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October 2 at 11:11am

Say Goodbye To Bizarro World: Time To Make Business Of Art

This is my recent FERA Keynote speech (London, UK  BFI South Bank,September 27, 2013 145PM):

Our strength is now our weakness

Children love playing “The Opposite Game” where “yes” means “no”, and “no” means “yes”.  Politicians seem to love to play that game too…

This backwards world has infected many of our cultural fields,taking hold as an everyday concept reflected in our every action.  In comics, it is known as the “Bizarro” World, a common plot scenario where our strength becomes our weakness.  That is of course a fictional conceit, but in the world of cinema, we all now too truly inhabit a similar land of opposites, where what we say we love to do is not what we do at all.

I wish it was some sort of evil conspiracy that led us to create a Frankenstein monster out of our best intentions, but it is more likely laziness and greed that enabled us to transform an incredible art form to into a global economic enterprise generally promoting the lowest common denominators.  We accept, promote, and participate what is simply doable instead of striving for what is entirely possible.  Now, more than ever before, we have the opportunity to reach much higher.

The first step is getting out of ths rut of antiquated behavior.  We have inherited — and rely on — a method — a complete ecosystem spanning development, production, marketing, and distribution — that is no longer applicable to the world we live in.

And it gets worse: our archiac ecosystem corrupts both us and our creations until each become the very antithesis of what inspired us to create in the first place.  Our current ecosystem does not want art. It does not want ambition.  It does not want innovation.  It just WANTS to limit risk – and defines that to be imitating what has already been done.  ”If it works, make a sequel.” “Like that actor in that type of role? Cast her the same way next time round.” “Tell the same story every three years for the next generation to claim as their own.” Really?

I don’t blame anyone for this corruption – at least, I am not blaming them yet.  It is up to us to accept the challenge.  The question is: WILL WE?  We have been standing in the dinosaur’s footprint, too much in the center to see the reality of where we are – but now we need to move in a new direction, otherwise we are doomed to follow that dinosaur’s path.

The Film Biz was built on the idea of:

  • scarcity of content,
  • control of that content (through centralized distribution), and
  • the ability to focus people’s attention & desire towards that content.

For over 100 years, we have made it our business to rely on a single product that we repurpose for each new platform. The production and distribution of our work has been diversified, intricate, expensive, specialized processes that required the involvement of many.

That does not at all reflect the world we live in today.

We now live in an era of grand abundance of content, where close to 50,000 feature films are generated globally each year.  America still remains the top consumption market, and is said to best handle somewhere close to 500 theatrical titles a year – or 1% of the annual global supply.  It will take America an entire century to consume one year’s global output.

Simultaneously, it is no longer a time when there can be any control of content – we can access virtually anything anytime anywhere on any device.  And yet we can’t focus people towards that content: this is a time of total distraction.  Everyone is overwhelmed; crushed by choice, such that he who yells loudest takes all.  It’s ironic that in this time of abundance & access, we actually discover less.  We suffer for it. We get stuck in ruts and echo chambers of like-minded mental masturbation, reinforcing our opinions, and strengthening our differences.  Welcome To Bizarro World.

Film could be the greatest organizing device ever, urging people to action and to recognize their commonalities, but yet we still need to unlock that potential. Tell me something else that is totally immersive, possibly mind-blowing, that creates a shared emotional response among strangers, compels them to talk for hours on end, and sometimes even fall madly in love.  There are other products, sure – but they are still illegal.

The world over, film culture is in the same crisis.

  1. Creators cannot sustain themselves financially no matter how good their work is.
  2. The fair market value for our work is a pale fraction of what it was decades ago.
  3. Good movies do not get seen.
  4. Consumers demand that content be free, but then are willing to shell out thousands for the hardware to play it on.
  5. The hardware manufactures and the rights aggregators get rich and the creators get pennies.
  6. Participants in the passion industries are exploited for their commitment and dedication.
  7. We watch the long tail get crushed by the tsunami of the new as the system we rely on only benefits the well funded loud shouters.
  8. Our film culture has bifurcated into $100 million dollar tentpoles about superheroes of mass destruction and redundant family fables about gaining self-esteem on the one hand and the hordes of underfunded passionate amateurs on the other.
  9. We have created a corporate culture committed primarily to risk mitigation and thus ultimately resulting in the obliteration of ambitious, original, humanist work.

All of this from the dreams of well-intentioned artists who want to make the world a better place with beauty and laughter and understanding. Bizarro World.

This is not a sad story though.  This is not a time to despair.  This truly is a time for rejoicing. 

  1. Never before have creators had the opportunity to not only make what they want but to also be the direct financial beneficiaries of their work.
  2. Storytelling can be unleashed across multiple platforms creating new forms of discovery and engagement unrisked by release schedules or distribution patterns.
  3. Never before have filmmakers been free to step away from mass market corporate dictates in their storytelling to address the desires of the niches.
  4. Local focus can now have both national impact and global reach by utilizing the tools that are available to everyone.
  5. Market focus no longer needs to be directed to the lowest common denominator – we can encourage aspirational behavior.
  6. The tools and the costs of creation, production & distribution are all more affordable, accessible, and easy to use than ever before.
  7. Deep engagement with fans can build sustainable communities of real collaboration.

This is an incredible time.  These could be revolutionary times. Creators & artists could focus on the stories they dream of, in whatever form they find best, and live sustainable careers dictated by no one but themselves. The question of how we do all of this is not a mystery.  Proofs of principal abound.  Best practices are now being established.

This step off the plantation and into a utopian era requires a simple thing: responsibility.  Creators, and their benefactors,  must accept the responsibility for both their work and the comprehensive externalities of that work throughout the entire ecosystem.

Is that so hard?  Isn’t that what we are supposed to do with our children, at least until they mature, or else we should abstain from having them?  Yet our industry — and even our educational system — has been encouraging the equivalent of unprotected sex without requiring filmmakers to be responsible for the creative consequences. We are trained to budget our babies and sell them at market for less than their value, not to guide them down the line so they can generate wealth to carry us into ripe old age. Filmmakers must learn how to budget, schedule, and project revenues for their work across their movies’ entire lifespans.

I recognize that what I am asking here is hard for some.  For those few who got to drink the milk & honey, it is the equivalent of saying, “Stop being a prince, and become a working man”.  For those inside the kingdom, it is as if you have to learn how to fish rather than be handed a fish, but if our culture and our society are to provide the keys to a land of ambition, diversity, and unbridled creativity, that is what must be done.  I wouldn’t ask you to do it, if I wasn’t already working to do it myself.

I used to despair that very few were doing what seems to me to be both necessary and common sensical.  But of course if information changed behavior, people would not smoke, be obese, have unprotected sex, or numerous other short-sighted behaviors.  When a friend pointed out to me that the gulf between what is necessary and what people are willing to do already has a name — and they call it “business” — I changed my attitude.

Little fixes, important improvements abound — but they are not the stuff of high margin scalable enterprises. And there lies another challenge. These simple fixes may not be the work of big business, — and in a purely market driven entertainment economy (like the United States) they most likely will not attract sufficient funds and labor to get off the ground. But they are certainly the place for entities that could benefit from building sustainable cultural enterprises for diverse communities.  Any idea whom those might be?  Aren’t they called nation states? Governments? Our countries? Well, maybe not The States, which is one of two industrialized nations whose government does not invest in the cinematic arts, but…

Last year at this time, after producing close to seventy films – mostly of ambition, risk, and humanist concern –I chose to take a hiatus from producing to help build a better infrastructure for the film industry. A modest pursuit… In The States, I saw my only option to do so was in the non-profit world.  I can’t say for sure I would do the same today, but if I did live in a land where my government supported the cinematic arts, I know I would want to help lead a transition to this new era.  Those of us that have had the privilege of creating for so long, have the responsibility to facilitate so that future generations have even better opportunities.

The EU has the chance to truly lead the world into an era of media and creative democracy, and that makes me wish my passport could change colors.  There is a lot to do and I wish I had time and the funds and the support and even the permission to do them with you.

I want to leave you with five thoughts about what I think the next steps are that may bring us to this new era.  It is a partial picture, that hopefully I will be inviteded to draw more fully at a future date, but for now this is how we can get this party started:

  1. Provide Creators With Entrepreneurial Training To Maximize Their Work’s Lifespan.
  2. Institute Staged Financing Of Projects (vs. Funding It All At Once Upfront).
  3. Help & Encourage The Creators To Stop Long Term All-Media Territorial Licensing Of Their Rights.
    1. Focus On Being Owner/Operators & Media Entrepreneurs
  4. Facilitate Creators Work To Build/Engage Their Audience/Fans Into Community.
  5. Shift Business From A Single Product Focus To A Relationship Basis (With Fans/Community).

We have watched our era change – but done little to change our business structure or art form.  We have to accept that cultural change has occured and to stop trying to force the work we once did, and the infrastructure that enabled it, to hold onto what is no longer here.  There is more opportunity for greater diversity than ever before.  Do we truly want to limit that just so we can hang onto what we have for a few more years?  Particularly when we recognize that it is the very opposite – the Bizarro World equivalent – of what our hope for film initially was: an art form that both captured and informed our time, inspiring us all to aspire to a better world than the one we currently have. Now is the time we can achieve that hope for film.

****

Here’s FERA’s Storify version of this talk, via the tweets:

http://www.directors.uk.com/about-us/news/ted-hopes-keynote-address-fera-general-assembly

For more on doing the opposite of what we should, please read:

180 Degree Shift Of The How And Why We Do Things

And curiously enough, I gave this talk five years to the date of when I first was invited to start speaking out about indie film culture’s future.  This is that talk that I gave five years ago.  The argument remains the same, although the specifics have changed:

A Thousand Phoenix Rising

 

 


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  • chrisdorr

    Some very good points are made here. A few are also missing. They are in no particular order.

    1. The change that is disrupting the world of film is affecting all forms of media as well as every other business in our world, i.e. the Internet. It is not at all unique to film. And you can not understand how to deal with it unless you see it in this broader context. A big problem for the film business is that it sees what is happening to it as somehow unique and therefore fails to see how other businesses are trying to adapt. It is therefore blind to innovation that is occurring. So the real question is, How is the film business going to get out of its own way and see the larger picture? In other words how can it shed its myopia and really begin to see clearly what is occurring around them?

    2. Some filmmakers continue to do very well. For example, a friend of mine who is a documentary filmmaker has received ample funding upfront for his last two films and is able to pay himself and his crew very good salaries. He makes exactly what he wants to make with no interference and gets very good distribution, theatrical, digital and otherwise. He became an expert in a topic with his last film and gets offered speaking engagements worth 15k a pop that he now turns down because he is too busy. He is not personally wealthy but he supports himself doing the work he loves. How does he succeed in this new world? Beats me, but he is doing it. And he is doing better now than at any time in his long career.

    3. Then there those who have adapted to this new world, like the filmmakers behind Indie Game The Movie. They have succeeded by harnessing the power of the web and the power of their community to make a living doing what they love, making movies. They are a model for many to follow. But who is taking the time to understand what they have accomplished and how it might be repeated by others. Very few filmmakers I imagine.

    4. The ingrained prejudice that filmmakers have and that makes them repeat the old model in their head is very powerful. Unfortunately most filmmaker support groups and educational programs that teach film do little to help them overcome this prejudice. The same old approach is the only one that is taught. Contrast this with schools of journalism

    that are completely retooling their programs to try and understand and teach the new digital world.

    5. Also, it is simply untrue that consumers want everything for free. If so, why does Netflix, an online service that is still pretty new, have more US subscribers than HBO? People may not want to pay in the old fashioned way, but new business models are emerging that show that people will pay when the price and content is right.

    6. My final point is this. Indie film culture has to switch from a culture of complaint to a culture of affirmation. Too many indies find pleasure in bemoaning their tough existence. Instead they should get on with it, help build the new world, simply accept that rapid change is part of life and get on board the train. It has already left the station but if you run fast you can probably catch it.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    All good thought out points. I am not complaining. I am saying this is what we need to move forward. Priorities may differ for us, but I think we are both on the same journey, albeit with some different baggage.

  • chrisdorr

    Hi Ted, I don’t think you complain, I just think that many in the indie world do. And though there might be much to complain about, it tends to inhibit thinking, innovation and action in a new world. Action that is needed from individuals as well as groups.

  • Johnny O

    Why is EU ahead of the ball? I should have my EU passport by this time next year and interested in working in Europe and/or Croatia where my family is from.

  • Heidi Haaland

    Reading this after learning of Universal’s announcement about Focus Features. For me, the Focus logo was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the kind of creative world I want to live in and it never occurred to me that it would ever end – I mean, Focus? C’mon! It was a brand before that became buzzy – which I realize sounds incredibly naive and is probably an example of the attachment to the past that you warn about. A friend just posted this to mark the passing of a teacher and it’s appropo, I think: “We must be diligent today. To wait until tomorrow is too late. Death comes unexpectedly. How can we bargain with it?” – Siddhārtha Gautama

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    Here, here. I hope you don’t mind me sharing that quote!

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    I agree. We must all have a bias towards action in these times.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    EU supports cinema as a cultural necessity. They have had to defend their work against the Hollywood juggernaut as a matter of course. They MUST develop new business models in order to survive.
    Lucky you with the passport. Some other filmmaker would be wise to marry you now if at all possible.

  • Johnny O

    Ha! Already married. I don’t have EU passport yet but eligible and working ok paperwork and interested in partnering with producers in the near future.

  • Heidi Haaland

    Not at all! I’d never heard it before, and it deserves to be more widely known.

  • http://convercinema.tumblr.com Miles Maker

    Having lived in the UK for 2 years (where I first took a leap at the notion of becoming a filmmaker) I’ll simply add that government run anything tends to be mismanaged at Best. At worst, it’s a discouraging bottleneck for a very fortunate few to squeeze through–provided their work speaks to a non-creative decision maker sensibilities with thematic statements and assertions that echo those of the nation state, its sociopolitical ideologies and agendas.

    Having said this, a government funding process and its programs can be improved upon–however these considerations tend to be overseen by people who are not artists; they’re legislators and municipal employees. This environment isn’t entirely unlike unseasoned investors in the U.S. who are simply naive to the creative process and how to engage creators to perpetuate the work of artists in the best interest of Art appreciation.

    A refreshing aspect of the EU system is its lack of regard for ROI as a measure of success–yet there are long term consequences for failing to do this.

    Just my $0.02

  • David Street

    Please can you point us in the direction of ‘proof of principal’ and examples of ‘best practice’ As some one who has followed this road for the last 3 years and experienced the loneliness of an early adopter, any guidance to successes would be gratefully received.

  • easyabby

    yes and thank you for this piece! It’s validating but also offers specific approaches and protocol for creators to recognize the identity-shift needed in becoming self-sustaining media entrepreneurs rather than exploited artists

  • easyabby

    examples yes por favor

  • Tommy Stovall

    Ted, thanks so much for always sharing all your incredible insight. As a filmmaker who wonders if I can continue to AFFORD being a filmmaker, it’s hard not to be pessimistic these days.

    Every point you make about our film culture being in a crisis is right on. It’s all slap in the face reality. Yes, things need to change. But I just don’t see the solution (and I’m looking!) Sure, the world has changed in mind-blowing ways and the opportunities for getting our work out there are incredible. But all that is a double-edged sword. Because it’s so much easier to both make a film and distribute the film, that just means
    there’s that much more competition for eyeballs. And that competition will continue to
    increase and the audience will continue to become more fractured.

    It’s still a numbers game, that being dollars. The earning potential for any particular film will continue to decrease. That seems obvious. So filmmakers have to keep finding ways to make films cheaper and cheaper, right? Yes, the cost of filmmaking has dropped dramatically, but it’s still too expensive if you want to do things right with
    any quality. It takes people, at least a few, to make it all happen, and those people will want to get paid. Getting people to work for little or free may work for a while in certain situations, but it’s no way to sustain a long term career with strong working relationships. And as they say, more often than not you get what you pay for.

    Let’s say you’re able to make a decent little film for the bare bones micro-budget of $25,000, in part by calling in every favor you can think of and working your butt off for at least several months. Now you’re going to spend a lot more time AND money (possibly even more than what you spent on production) on whatever promotion it will take to make people aware of the film once you get it up on the glut of digital platforms online. The bottom line is you still have to make $25,000 just to make back your
    cost of making the film, and that’s NOT easy. It’s still a crapshoot. And of course the higher the budget, the harder it is.

    Ted, I’ve been reading your thoughts on the business over the past several years (thank you) and I’m eagerly awaiting your detailed “Step-by-Step Guide to Sustaining Your Filmmaking Career in the New Era” once you have it all figured out. Hurry, will ya? :) One interesting paradigm in the “we’re all in this together” filmmaking community
    is that we’re all also adversaries in an all-out cut-throat ongoing competition, so sharing valid and useful information amongst ourselves isn’t as common as
    one might think.

    Thanks for allowing me to ramble some of my own thoughts. -Tommy Stovall, http://www.sedonamovie.com

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    Tommy, the point is that sustainable approach can’t just be MAKING the movies. It is only a small part of the process and ecosystem. Focusing just on that aspect won’t work, unless you are an extreme talent from the very beginning.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    That’s the plan. That’s what we need to do for each other. Let’s share how we do that and move this whole damn thing forward fast.

  • David Street

    In the spirit of openness and sharing, Here’s a brief version of my story.
    I’ve been lucky, I drank the milk and honey, having worked in the business for decades mainly as a factual/documentary programme maker. Three years ago the work started to dry up – but I didn’t want to stop doing what I love. Solution : start to Direct, Produce and Shoot, my own access based docs. Ideally long running – a year minimum, with the proviso that the stories allow me to return to my owen bed at night. I couldn’t afford hotel bills. Three years later I have gathered hundreds of hours of footage from dancing in the rain on the Clyde, to baking in the Nevada desert, from 80 year olds playing lawn bowls and 8 year olds learning to dance. While I was negotiating access and shooting the material I was also trying to find a business partner who would take on the marketing and selling of the films. I had no success with the later.
    Every one I spoke to wanted either payment up front or wanted to follow the traditional route of go for a TV Broadcast commission. Even the national arts funding body wanted the programmes to have a national broadcaster in tow before they would offer funds.
    Earlier this year I realised I had to start being the business partner my film maker self wanted. I have spent the last few months going to classes, workshops, reading, researching and trying to educate myself in Ted’s brave new world. It has been very difficult to find examples of “Best Practice” and even more difficult has been “Proof of Principal”
    Even companies like Distrify and Vimeo can’t or wont offer examples of successes and how the metrics work.
    So what have I learnt?
    1) It is a very lonely road
    2) Build communities for your individual films and your work
    3) Use Facebook and Twitter
    4) Be proactive – put clips and stills up whenever possible
    5) Try to engage a possible audience
    6) Try to empower the audience – offer them options to make decisions on.

    Has all this worked?
    I have no idea. I am still trying to find the funds to finish my films. I am slowly building a following on Vimeo, Facebook and Twitter, while battling to keep my head above water by working as a Director/Producer/Camera for national broadcasters.
    But I am convinced, instinctively and intuitively, that this is the future for our industry. And certainly for people like myself who just have to make films. As some one once said – “if it was easy every one would be doing it” It is certainly not that, but i could be easier if we all collaborated more.

  • Helga Oswald

    Ted, thanks for this very poignant address. Regardless of
    the many platforms available today for content, I still think the power of film
    is best experienced collectively in a theater. Where the social network is at
    its most useful is in finding and building an audience for storytelling that
    addresses the desires of the niches, as you write, and build communities around
    it. I think people crave for connection and being part of a community, so
    exhibitors can also contribute by creating a better environment that fosters
    film culture: not just watching films but being able to share the experience
    and emotional response. There must be an audience out there who wants to see
    films that make you think rather than the opposite.

    Re your comments about the support of cinematic arts in the
    EU: I am a German born, L.A. based, writer/director and am developing a feature
    to be shot in Europe. Because of its subject matter I would like to set it up
    as a US-German/European co-production. Please let me know if I may send you
    more information about the project. Thank you!

  • Lynn Reed

    In the spirit of building community among creators, I want to share a few thoughts on my own experiment, currently in progress.

    I am co-producing a narrative feature, http://www.asortofhomecoming.com/, and have been building my audience via Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/asortofhomecomingmovie

    As I write, we have 5,000 + likes on Facebook, although no name stars have been cast and we are still roughly two months away from beginning production. Our story is set in the world of high school debate, and we have been building awareness in that niche audience. We have a female protagonist and female director and have been building audience among people who care about gender inequality in the movie business.

    Here’s a secret. I’m paying to advertise on Facebook to get those likes, even now, out of my development funds, and I believe its a good expenditure. I design and monitor the ads myself, run lots of tests, and keep ads going when they work — in my case when they bring in likes for less than $1 / like. Without the advertising, I’d have roughly 500 likes, from friends and acquaintances. I also pay Facebook to promote posts. $10 – $50 / post depending on the importance of the message.

    My previous career was in campaign politics. I designed web sites, and more importantly, internet strategies for national and statewide campaigns. I worked in the paleolithic era of internet campaigning — there are a lot of firsts on my resume. We didn’t know what would work, so we tried things and devised metrics to test our results. So did the Obama campaign in 2012. When building and motivating an audience online we need to constantly test, try and evaluate our efforts. There’s no silver bullet. What worked last month with one audience on one online platform may not work today with another.

    Will this work for my movie? I can’t say yet.

    I don’t know if the folks who have “liked” me on Facebook will show up for a crowd-funding campaign, or eventually show up in the theater, or push a button on their VOD system, or download my movie from iTunes.

    But I know I’ll need to spend money on online advertising at each of these stages (and have budgeted accordingly), and I know I need to experiment and test approaches constantly.

    I believe it what Ted is trying to build here. I’ll share my experience along the way.

This site could not have been built without the help and insight of Michael Morgenstern. My thanks go out to him.

Help save indie film and give this guy a job in web design or film!