Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lion's Share of Viewers

"How do I make any money at this?"  is the constant refrain of indie filmmakers, including myself.  Increasingly, I am finding the answer is:  YOU DON'T.   At least, not from the movie itself.

This is no surprise.  I watched the same thing happen in the music industry, where opportunities to thrive still exist, but are largely limited to touring revenues, for true independent musicians, and up-front signing bonuses for "ready-made" acts, like the Amercian Idol gang.

Similarly, with indie films- er, videos; do indies shoot on film anymore? Ever?-   most New Media Moguls are making their short movies, features, mash-ups, and music videos, just because they can, and they love it.  They use these works as calling cards, like  The payoff, if there is one,  comes on the back end.  

The latest such YouTube sensation appears (I haven't fact-checked it) to be a true story about two men and a resuced lion cub.  I'm not sure there is enough meat here for a 90-minute movie; the 90-second YouTube video pretty well gets to the essence.  But the rumor is that Sony Films sat up and took notice when the video hit 14 million views. 

Deciding what does and does not get made into a film simply by using the YouTube metric may seem crass and unartistic.  But I kind of like the idea.  It is what bands do when they tour the dive bar circuit and self-release home recordings on home-burned CDs.  In other words, these movies are building a fan base.  When they hit critical mass, the majors sit up and take notice.  Occassionally, the big studios may snatch them up just before the story suffers YouTube burnout.  But at least the public has already voted with their eyeballs.  

That way, studio execs can focus on more pressing matters, like whether to stock Bling or Cloud Juice at the daily staff meetings.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Silver Bullets

A guest on one of my favorite weekly podcasts about filmmaking and new media commented that people were always asking him what software he was using for this, and what camera he was using for that.  In other words, what tools he employed to produce his films and videos.   "They think that there's some magic tricks that they don't have access to yet,"  he said.  Once they get hold of those tricks, then everything will go faster, cost less, look fantastic, and of course, garner awards and major studio offers.

Um, no.

Making a movie is hard work, and it can go right- or horribly, horribly wrong- for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with whether you edited on Sony Vegas or Final Cut Pro, or whether you shot on a Red Camera, or a Flip Video

I have noticed the same search for a silver bullet in many other areas of life.  In the field of personal development/self-help, people always seem to look for a particular guru or philosophy. Dr. Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra are leaders in the "personal zen" arena.  Suzie Orman and Dave Ramsey are at the forefront of the personal financial advice field.  The career field used to be dominated by What Color is Your Parachute in the 1980s.  This week's flavor of the month is Tim Ferriss' 4 Hour Work Week.  

Even within the walls of Corporate America, leaders still look for a single magic bullet:  the perfect software package, the perfect project management methodology; the perfect marketing strategy.  In most cases, they would be better served to try many things, understanding that you cannot know until you try, and see what blossoms.  As the Japanese say, "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

The latest silver bullet search, though, is happening on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as lawmakers search for the perfect, painless solution to a massive financial crisis.  What this means for Hollywood and for the film industry in general is uncertain at this time.  The Great Depression of the 1930s was actually considered Hollywood's Golden Age!  But things may be different this time.  

I personally think that big-budget Hollywood escapist fare will do very well during hard times, but that does not mean prosperous times for struggling actors, writers, directors, and crew.  At $300 million per film, Hollywood can't make many of those blockbusters each year.

As with filmmaking, weight loss, career planning, and personal saving, there is no easy solution, no silver bullet.  One can only make a best guess, take action, repeat.  Hopefully, we learn something along the way.

Friday, September 5, 2008

And the other shoe drops...

It's official: movies are free.

Napster ruined the Big Corporate Music Model by setting the expectation among fans that music can and should be free to acquire. Many musicians disagreed, but many accepted the new order, and found other ways to make money in the music biz.

Bittorrent technology did for movie piracy what Napster did for music piracy, making it easier to download huge files over the Internet.

I have long contended that the same thing is happening with the movie industry, and eventually, even big filmmakers will give over to the "free" model, just the way big musicians like Trent Reznor, Radiohead, and others, have.

Now it has happened. Michael Moore will release his latest movie (I keep wanting to call them "films", kind of like I keep referring to "albums") for FREE. Like Radiohead, he is only releasing it for a limited time as a free download, and fans can buy the value-added DVD if they want.

This, combined with the legal Web distribution of movies, TV shows, and Web-based content, means that the film business is following exactly the same path, albeit slower, as the music business. What does this mean for actors?

It means that it will probably be harder to earn a living. Why? Because free or cheap Web-based distribution opens the floodgates to amateur filmmakers who compete with big studios, and because there are no existing mechanisms for making big money from Web video... yet. This means that studios will want to drive down their costs as much as possible, as they throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks.

Now, I do not pretend to know this for sure; it's just my guess, based on experience in the music industry and as a small business owner. The analog to live music is live theater, not film. You can't pirate a live theater show experience. So, as musicians now give away music and sell concert tickets, so, too, must actors- particularly film and television actors- find other ways of capitalizing on the shows they create.

Shows which are now free.