I gave in October at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, CA, and they've just posted the video on their site.

And CIO Magazine recently published a piece based on the book, headlined "What CIOs Can Learn from Hollywood." Here's the opening:

    The movie industry is full of prima donnas, overpaid incompetents and people who talk endlessly just for the pure pleasure of it. Nothing like your industry, is it?

    Hollywood, with its glittery red carpet premieres, may not seem to have much in common with banking, health care or auto manufacturing. But I believe it shares a key trait with every large, well-established industry: how it responds to new business models and technologies.

    For more than a century, every time an important innovation knocked on Hollywood's door, the industry treated it like a homely auditioner—giving it the cold shoulder and trying to show it the door. The movie industry ignored or tried to stave off sound, color, television, home video, computer animation, and digital editing and cinematography before realizing that each revolution would help grow the business, ensure its cultural relevance and expand the creative possibilities.

The book's Web site is here.

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Invite Only: NFL's 3-D Demo This Week

Too bad that sports fans can't buy tickets to see Thursday's game between the Raiders and the Chargers in 3-D. It's for invited guests only.

From the Wall Street Journal:

    The several hundred guests at the three participating theaters Dec. 4 will include representatives from the NFL's broadcasting partners and from consumer-electronics companies. The event will be closed to the general public. Burbank, Calif.-based 3ality Digital LLC will shoot the game with special cameras and transmit it to a satellite. Thomson SA's Technicolor Digital Cinema is providing the satellite services and digital downlink to each theater, and Real D 3D Inc. will power the display in the theaters.

    This isn't the first time the NFL has participated in a 3-D experiment. In 2004, a predecessor company to 3ality filmed the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers. When Sandy Climan, 3ality's chief executive officer, shows the footage, "people crouch down to catch the ball," he says. "It's as if the ball is coming into your arms."

The Hollywood Reporter adds:

    The test will serve as a proof of concept for the possiblities of 3-D televised sports in the home because several consumer 3-D ready displays will be used.

    "This broadcast will be an exciting test of how 3-D could affect fans' experience in the future," said Howard Katz, the NFL's senior vp broadcasting and media operations.

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Pioneering Download Site CinemaNow: Worth Just $3 Million

(Of course I didn't abandon my beloved CinemaTech... just took a long Thanksgiving vacation.)

Feels important to note that earlier this month, the pioneering digital download site CinemaNow was sold for a piddling $3 million to Sonic Solutions, a company that makes DVD-burning software. Founded in 1999 (before Movielink, and way before iTunes), CinemaNow had raised more than $30 million. Lionsgate Entertainment had been the main investor in the company, which offered rentals, downloads, and also the ability to burn some movies to a DVD.

Earlier this year, Curt Marvis, the long-time head of CinemaNow, shifted over to a digital media gig at Lionsgate.

Here's the official press release.

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