Practical Bits & Thoughts

Following on the footsteps of the previous post in which I mentioned the tech side of the DGA’s annual “Digital Day,” there are a lot of significant things happening in the business right now that I think are exciting.

As with any conversation for me, that has to do with storytelling, and technology – I get pretty passionate, and excited. Matter of fact, I’m pretty wound up right now.

In thinking of all the things that are happening in our business, the changes in production, post-production, and delivery are all amazing. This, I truly believe, is a GREAT TIME to be a filmmaker.

But what is changing even further are the underlying economics and sociological model of our business.

First, regarding the business itself, consider the following:

Film and television were the dominant, most widely consumed entertainment product (after books, of course) for a very long time. For many years, the theaters were the only places that you could see movies. Then came television. And a corresponding decline in theatrical attendance. (which spawned lots of new “gimmicks” to get people back in the theaters, like CinemaScope, et. al.). Then came home video which was still an overall revenue driver. So it was just competition with different formats, but the same media. Now, it’s not only different formats, it’s different media. It’s video games, and the internet itself as our competition.

Incidentally, the most profitable time in history for the movie studios was when they OWNED the theater chains themselves, which the FTC forced them out of in 1948 as part of an antitrust proceeding.

The problems of continuing with business as usual however, are mounting.

1. First and foremost, narrative content (movies and television, et. al.) have lost significant market share to games.
In 2004, the domestic theatrical business did about $9.4 billion in box office – while this was an increase in dollars over previous years, it was achieved through wider releases and more screens (and therefore, higher costs) and through high ticket prices. Real admissions dropped by about 2% (after a 4% drop in 2003)
The game business, however, piled up over $7 billion in sales, and growing tremendously.

This is not say that the film business is going away, or being overtaken by video games. Our business is racking up DOUBLE the theatrical receipts in home video and VOD, which puts it up around a $30 Billion dollar industry.

The point IS, however that film and television have significant competition, where before, there was very little.

2. Second, and equally important, is that the audience themselves now dictate when, where, and how they want to consume their media.

The importance of this concept, and it’s impact on the movie business, cannot be understated.

Outside of the movie theater itself, WE, the movie business, must do all that we can to find ways to deliver our stories to as many people as possible, in as many formats as possible, as efficiently as we can.

Does this add to our costs? Yes.
Does it make it more difficult to market the content? Yes.
Will it make us a lot better profits if we can execute smartly? Yes.

But executing smartly means that the costs must go down.

It’s very interesting to me that also for the first time in history, we have people out there making films for $1,100 and yet at the same time, studios greenlighting budgets of ungodly proportions like the $150 million budget on the plate for David Fincher’s adaptation of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons” (the budget WAS over $200 million until the studio came back and said it had to be ‘less’).

The disparity is amazing, and while in most cases the difference in production value is vast, the hit or miss of story doesn’t seem to be any better at the top end, than at the bottom end.

What’s it all mean? It means that movies that cost more, don’t necessarily make more. It means that star salaries in the stratosphere automatically mean that those stars will no longer get access to the “best” material, because much of it exists outside of the studio system.

It also has much further reaching implications as well, from the labor unions that will break your shoot and your budget the first chance they get (weren’t unions originally created to battle BIG business??? I would argue that more and more films and filmmakers are going to become smaller and smaller business, as a whole.), to the amount of crap we will all have to filter through to find the good stories.

Anyway, the aside aside, our audience now dictate their experience with our stories – and it is the number of audience members we reach, and whether or not our story (or ad campaigns) are successful that determines whether or not we stay in business.

We can no longer spoon feed them our stories when and where WE determine it’s best for us.

The day is coming soon where films, one-off’s, indies and the like, will be consumed just like podcasts and music tracks on iTunes – maybe on something called iMedia.

It will change everything, just as small time podcasters are hitting the big time because they suddenly have found the means to get their voices out there to the world at large, so too, filmmakers and storytellers around the world will break out.

And it’s all rooted in the brave new world of the digits.

What this means for the economics of the business? Chaos, for a few years, to be sure, while the new models work themselves out. Yeeehaw! It’s going to be an interesting ride, for sure.

(footnote: by the way, you ‘film purists’ out there. Here’s something new to consider, when you claim that because film is “organic” it’s better. 1. Film is made on a synthetic base made from oil. 2. Both CCD’s and transistors are made of silicon, which is organic. So there.)

Inspiring Storyteller

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the Director’s Guild “Digital Day,” there really wasn’t anything groundbreaking.

There was the standard phalanx of digital cinematography tools (which, I’m going to have more to say about below), post-production tools – and some other innovative stuff, but nothing totally earth-shattering.

Until Ray Bradbury spoke.

Just before he was wheeled in (he’s in a wheelchair now) from the wings of stage left in Theater 1, a giant picture of him as a 5 or 6 year old boy was projected on the screen. A young boy with the slight scowl of being annoyed at standing in one place long enough to have his picture taken, and some small bit of wonder at the world that we all have when we are children.

Ray Bradbury, somehow, almost impossibly so, has retained to this day that sense of wonder, and “what if” that not only resulted in all the wonderful works of his career, but so obviously permeates the mans heart so deeply that he is driven to share it in every word he speaks. When he speaks of a few of the events that shaped his life as a storyteller, the affect and love of which he spoke of the people and moments, are so palpable that at a couple of points I had to wipe away tears.

So rarely do we see people with such gifts, who boldly acknowledge that there are emotions of virtue, and the honest expression of them fills our life with a breath that is far from ordinary. Those emotions, virtues, ideals… and honest expressions are mostly locked up and put away in favor of things that we hope won’t make us appear weak or foolish to our peers and the world at large.

To them, Ray Bradbury continues to thumb his nose. All the way up to his final “Now I’m gonna get the hell outta here” and the long standing ovation that followed, his inspiration will stick with me for a long time.

To Mr. Bradbury, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

More to come on the practical bits of Digital Day and all the thoughts about it swirling around in my head.