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“The Future of Film” Emerging Industry Strategy from a Variety of Monetization Experts

"The Future of Film" Emerging Industry Strategy from a Variety of Monetization Experts

WARNING: There may be some contentious points on piracy and the future of online distribution in this article.  Please feel free to comment and debate below!

I had a chance to attend the “Future of Film Summit” in Beverly Hills produced by Variety and DigitalMediaWire.  The ambitious one-day event focused on “the current state of the industry, and how film and transmedia deals will be struck in the coming years.”  That’s a pretty grand scale, but I’d have to say it delivered a good mix of traditional film perspective mixed with a suprisingly high-level group of online experts.  The keynotes were given by Tom Bernard, Co-founder and Co-president, Sony Pictures Classics and by writer-director Kevin Smith (comments on the keynotes follow my conference takeaways below.)

A few takeaways from the conference:

Mike Vorhaus, President of Magid Advisors, a leading entertainment consulting firm, opened the conference with a fascinating collection of data about the general state of the film industry in terms of movie-going demographics.  The most interesting part for me was that avid digital “streamers” spend the most money at traditional theaters, purchasing movies and TV shows online, and renting the same online.  Hence, “Regular moviegoes not only are loyal to the cinema, they are also spending a lot of time with digital devices.” (and spending money for content on these devices!) 

Great news for indies, since the internet is still, for now, wide open for distribution to the savvy filmmaker.  Other important points from the study:

  • Video is one of the top activites on smartphones (young people know this, but anyone over 30 producing content NEEDS to internalize this.) 
  • Full-length video watching on tablets outweighs smartphones, but the phones are growing – both in physical size and in full-length video watching habits.
  • Tablet and iPhone users are the most likely to purchase TV and movie content on mobile.

Want to see all the exact figures and media demographics?  Watch the entire 32-slide presentation and let me know your thoughts here.

If you can’t beat ’em?

I was fascinated to see that the infamous BitTorrent was a headlining sponsor of the event.  It definitely raised some hackles (see Tom Bernard’s comments below.)  Matt Mason, Executive Director of Marketing for BT, has the enviable/un-enviable job of both improving BitTorrent’s image to the film industry and educating about potential areas for BT to actually become an asset to an indie film’s marketing plan.

As a filmmaker/distributor I find my heart wrenched by the concept, but I’m fascinated at the possibility of torrents to empower filmmakers so I sat down with Matt and asked for some specifics. ~i.e. It’s a new model…evolve or die?)

Zack Coffman: What did you think of the conference?  

Matt Mason: I saw a lot of great films and projects I didn’t know about and as a result, we’re now working with some of those producers to help them promote their projects through the BitTorrent ecosystem. It’s great to see so much positive change happening in the business. There’s a sense of optimism about all the opportunities ahead and I really felt that at this event.   

ZC: You are fighting very hard to change BT’s image to filmmakers as a piracy enabler.  Thoughts on this observation?

MM: We are and there has been good momentum.  The BitTorrent protocol is designed to move large files across the Internet; it fixes a problem inherent with the way the Internet was designed. At that time no one imagined the need for moving data as big as files are today and BitTorrent is the very best way to move large files. Much of that is personal media, such as a 20GB video from your smart phone. Many people aren’t aware of how BitTorrent is used for legitimate purposes by companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and Blizzard to push updates and move large amounts of data around their ecosystems.

We can’t change human behavior, and piracy has been a fact of life throughout the history of media. What we can do is change the environment around piracy. We know that when Internet users are offered legitimate content from creators and publishers and the experience of getting that content is good, they will choose to interact with those content creators and reward them. We’re working to create those experiences in BitTorrent, which at this point, is moving 30-40% of the world’s Internet traffic everyday – more than http. We see a bright future. The music industry is coming back strong now that people are starting to really get a handle on digital – the same thing is starting to happening in film. We see only good things ahead and we’re committed to being part of the solution. 

ZC: Can you give filmmakers some real advice how to use BT to further their film marketing goals?

MM: It really depends who your audience is, what you want them to do and what kind of marketing materials you’re putting in front of that audience. We’ve had great success this year driving awareness and engagement for filmmakers. Giving someone a real, immersive glimpse into the story you are trying to tell and then giving the consumer a number of ways to interact with your story (email collection, social media, pushing them to your site) via BitTorrent has helped a number of filmmakers this year. Our key insight has been that there is no one solution, but as many solutions as there are pieces of content. Each piece of content can have a unique approach and our mission is to create a set of tools for content creators to access.

ZC: Examples?

MM: Recently we worked with Stacy Peralta and the Bones Brigade team on their documentary that’s playing now. Skateboarding’s 1990s youth revolution was a direct result of analog file sharing. Kids copying and swapping Powell-Peralta tapes made the Bones Brigade, the most famous – and the most successful – skate crew in history. Stacy Peralta’s acclaimed 2012 film, Bones Brigade: A Documentary, followed the handmade and hard-fought rise of this crew. But as a documentary about a niche sport, it faced barriers to attention and mainstream interest. 

We wanted to create a 2.0 reinvention of the DIY distribution paradigm at the heart of the crew’s original success, and help generate reach and activation, beyond the Sundance and skate circuits. In partnership with Topspin Media and Stacy Peralta, we created a BitTorrent Bundle of media that gave BitTorrent users and Bones Brigade fans exclusive content from the film. The Bundle included the film’s HD trailer, graffiti stencils, artwork and music from Tommy Guerrero. Each Bundle was free for users to download. In order to unlock the content, users needed to provide an email address. 

The Bones Brigade Bundle was offered to users at high-engagement touch points within the BitTorrent ecosystem: during software installation, as part of our Featured Artist program site and within the BitTorrent clients. 

The result? Over one million views of the extended trailer on BitTorrent in a month (compared to 188,000 views on YouTube), over 81,000 new users driven to Bones Brigade social media properties and 185,000 fans driven to the movie’s website. According to TopSpin, BitTorrent was the most potent form of marketing outside of the film’s websites. They will be presenting a full breakdown of that campaign at Sundance in January.

Conference Tracks:

The conference offered two simultaneous “tracks” for the afternoon panels and while the studio production track seemed interesting and had some heavy hitters, I decided to stick with the Digital Future track.

Josh Dickey, film editor at Variety led a spirited panel entitled “Social Marketing Revolution“, but he showed his digital chops by basically hijacking the gathered experts into a wider debate about various online marketing techniques.  You’d expect Sony to be a leader in digital, but Elias Plishner, VP Worldwide Digital Media for Sony Pictures really had his act together and stood out by giving practical insight into how his department functions.

With a veritable army of digital team members in the back of the room, Plishner explained how every morning they create a “Digital Report Card” for every film currently in release.  The report card includes the five top analytics for each marketing program: Site traffic, Buzz, Video Views, Social Activity (basically Facebook’s TalkScore value), and organic search volume.  All of these values are compared against a “genre norm” and followed by goals the team has set.  With these numbers in hand, you could see it leading to a very efficient digital marketing effort.   [Sony is really paying attention to the analytics and data that the net can provide.  Every indie content creator needs to be doing this!  – I’d like to see subscores of various social platforms since FB isn’t the only game in town any more.]

Discussion Point– What would be the impact of a property’s score handicapped for:  A) Pre-existing brand awareness B) Star power C) Marketing $ expenditure D) Film quality E) SEO F) PR intangibles.  A handicap formula would be fascinating and I’d love to see its predictive value of a film’s financial success vs. cost to produce/market.  Thoughts?

The “Trendsetters of the New Platforms” panel featured several content producers discussing how they are using the new distribution model of the net.  Afterwards, I caught up with Marc Lieberman, Head of Business Development for The Onion.

Zack Coffman: The Onion has been seeing amazing results from it’s online programming.  Can you please outline some of the areas you’ve been focusing on?

Marc Lieberman: Certainly. Recently, we’ve been expanding our online presence with the launch of our new daily show, ‘ONNCast.’ As we’ve done with our written content, we’re taking a renewed focus on covering breaking news and timely news first and foremost.

ZC: Why do you think they’ve been successful?

ML: As we saw with more timely written content, people want to watch and read our coverage of current events the very same day that these events are occurring. Even if you’re a fan of some of our lesser-known competitors (The New York TimesThe Huffington Post and CNN to name a few), you know that a visit to will yield smarter, more in-depth reporting on the news of the day paired with our trademark attention-getting headlines. Sure, we no longer allow our writing staff time to sleep, but this is just one of the many sacrifices that true journalists must make. That, and attaining worthless college degree that renders them wholly unfit to work outside of a newsroom.

ZC: What’s the overall goal for The Onion? 

ML: Since our first issue debuted 1783, the goal of The Onion has always been to shape and control the opinion of the American public. It has done so with nothing short of overwhelming success.

Though The Onion has been ‘America’s Finest News Source’ since that time, the Internet has enabled us to also shape and control the opinion of those that live beyond our borders. Some, mistakenly, consider this part of our overall goal, but we assure you that it’s merely a bi-product of our tremendous influence. 

ZC: Do you actively employ SEO and SEM?

ML: We do in terms of SEO. However, our large amount of web traffic no doubt gives us a quite an advantage over smaller sites. But, again, timely content will go a long way on search, as does our large story archive which proves the old adage, “news is cyclical.”

ZC: The Kim Jong-un article was like a PR blitz for you, was it pure chance or are your writers that smart?

ML: To be perfectly frank, we benefitted greatly from a lack of “sexy” news otherwise on the day that story broke. To clear up some confusion, our editor, Will Tracy, sent the following statement to the press:”For more coverage on The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive 2012, Kim Jong-Un, please visit our friends at the People’s Daily in China, a proud Communist subsidiary of The Onion, Inc. Exemplary reportage, comrades.”

ZC: How have you leveraged that explosion into your overall marketing efforts?

ML: First, we actually added Will’s statement to the article, and re-promoted the article through our social media channels and on our site. However, when something that does much the marketing work for you, the strategy that we employ is to not interfere with where it might go.  That said, it afforded us many opportunities to be interviewed by a bevy of media sources, which is something we didn’t shy away from. 

ZC: The Onion has always been a beacon for independents, do you have any advice for indie film marketers out there?

ML: Don’t change your message, but be willing to change the way in which you deliver it. In this way, we were able to evolve from our print beginnings to an online presence that allows us to gain the readership of new people every day. 

The New Distribution Formula” panel dealt with changing release windows and new opportunities afforded by VOD.  Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, co-presidents of Radius-TWC  joined Rob Sussman, EVP, Business Operations, Development, and Strategy, EPIX, Jamie McCabe, EVP, worldwide PPV, VOD, EST, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Todd Green, General Manager, Tribeca Film, and Daniel Solnicki, Head of Worldwide Franchise Development, DreamWorks Animation in a discussion about new theatrical/VOD strategies; particularly focused on the day-and-date model and changing of traditional distribution windows.  The discussion was frankly much too short, but it will be interesting to check in with Quinn and Janego about how Radius-TWC achieved their cross-platform success with Bachelorette and watch very closely their upcoming release of Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling. 

The last panel of the day was ambitiously called “Monetizing Film and Video Content in a Digital Age“.  It featured some big names, but ended up being a bit of a PR piece for the panelists, as they didn’t really offer any concrete ideas for the jam-packed room.  However, Jordan Metzner of Xsolla did try his best to explain specifically what his company does for filmmakers. “Xsolla provides in-game payment services for some of the largest video game developers and publishers in the world and can help filmmakers with our film monetization arm, called Cinify.  We help film makers get on major networks as well as monetize content on their on sites using CDN’s and Xsolla as a payment solutions.”

Apparently Xsolla’s platform allows the viewer to watch/play a few minutes of a film/game before being asked to pony up and pay for the content.  In my opinion, this is way better for indies than the other current models that ask for payment based on viewing only a trailer.  I’ll be curious to have a follow-up with Jason and investigate it further.

Notes on Notes:

The day’s two keynotes offered some insight into filmmaking from two different perspectives.

Tim Gray, the big Kahuna at Variety sat down with industry uber-vet Tom Bernard of Sony Classics for the morning keynote and Bernard was suprisingly frank in his outlook for the future.  He mentioned that SPC’s audience skews older and he was concerned about that demographic aging problem.  I had a chance to chat with Tom further about this conundrum and he explained that SPC films were traditionally a print media audience, but the new college of film is the internet so SPC has been acquiring more films that fit a wider demographic such as Searching for Sugarman– that has a huge online audience and huge audience of baby boomers, and Rust and Bone– a modern film, and very different than traditional foreign films which is getting a wide demographic as well.  

“People determine their own DNA online,” he continued saying that SPC is excited about opportunites the ‘net brings because they are saving so much money by scaling back on print and “narrowcasting” on the net, resulting in their highest profit margins ever.  When I asked him about his thoughts on BitTorrent being a sponsor of the show he was unequivocable on his position, “I was shocked and appalled.  They are pirates and have caused huge amounts of money to be lost on our pictures.  Those guys should be in jail.”

Kevin Smith gave an entertaining and inspiring keynote speech, fielding questions posed by his Hollywood Babble-On co-host, Ralph Garman of KROQ.  He’s definitively taken some licks over the years (some self-inflicted, some not) but survives with his “indie cred” intact.  His best quote of the night was a real winner, “”It’s not about kissin’ up, it’s about kissin’ down.”

Smith continued, “Spend every second with your fans, connect with your audience.”  A proponent of crowdfunding, he said he routinely supports interesting projects and even sent some money recently to a campaign for a guy that wanted to become a glass-blower.  “I just wanted to see that guy fucking do it!” exclaimed Smith, “Remember, they [media gatekeepers] need you [content creators] more than you need them.”

Indies in the new film economy should worry more about online culture-building and dealing directly with their audience and less about trying to impress the gatekeepers and distributors that hold sway over the theaters and traditional media outlets. 

I look forward to everyone’s thoughts and comments!  Have a wonderful holiday.

Written by Zack Coffman, a producer specializing in online strategy and monetization, live streaming, and SEO for film.  Connect with Zack on LinkedIn and follow his film marketing tips and adventures @choppertown on Twitter.

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