Digital Future(s)

Busy couple of days, I spent Tues at the South West Screen 1-day conference/seminar on Digital Film. The event was run as a series of interview/discussions chaired by Nick Roddick and generally flowed quite well, though there was an undercurrent that all this digital stuff was a threat to ‘proper’ film making; which of course it is unless ‘proper’ film making can step up to the challenge.

The first session looked at Digital Production with Simon Oakes (Hammer), Helen Brusnman and Robin Gladman (Aardman).

Simon kicked things off by talking about they’re experience with mySpace, while recognising that the US theater market is critical for theatre releases, mySpace offers a global marketing platform. Hammer made Beyond the Rave for under £500k (which at today’s exchange rates is around $1m, and there are plenty of good $1m films to be made). The revenue model is ad driven.

Beyond the Rave – mini-episodic chunks each of around 4 minutes that eventually can be cut together in to an 84 minute feature. Each ‘episode’ on mySpace for a couple weeks (launched last week) then drops off. At the end there’ll be a DVD release but there are no plans for a theatre release, apparently this was agreed at the outset with the director. If there is huge demand for a theatre release, and the director is happy, it may get one. Since the films have already been shot, there’s no ongoing interaction between the viewers and the narrative but Simon did posit that this represented an experiment (for Hammer at least) with new narrative structures.

Helen and Robin then talked a bit about Angry Kid on AtomFilms which represented 83% revenue for Aardman. There was a nod towards mobile TV with Orange but platform issues and competing options meant this was still an emerging area for Aardman.

One question that was never quite answered was ‘Is brand more valuable than content‘? For Simon, their core demographic 16-34, and they’re on the web. He also pointed out that you have to design for the platform – symbiotic. mySpace won’t fund content but will give leverage into +50m viewers; the panel also thought that minimum guarantee on distribution as with other platforms to ease investor / bank fears would soon be ‘normal’ (currently circa 60% of revenue from mySpace ad deals).

Quite a lot of the discussion moved from production to the use of online for marketing, which was cunning ’cause that was the next session. Grace Carley (All Industry Marketing) and Teun Hilte (Content Republic) took up the baton. The first thing the panel got out of the way was the Blairwitch Project and that it doesn’t work for big budget because its not authentic; it can still work with smaller budget / viral films where that method of communicating with the audience is integral. Has to be integrated across whole global platform. Still a pain in the ass (52 codecs for Vodafone range alone), not enough money (yet) to be crucial part of marketing strategy.

Exhibit A was noted as having a successful online viral campaign by suggesting that this was a murder tape leaked by police.

Grace was representing the bigger studios and appeared really only interested in block buster with a generally negative view of internet, just wants people to go to the cinema. I think this was also the first use of the phrase ‘If you can’t beat it join it’ which appeared throughout the day as the best case for digital? Interestingly conversation with the audience throughout the day suggested that they were already online and perhaps this was the dying throws of the industry.

After coffee Philippe Schlutter (CLA), Alfred Chubb (Arts Alliance) and Michael Peters (Content Republic) kicked off with Alfred talking about running platforms for love.films, tiscalli, empire etc. Mostly revenue share but increasingly ad driven. Michael outlined their role as independent distributors, consolidating rights across Europe and providing aggregation and digital encoding services. Philippe was also providing business process streamling for distribution, though more with a focus on placing content rather than marketing & business develop.

Beginning to see aggregation / consolidation of global rights. Mainly for independents & local sales agents, this was the tcrrent system evolving (rather than step change). By and large the business model was that they took their fees from licensor’s revenue through a % service fee of license fee. Long tail business? Not quite there yet but online providers are hungry for content.

Next up were Marc John (City Screen), Alex Stolz (UKFC), and Mark Cosgrove (Watershed).

Alex revealed that the UK Film Council has funded 240 screens to install digital projectors at roughly £50k to set up a digital screen.

Mark commented that having only one projector means you don’t have flexibility to move films between screens in response to audience. For single screen or smaller independent cinema, the virtual print fee and the cost of upgrade as a % of turnover is that much greater than for larger independents or chains. Many still can’t afford to upgrade, French want public money to pay for the transformation; commercial cinema cries foul!

Marc also described their use of the digital technology to provide a live HD stream of the New York Met to show opera on the big screen, and charge opera prices.

After lunch came – Piracy with Jonny Reckless (Macrovision) and Geraldine Moloney (MPA)

In typical fashion, Geraldine kicked off by asking the rhetorical question – how big a threat is piracy? More than a threat – its there now! Scary stuff!!!

In a conference about digital film Geraldine was somewhat handicapped by not being very aware of the technology. Early on she called for ‘more investment in the pipes or whatever it is’ when talking about the BBC iPlayer. Later on she admitted to owning a DVD player but not knowing how to use it. She couldn’t see why anyone would want to copy a film that they had purchased in one format into another. MPA 32 countries across EMEA education on enforcement – lobbying for stronger legislation.

When Nick Roddick brought up the phrase ‘Better pirated than ignored’; Geraldine admitted that it – makes my blood run cold. She was so condescending as to admit that – there is a ‘lost generation’ that will never come back to the ‘light’. The MPA policy is preventive – to stop people from doing it. Haven’t yet taken action against consumers (there was an unspoken ‘yet). Need to retain existing business models (i.e. we’re making pots of cash, please don’t make us change anything). When asked if the industry shouldn’t try to bring their product to customers rather than stopping people from viewing their content, there was silence.

Jonny joined with a quick resume of DRM and that they were just stopping people from being bad. He also touched and potential alternatives to the current system including subscription models from yahoo and others (at which Geraldine visibly winced, though that could have been theatrical). He was at least trying to described better business models for the industry.

Next up were Gerben Kuipers (Cinemec) and Yaniv Wolf (Submarine). Gerben cheerfully described his cinema complex, independent, without government support and doing very well thank you. The building and investment represented around Euro60m (which drew a few gasps from the audience). Gerben also pointed out that although he did show a few Hollywood films also had a very high proportion of Dutch language films.

Yaniv described their mini films as cross media story telling. Again with Episodic 3-7 min episodes but with only the first trailers were free, you buy the rest. They were also experimenting with pre- & post roll ads and ad sharing with publishers. Their latest experiment was in Second Life, small roll on YouTube for Euro30k sold to HBO for Euro300k. The secret to their success, got picked as film of the day; but 2-3 people at Submarine are focused on SEO / marketing.

Submarine also make ‘normal’ documentaries and films, did he think that this form could lead to ‘normal’ film making? Probably not.

The penultimate session had Nick Roddick interviewing Pete Buckingham, UK Film Council, about the future of film. Entertaining but not very enlightening. Rather unfortunately the last session was on copyright by Carla Basso (Osborne Clarke). A complex area and the introduction took up almost all the time available. Suffice to say that the law hasn’t really kept up with technology, there are guidelines but little case law.

And as I write this I’m listening to R4 Today news talking about Hammer Films releasing their film online!

[UPDATE – couldn’t have said it better myself – Jackass Movie Straight to Web: Screws Theaters, BBI – December 13, 2007 @ 13:02]