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Monday, July 20, 2009

5 Thoughts on the Future of Media

As a former agent at UTA, Barrett Garese has better insight into the future of media than most of us do, and he's blogged a fascinating essay about where he thinks film, TV and web content is headed. (In a nutshell, he believes the key is to capitalize on the inherent differences of each platform, rather than insisting on convergence.)

While reading his essay, I realized my own response would be longer than appropriate for his comment column, so I've posted it here. My thoughts will make more sense if you've read Barrett's essay as a primer, but I think these points stand on their own as well.

I'll Stop the World and Converge With You...

The convergence of film, TV and web is happening, but that doesn't dilute the power of each individual experience -- film is still film, TV is still TV, web is still web, etc. What this DOES create is a NEW experience format: the convergent format, in which content is specifically designed to either:

A) feel different across all platforms (in which your viewing experience is specifically engineered to suit the screen size or format, possibly going as far as editing with different shots or angles, depending upon the delivery method), or

B) be different across all platforms (i.e., the web version of a show is completely different, while still complementary in theme, to the film version, etc.).

Your Home Theater is Not Actually a Theater. Discuss.

Audiences anticipate different experiences depending on the distribution method. We expect to immerse ourselves in a film experience (minus the live distractions), while we expect to be distracted from the TV experience (because we're at home). Thus, we're already anticipating a different kind of content to be shared across those variant platforms -- and when the end result doesn't match our expectations, our engagement with that content may suffer. (Or, it may surprise us.)

We also expect a difference in on-screen quality relative to the effort it takes to obtain the image (i.e., driving to a theater at 7 PM should reward me with a higher quality experience than watching something on my phone at 3 AM). And we expect the content to connect with us on differing levels dependent upon our applied attention -- mindblowing films can't be processed in 5 minute increments via stolen wi-fi during your lunch break, whereas 3 hours in a theater had better provide you with a deeper and more profound experience than 30 consecutive episodes of Tiki Bar TV (which, it should be said, I love).

LOOK AT ME.

The biggest expense for online content should be promotions. You can create an amazing show for $5, but you're releasing it into a medium that A) not enough people are paying attention to, yet which is B) paradoxically flooded with crap (which may explain A).

If I were to produce a new web series (after concluding Something to Be Desired), I'd be sure that the promotional plan was in place before the first episode ever hit the web; the days of "throwing it out there and seeing what happens" are best left to people experimenting in their own free time, not people who are expecting to gain the necessary traction to validate (both artistically AND financially) their investment of time, money and effort into a web property.

Whither the Studios?

Eventually, existing corporate studio behemoths will become distribution companies that happen to have (presumably exclusive) contracts with production houses. Rather than focusing on producing AND distributing their own in-house content, they'll profit from their primary assets (reach and volume) and leave the creative aspects to the producers -- who will in turn be grateful to not have to worry about being both creative and ubiquitous at the same time.

That said, there will always be exceptions. In the long run, it's still cheaper for Verizon to produce its own web shows than it is for them to subcontract with a production company, and it's still more profitable for an indie prodco to bootstrap their way into self-distribution than it is for them to produce their own content but only keep a percentage of those eventual revenues.

A Soap Opera Without the Soap Had Better Be a Damn Good Opera

Content producers need to rely less on advertising and more on the inherent value of the content itself. Gone are the days when content is produced as a lure to hook viewers into sitting through commercials -- nor can content *be* produced under a presumed business model that eyeballs = advertising opportunities = profit. Cut out that middleman and what are you left with?

You're left with an audience who'll pay you directly for what you create -- or for the experience it creates in them -- rather than a vessel with holes waiting to be plugged by commercials.

This also impacts media being produced for traditionally large-scale distribution. Just because a show isn't pulling in the millions of eyeballs it needs to validate its TV time slot, it doesn't mean that show couldn't be profitable at a lower operating cost with web-based distribution. If I were the producers of a canceled darling like Pushing Daisies (and if I still owned the rights to that property), I would shrink the budget, post 15-20 minute episodes (or segments) online, and invite the fans to pre-pay for next season's DVD in advance; that initial influx of cash could be used to fund part of the upcoming season, which means the prodco isn't scrambling to line up sponsors now and then waiting for a year-end DVD windfall to break even.

Thoughts?

Image by perreira.

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