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by Indiewire
September 10, 2013 4:49 PM
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Digital On Demand: Show Us The Numbers

Consumers should want this because right now the studios are only relying on their own data, making for poorly researched greenlight decisions. Studios should want this because they will be able to access their competitors' data as well as their own. And the data companies should want this because it will maintain their relevance and hence increase their revenue in this new content ecosystem.

The technology exists, but perhaps the will does not. Right now huge deals are being structured between these platforms and the studios. Libraries of content are being turned over, and so far to my knowledge, no deal has included the rights to see detailed consumption and viewership data on a mass reporting level that can be cross-referenced.

I don't think anyone wants to diminish the huge expenditure, both financially and intellectually, that these platforms have spent to create their products and algorithms, and gather all this consumer information that helps them grow their businesses.  But it seems unfair that the people who are creating this content are boxed out of learning about their own audiences.

And for filmmakers like you this can be maddening, considering that every festival panel features execs like me telling you to "know your audience."

You have the power to track audiences through social media, ask for their emails, encourage them to tell their friends about your project and ultimately tap into their networks.

Now, this where I envision the utopian future that I have to believe will eventually become a reality.

Imagine we will one day track a film's audience from the very first point of discovery - say here at TIFF.

We will follow it through theaters, gaining audiences, and emails - pick up who watched the trailer on various websites. Who bought a ticket, then voted 5 stars on some app that knows they left the theater and then tweeted about it, causing an additional 25 people to see the film the next day.

Follow this pattern through exhibition, VOD, all the other platforms and distribution windows... or reach back perhaps to the film's crowd-funding campaign and discern who the film's most influential evangelists were. And then use this data to cross-reference it against other films with either similar or entirely different characteristics to uncover what audiences are responding to.

I don't think my utopian future is very far off.

And for docs, very much the beneficiary of these new technologies, the present is bright.  That same week the Acxiom and Spacey news hit, The Economist published this article about the rise of documentary films in the UK. One point you will find particularly interesting and that many of you I am sure have read, is that Netflix is now producing documentaries as it moves further into original content.

But the article moreover is about the new health in the documentary space – in this case in the UK.  The genre has been making better content – a "new breed of theatrically-minded, more commercially viable documentaries” and the numbers, at least in the UK, are growing.

So I wondered about the numbers in North America, and so I did a little digging.

The numbers are growing year over year here as well.  One theory is that day-and-date releases are bringing a large number of docs and films in general into a small number of theaters for a brief time to create awareness for a multi-platform release. But nonetheless, we are on the rise – and since we know docs do so well on all these platforms, now all we need is the data and we have a perfect system.

So how could we engender this Utopia even more?

Books have ISBN numbers, every single product we purchase has a UPC code or some sort of tracking system associated with it. So why the bleep hasn't the movie business been able to come up with some sort of equivalent? Why isn't there some sort of universal code or content watermark that follows the shelf life of a film and provides us with valuable information along the way?

Well that would mean that every movie ever made would have to be cataloged. A Herculean task to say the least, much like mapping the entire human genome or every street corner on the planet (hint: Google), or cataloging every book ever put into print or... something as completely insurmountable as that...So what can we do until the impossible becomes possible? 

CROWDFUND: on sites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, you can engage directly with super passionate early adopters or "alpha audiences,” get their email addresses, bring them on as evangelists.

KEEP THEM ENGAGED and watch your social footprint grow.


HELP IMPROVE USER INTERFACE.  Cable promises to improve beyond the alphabetical list, but look at VHX and Chill and see what the future should be.


SHARE INFORMATION. Create a Wikipedia of reporting until such time we have a uniform reporting and metrics system.

And someone invent the Universal content SKU please.

If you are a member of a guild, think long and hard about the negotiations coming up in 2014. Many of the big platforms that control a lot of your audience are not at the table and don't have a uniform contract with the studios.  This near-future transparency could have a watershed moment in those negotiations where monetization of new media is likely to rear its head again as a hot-button issue.

You can start having an impact on the metadata right now, here at the film festival. Ask your festival coordinator what you can learn from the behavior of the audience here and on the TIFF website. Find out how many trailer views you have and share share share.

All of this information should be part of the conversation.

Hollywood is woefully behind but with a little ingenuity and passion from all of you, we can catch up and eventually surpass the present reality.  I am very optimistic and deeply believe in the possibility of a clear, transparent reporting model that gives us visibility into everything. One that makes us all smarter and better at making movies, frees up the artist, and creates more engaged moviegoers who are eager to support fresh voices. 

I am happy to have a little, but hope I don’t have to have too much – patience.


  • Ruth Saunders | September 13, 2013 2:11 AMReply

    ISAN (International Standard Audiovisual Number) is a voluntary numbering system and metadata schema for the unique and persistent identification of any audiovisual works and versions thereof including films, shorts, documentaries, television programs, sports events, advertising, etc.

  • Dan Mirvish | September 11, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    Very nice piece, Liesl, and you raise excellent points. But lack of transparency is only problematic if there's an expectation of making money. If you assume from the start that you won't make any money, then it doesn't matter. An Oscar-nominated director friend asked me yesterday: Wouldn't it make more sense for an investor to just give to a tax-deductible entity than invest in the charade that they'll make their money back? This speaks directly to my piece in Indiewire and HuffPost a few months ago that crowd-funding is fundamentally changing the paradigm of how we get and contribute to films: from an "investment" paradigm (that we've had for the last 100 years) to a "donation" one. If you think of film as an art form (like opera, symphony, public radio, or anything else with tote bags and mugs as perks), then you can quit worrying about crap like volumetrics, data currency and analytic black holes. Embrace the fact that you're going to get screwed on the back end. For years we've treated films as "don't profits"; now we need start thinking of them as "non-profits".

  • J.A.S. | September 17, 2013 2:01 PM

    In agreement with Ted, the "don't profit" model isn't as ubiquitous of a funding format if we can use data to connect with an audience early on. The niche-market distribution culture of the '90s has been subdivided into individual-market distribution based on individual streaming libraries, but filmmakers still make movies for broad theatrical demographics. It's just inconsistent and results in a waste of money and waste of talent as filmmakers can't steer their projects knowledgeably. Knowing how much money your film is worth in this new stream-based marketplace can bring more reliable profits to filmmakers and open us up to a broader range of available films.

  • Ted Hope | September 12, 2013 11:48 AM

    Dan, there can be many finance models, and there certainly is a place for not-for-profit film finance. And frankly not just a place, but a real need. As America is currently virtually fully a market-based entertainment economy, we need need nonprofit funding to diverse the creator base as well as the style and content. That said, it is precisely the market focus that has made the US the most diversified film culture there is. To me the point, we now have the opportunity to diversify the funding models significantly and with that we all will benefit -- audiences, creators, and entrepreneurs.

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