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October 2 at 11:11am

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

By Ted Hope

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— and rely on — a method — a complete ecosystem spanning development, production, marketing, and distribution — that is no longer applicable to the world we live in.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:


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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