For writer Scott Kirsner, the new is his beat. On his blog CinemaTech (cinematech.blogspot.com) and in articles appearing in The New York Times, Variety and the Boston Globe, he covers issues surrounding film, media, and the way both are being changed by new production and distribution technologies. His latest book is Inventing the Movies: The Hidden Technological History of Hollywood, and while telling the story of how the technology behind cinema has progressed it also tells the tale of innovation itself. Kirsner‘s book is a must-read for those interested in understanding how change has happened before so they can help make it happen again. It is available at scottkirsner.com/inventing.
You‘ve written a book about innovation in the media arts, and one recent innovation within our new digital world appears to be the decimation of traditional ways in which artists are paid for their work. Do you think there will be a countervailing innovation that will allow artists to get paid again, or, as Chris Anderson argues, is all digital media destined to be free? Well, I hope that innovation will offer ways for filmmakers to capture lots of value from their work. I‘m pro making money from creative work. I‘m a writer, that‘s what I do. I worry, though, that preserving the idea of being paid cash for the privilege of watching your movie, whether it‘s a download or a DVD, may be under threat. I had a conversation with one of my students. He has never bought a movie on iTunes, he doesn‘t buy a lot of music, and he said, “Your book and Web site are great — I downloaded the three free chapters, but I haven‘t bought the book.” I think that‘s kind of representative of the fact we may be heading towards the Chris Anderson “giving a lot away for free” economy. The challenge is going to be figuring out the new business models. Maybe they are ad-supported or maybe everyone needs a benefactor, a Medici family backing you up. Or maybe it‘s something else we haven‘t discovered yet.
It‘s so ironic, because all these new models harken back to the oldest artist-support models there are. The patronage model goes back to the 15th century, and the idea that the artist is a traveling showman dates from before recorded media. Yeah, maybe filmmakers will have to make money at live screenings where the audience interacts with them and has a cocktail before the movie and a Q and A after. Maybe it will be a little bit like the road shows of old. I understand, though, that a lot of filmmakers, like Hollywood studios, want to preserve their ability to sell DVDs, which have a great profit margin built into them. But I just know that DVDs are not going to have an infinite lifespan. Physical media is clearly going away. Even Blu-ray DVDs are going to go away at some point.
What time horizon do you see for that? I don‘t have that data, and maybe I‘m wrong — maybe DVDs are going to survive, like books, and they‘ll be the last physical embodiment of the movies because you can easily trade them with a friend. Someone e-mailed me recently about a Web site called Swaptree, and the idea is that if you have DVDs you are not watching anymore, you can trade them on this Web site. So for that kind of stuff, physical media is great. My belief, though, is that digital delivery is inevitable, and I‘m hopeful that filmmakers and entrepreneurs will do a lot of experiments to figure out the best ways to make it work. Like maybe you give away the first ten minutes of your movie and at minute 11 the viewer decides whether to pay to watch another ten minutes or to order the whole movie. Another concept I really like is letting people quote sections from a movie, and that‘s something you can only do in digital form. For example, there‘s a great car chase in this movie, and I want to quote it on my blog. That‘s something that can be ad supported. And people can say, “Wow, this car chase is great, I‘d like to see the context around it,” and they can buy the whole movie. It‘s the same way that publishers are beginning to sell individual chapters of books. As a writer, I‘d rather someone buy one chapter of my book than none at all.
What is left to innovate? Are we at an end-of-history moment? I never think we are at an end-of-history moment. Whenever things have plateaud in the past, there is always some new idea, or some threat from outside the industry that comes along, like the television [displacing radio] or the VCR. Right now it‘s all about innovating the business model, figuring out how you make money with all these new devices like iPods and cell phones. I feel that there is going to be a lot of creative innovation over the next 10 years — figuring out new forms and formats for storytelling. I don‘t think the iPod is a device that wants to show two-hour movies. I don‘t think it‘s great for that. I think it‘s more a device for a half-hour TV show or what Joss Whedon did with Doctor Horrible‘s Singalong Blog, where it‘s storytelling in seven-minute segments, or stand-alone movies that are ten minutes long. The world of the last 30, 40, 50 years has been about half-hour TV shows, hour-long TV shows, 100-minute movies and short films that no one ever saw. Short films were something you only made as a film student or when you‘re just starting out because there was no distribution mechanism, and now, suddenly, I think that‘s where all the action is going to be. I also think that there is a lot of interesting stuff that‘s going to happen in the interplay between the film and the game worlds.
You are already starting to see some of that, people like the machinima movement making online series with the tools of gaming. And I wonder when films are delivered to theaters digitally if you‘re not going to be revisiting the question of how audiences can interact with them. Will there be moments in documentaries when you might want the audience voting by SMS? Or could you imagine a teenage audience having a chat thread running alongside the movie, a kind of Mystery Science Theater 3000 meta-commentary running in a thin column to the right of the picture? All of these ideas are interesting, but they are all things that will fracture our viewing experience. They require you to multitask and to not concentrate solely on the film like we‘re accustomed to doing in a movie theater. I love that [about seeing movies in theaters] too, and I don‘t want that choice to go away. I just think there will be other options. Have you heard the phrase “the three-screen experience”?
No. It means that while you are watching television you may have your laptop open and be surfing the Web and also be carrying on a text-message thread on your cell phone with your friend. That is very fractured attention.
I have never heard that term, but I am in that crowd. So you can easily imagine a movie being broadcast on TV, and you are commenting about it on your laptop to a community Web site and maybe even chatting by text with a friend who is also watching the same movie. I think it‘s a reality of the way people are consuming media now. I hope that the sole focus theater experience doesn‘t disappear, but I think there are a lot of creative and business opportunities that could take advantage of the fact that people have those three screens and those new ways of interacting with the movies. There may be Web-based games that you play while the movie is going on, or mysteries built into the movie that you explore on the Web after the movie is over.
What are the threats to innovation right now? Net neutrality issues? The credit crisis? The threats to innovation are always the same, which is that the vast majority of people involved in an industry like the movies want to keep the business model working the way it already works. People are comfortable with what‘s known and uncomfortable with what‘s unknown. If you and I went in and pitched an idea for a movie that had to be distributed on cell phones and iPods the day it is in the theaters, and we‘re going to create all these games around it, it‘s an idea any studio will be uncomfortable with. They have important relationships with theaters and pay cable [they do not want to disturb].
Are there examples of great movie Web marketing right now? The Dark Knight is the Web campaign of the year, but how many of the lower-budget movies have great interactive presences? How many independent moviemakers feel that putting time and energy into a great Web presence is important? I would argue that the typical film Web site for any film that has less than a $15 million budget is just a synopsis, trailer, cast and maybe some downloadable wallpaper for your computer screen.
Why are indie filmmakers so behind the curve on Web marketing? It‘s because not every filmmaker is naturally an entrepreneur or a marketer. They want to communicate through film, and I feel that the challenge for them is to get more attention, to build more of an audience for their films and a fan base to support their own careers. Filmmakers do need to spend more time on this stuff because in the worlds of music, film, publishing and art, the middleman and distributors are not doing as much as they used to. Promotion falls on your shoulders. That‘s what I want to concentrate on in my next book.
Okay, so forget about indie filmmakers — why are indie distributors so reluctant to be innovative on the Web? When you have something going on in your life that works, you are loathe to change it. So many of these small distributors are used to the idea that there‘s a press kit for the movie, which is a folder with a picture of the movie on the front, and there‘s a press release and a filmmaker bio inside, and if you‘re lucky a CD-ROM with some digital pictures. But you can do more on the Web because your production and distribution costs are lower. Why not have a podcast interview with the director on the Web, or have the producer do a blog? But [for some companies] all of this stuff feels like it‘s creating more work, or it‘s changing existing workflows in ways that are uncomfortable.
You are self-publishing and distributing this book. What have you learned from this experience? Three things. You really need to have a platform and a built-in audience to really be successful promoting something now. The platform that I built over a couple of years is the CinemaTech blog, and that has a couple of thousand people who come to it every week. Two, you want to make things available in a lot of different ways that are convenient for people. A lot of publishers don‘t pay any attention to the ebook, but I wanted to have the book available in print and, for instant gratification, in digital form. I had a debate at the IFP conference with Tom Bernard from Sony Pictures Classics where I argued that the moment a lot of movies get the most attention is when they appear at a festival, so why not let people pay a premium price and download the movie then, or the week after? I wanted to do that with the book. And the third thing is something I did a little bit of, which is sharing the material as I was gathering it. I did a couple of interviews with Mark Cuban, and I posted those interviews on the blog and it was interesting to see other people‘s comments. He even posted some comments on the blog himself. So, by posting raw material and seeing what people want to know about [the audience] can steer you in directions you never would have thought of. I‘m trying to carve my way through the jungle of a new approach to book publishing in the same way that filmmakers are trying to find a new way to make movies.
Tell us more about your next book. It‘s about the new digital audience. I am looking for examples of filmmakers, musicians, writers and artists who are thinking in new ways about connecting with and building an audience online and who are finding new ways for this audience to support their work. And I‘m open to readers of the magazine and Web site sending in their ideas of filmmakers or other artists in this vanguard. People can ping me at [email protected].