Embracing change: Participants at Digital Hollywood's Media Summit ponder the impact of new technologies


Only a few years back, Digital Hollywood and key sponsor Standard & Poor’s annual Media Summit events were more storm than summit. Most participants from all corners of media were shivering, sweating or gasping for air from all the changes wrought by digital and the new technologies. But this year’s event, which took place in early March at Midtown Manhattan’s McGraw-Hill Building, reinforced the view that dramatic changes in the media landscape can be weathered. Many new developments, in fact, like the jaw-dropping success of Netflix’s unprecedented David Fincher/Kevin Spacey “House of Cards” original Web marathon and the increasing capabilities of mobile devices, are downright thrilling.

Participants in several panels brought up Netflix’s daring experiment with “House of Cards,” the service’s acclaimed $100 million drama series whose ratings and monetization were the big unknowns. Netflix, a panelist noted, has now passed Comcast in terms of paid-content viewing, but any thoughts of monetization are moot as the “Card” game was a ploy to attract subscribers and whet appetites for more such quality programming (next time with a price tag?) of Netflix original content to come.

Again, the relative calm in the film industry was noted (slight jumps in both box office and attendance last year were nice), but nothing these digital days can be taken for granted. Speaking at a breakfast event, Standard & Poor’s analysts in the entertainment and cable areas shared some thoughts. S&P associate director Christopher Valentine predicted that domestic box office will hold or have an uptick in 2013, and international performance will continue as “the bright spot.” As for movies on smaller screens, home entertainment generally was flat last year, but streaming jumped 45% and will rise. Another bright spot is the studios’ Ultra-Violet initiative, which is catching on with about nine million registered users. And there was speculation that the Hollywood studios, following in indie-film footsteps no less, may try to “de-risk” by using crowd-funding strategies to finance new TV series.

With so many viewing options (who hasn’t noticed it’s a content tsunami out there?), the biggest threat to motion picture attendance is the shortening of windows, said S&P associate director Jeanne Shoesmith. Increasingly, studios will be experimenting with video-on-demand, which is replacing DVDs as VOD and streaming continue to put pressure on theatrical. A slow single-digit decline in movie attendance in the near future looms as a possibility.

On a panel focused on film marketing and Web distribution, SnagFilms COO Stephanie Sharis noted that the “landscape” that has an Oscar-nominated film like 5 Broken Cameras available on multiple platforms simultaneously (including theatrical) is “now more mainstream.” Wallach Media’s Lou Wallach cited the Web as a kind of safe harbor with no gatekeepers for comedy content attracting agents and even scouts from traditional networks like NBC.

Sharis also made clear a distinction between Snag and Netflix: “Our mission is to give emerging talent a platform, and [with Fincher and Spacey] that’s not what Netflix is doing. It’s good that so much money is going into creative content, but that doesn’t speak to newcomers.”

Again, theatrical exposure was extolled (“It helps immeasurably in getting press”) and panelists reminded that Web-only releases usually don’t make significant money. A theatrical run may also help a film get choosier platforms like iTunes, but Web-only helps build a fan base for future indie content from filmmakers who know how to exploit its tools and exposure. Several filmmakers have used their Web exposure to give momentum to films that followed.

As in recent Summit years, there was the familiar and reassuring mantra that theatrical runs are essential to cutting through the clutter, which adds fuel to a film’s life in ancillaries or other day-and-date platforms. HBO was cited as “being smart” about theatrical first, as they understand the promotional value it gives the subsequent premium-cable window.

Also important to any production is the “built-in social-media campaign.” In other words, filmmakers better get themselves to Facebook, Twitter and the like to get their projects attention, even before cameras roll (or whatever cameras do nowadays). Films submitted to distributors and services like Snag will carry more currency and garner better deals with this social-media campaign built in and underway.

Even in the indie arena, film and brands are getting closer together. Advised Sharis, “Filmmakers should be thinking about how to reach out to brands.”

So much of the conversation at the Summit was about advertising because, to paraphrase a famous movie line, “there’s the money.” As to where the kids are, it’s on tablets because they love the touch-screens. One panelist, in fact, deemed the desktop “kinda dead.” Another casualty of so much unprecedented change is the banner ad, once iconic as the birth of broad-scale advertising on the Web.

On a branded advertising panel that covered several platforms including theatrical and one of several that emphasized the importance of conveying authenticity (a Summit buzzword) to consumers, Catherine Balsam-Schwaber, NBCUniversal senior VP of integrated media, said that the studio was more and more partnering with celebrities on brands. Citing a Fast & Furious 6 campaign, she noted, “We asked the talent themselves to promote the film” instead of just using Facebook and Twitter.

Movies may not leverage the ad dollars of their media and entertainment cousins (except by way of product placement), but theatres play the ad game nicely with pre-shows, most notably those from NCM Media Networks and Screenvision. Also on the branded advertising panel was NCM’s Ian Owen-Ward, senior VP, online and mobile. NCM and its partner advertisers don’t just reach audiences in the pre-shows, he told FJI, but, with integrated campaigns, also in theatre lobbies, on mobile and online, where advertising is always attached to whatever content is there that interests film fans.

In attaching advertising, NCM is most mindful of the all-important good content and overall good movie experience. “It’s all about the movie,” Owen-Ward reminds. But for advertisers, it’s a bit of the “Wild West” because “in mobile and online it’s wide open everywhere, as no one is sure what clients are getting back for their money.” (Lack of adequate measurements in many digital corners was often lamented on panels.)

The process for NCM to get fans the content they want and give advertisers the eyeballs they want “begins way before the theatre, in homes on computers, then a bus stop on mobile, in the lobby, on the screen... Integration is key to the experience—the before, during and after. When audiences can be reached in all places, you’ll keep them closer.” Working closely with both the studios and advertisers, Owen-Ward says, “We’re focused on delivering the advertising and keeping things relevant.”

A panel considering the “NexGen” entertainment experience noted that the popularity of games even on gaming boxes like Xbox was giving way to TV and film content. Many in this gaming space (the consoles) are increasingly creating original entertainment content beyond games. One panelist observed that devices and services like Roku and Netflix are taking eyes away from cable VOD. And even our long-familiar cable set-top boxes were predicted to go away in the near future.

TV ad dollars continue to be “locked up in linear TV” (because the trusted measurements have been long in place), but that will change as linear TV goes its own way. A-la-carte viewing, rather than being tied to a hundred unwanted bundled channels, is many a viewer’s dream. Among signs that a-la-carte stands a chance is Cablevision’s anti-bundling court case against Viacom, in which the MSO claims that the programmer forces payment for low-performing channels that don’t interest viewers. Consumers often complain they’re being force-fed these channels as their monthly cable bills surge.

Another signal pointing to more consumer choice is the FCC’s recent positive response to consumer pains in the mobile space, where users are locked into what is perceived as overly restrictive carrier contracts.

As for where big opportunities lie, one can point to the problem of consumer navigation in so much content. One panel mulled the lack of a user-friendly device that would have an efficient meta-search capability so viewers could quickly get to the TV content they want. One panelist predicted a solution would arrive in two to three years. Also unmanageable are the millions of tablet and mobile apps out there that solve almost everything except how to find them.

Tablets, unlike mobile phones, owe much of their popularity to screens that are more than adequate for watching movies and programs. But TVs were deemed the device most assured of growth and popularity. TV is also blessed with “a funding model [advertising and subscriber fees] that nobody else has been able to replicate.”

Greg Rivera, senior ad sales director with Microsoft’s Xbox, said on his panel that he sees promise in two-way television and a natural user interface accommodating touch and voice recognition. But Rivera reiterated the Summit’s eternal mantra that great content counts most for “what attracts and holds audiences.”

Rivera was among many conference panelists claiming that “the content ecosystem is healthy now,” especially when compared to the music industry of the late ’90s or even pre-”Mad Men” television.

And it’s not just Netflix that is creating original entertainment content; Amazon and Microsoft are also getting into the game, panelists observed. And brands like Nike, Intel and many others are in the game. Most noisily, Red Bull produced an original series about extreme sports that didn’t even mention its product. Noted one panelist, “All Fortune 500s want to do content.”

A panel addressing film societies, festivals, film development labs (not the chemical kind) and distributors reminded filmmakers—yet again—to “make great work you’re passionate about” and have a social-media strategy in place even at the development stage. The social outreach is meaningful for prospective distributors and festival programmers, as it suggests that such films arrive with a core audience built in (less work for mother). A panelist from the Independent Feature Project, which runs workshops, a market for filmmakers and Filmmaker magazine, assured that “If you build your audience, they will find you.”

In a sign that fests, in spite of a universe of massive content, compete more aggressively for the best films, a Tribeca Film Festival representative said that TFF accepted works-in-progress for consideration.

A panel also addressed crowd-funding of indies and suggested not just that the field was growing for filmmakers to raise money on the Web but that the “best motivators” might be the “all or nothing” sites like the iconic Kickstarter that require would-be filmmakers to reach a pre-set goal in order to collect any coin. But panelist John Trigonis with Indiegogo assured that his site, which lets filmmakers go forward with whatever money they bring in, is scammer-free, as it attracts creators who have every intention of developing and producing their projects. “We have passed the information age to the engagement age and are now entering the transparency age, which means there’s more trust.” He cited the instance of one of the top agencies, who received promising film material and told him, “We’re putting it out there and nobody’s going to take it.”

The first step for filmmakers with a project idea, panelists suggested, is to build a Facebook page and then go the crowd-funding route, first by reaching out to friends and families because their backing (“love money”) instills confidence in those who will follow. The next step is to identify communities that care about a project’s subject and then get to them via social media. Give them compelling information, cool stuff (hold the sweatshirts) like copies of the script, and anything they’re like to share with their friends. Funding on these sites comes in strong initially, often followed by a lull. The momentum can be re-stimulated by offering new rewards like names in credits which prospective backers like. Turning production stills into postcards that go out to interested parties can be “powerful motivators.” The idea is to build a “fanship” not just for a single project but for excitement that can drive a career. “Make the campaign fun and you’ll bring in more money.” And convey the impression of real involvement in the creative process.

But however robust this funding route is for indies, their Hollywood dreams live on, as panelists concurred that “the appeal of the studio system is still there.”

Honoring the rewards offered donators can be a nightmarish process because of all the shipping required. One panelist suggested using shipping hubs around the country. Also unexpected, one filmmaker panelist noted, is how a concept and production can get complicated when the money does come in that then requires lawyers and accountants. Thus, “the crowd-funding process itself can become a film production writ small.”

Kickstarter kickstarted things, but a number of new crowd-funding sites have come on the Web. One represented on the Summit panel, Seed and Spark, promoted its unique concept of facilitating the lending of props, costumes and other things for productions on their site, in addition to providing searches for crew help.

Search giant Google was on many a mind. A cursory but provocative comment came from a panelist in his passing remark that Google, right after the Oscars broadcast, e-mailed news outlets the most “Googled” terms Oscar viewers searched during the broadcast. Google did confirm it relayed its most searched terms during the red-carpet event, but “no additional information” was provided Oscar night.

The Google publicist did suggest using “our external tool, google.com/trends, where you can pop in words, limit to the night of the Oscars and see the spikes and related other queries.” (No doubt those in film production and marketing and others needing a better understanding of what interests moviegoers are already hip to this tool.)

Among a handful of companies demonstrating their wares at the Summit was Shindig, a platform now in beta for large-scale live video chat events that is, said marketing manager Yusang Lee, “pioneering the next generation of online interaction.” The platform, also just demonstrated at SXSW, looked mighty impressive on the 60-inch TV at the Summit and, with its many windowed participants onscreen and able to communicate, inspired thoughts of a new kind of movie-testing application, whether for a $200 million or $500,000 work near completion.

Shindig could aggregate viewers to watch and share feedback live, perhaps producing richer information than hard-copy feedback forms. Issues of security, however, have yet to be answered. Shindig is now serving authors on book tours and some music-industry figures, but the platform as a crowd-sourcing (hopefully not crowd-ranting) tool for distributors and marketers suggested potential for some kind of application in film.

As for what the film industry might take away from so much talk amongst those in digital, advertising, TV, mobile, etc., maybe it’s just to keep the right content coming. And also get into bed with Netflix?