May 31, 2006

Citizen Storytellers: When Filmmakers Control the Means of Distribution

It's been the filmmaker's Holy Grail for as long as anyone can remember--a day when the balance of power shifts from the distributor to the filmmaker, when content is truly king, when a filmmaker's library has the kind of lifelong value that helps create a catalog of work, which over time becomes more valuable and more easily accessible.

Promises, promises.

But the simple fact is, that day has arrived. A whole slew of new technologies is powering this change, but the real change is coming from the audience. Viewers are increasingly seeking out content, gathering it on their TiVo, downloading it to their iPod or viewing it via podcast.

It's a frothy time, and the changes will come fast and furious as platforms, digital rights management and free speech all bump up against each other in a blistering attempt to figure out the future. There is no shortage of companies building in what I'll call the "filmmaker empowerment space," but a handful of them deserve particular notice.

Among the most interesting places to watch include Apple's iTunes music store (which now serves video), YouTube, MySpace and a number of the larger broadcasters. PBS's P.O.V. has a rather detailed page of podcasts at www.pbs.org/pov/podcast.html, and PBS has a worthwhile guide to the whole changing media landscape at www.pbs.org/mediashift.

But if you're looking for a quick way to dip your toe in the water and make some of your back catalogue available to the surfing public, then Google Video is worth serious consideration.

At first glance, Google Video may not look like it's going to set the world on fire.

A barren white page, a bunch of thumbnail images and a not terribly intuitive search engine may tend to put you off. But after a month of experimentation and testing, I can vouch that Google Video has all the firepower and intelligence under the hood to make it a genuine marketing, distribution and publishing engine for documentary filmmakers.

This article will give you some tips and clues as to how you can benefit from the evolving world of Web publishing.

First, to use Google Video as an example, you need to log in to www.video.Google.com. Next, click on "Submit Your Video" on the bottom right. You'll get a link to download the Google Video Uploader. This is a tool that allows your files to be sent quickly to the Google Servers. Both Mac and PC are there.

Google takes all kinds of files--MOV, WMV and MP4. You'll need to have your files encoded and ready to upload. You can use Quicktime, Final Cut or Compressor to output your files to MP4 (or if you're editing on Final Cut in the Scratch Disk, your files are already there in MOV format). If you're going to post free videos that will drive traffic back to you, you may want to burn a small piece of text on your file. Media Cleaner Pro does this nicely.

Now you're ready to upload files. Remember, you can remove them at any time; so don't worry yet about what's going up.

Once your files are up at Google, you need to add what is called "meta-data" about each clip--filmmaker's name, production company's name, any website to which you want to link and, of course, the fact that you have the right to post this video.

Now for the important part: the Deal. Are you giving the clips away? If so, there are three choices: users can simply view them on Google or download the clips to their computer; or filmmakers can use a link to show the video on their website.

Or, is the material for sale? You can ask Google to sell the material for you, either selling the file or selling a "24-Hour Pass" at whatever price you choose; Google takes a 30 percent commission. In the sales mode, you can offer a free preview of any length you want. You can post a 20-minute doc for $2.99 and have 45 seconds available for free.

These are important decisions. Think of it like a film festival strategy. You want buzz and awareness, but you don't want overexposure. In the case of a film I'm currently working on, I'm going to burn the title of the film into the clips and post a few hundred of them on Google. My thinking is that each of these little data bytes will find its way to searchers who are interested in my subject. And then I'll direct them back to my site to explore.

Jennifer Feikin, who directs Google Video, told SearchEngineWatch, "The real vision is getting content out to the users--what they want and how they want it--and the first step is really figuring out how to get the greatest catalog of content, which is Google's core mission: to organize the world's information."

The evolution of content distribution won't be left to Google. Yahoo, AOL and others have jumped into the distribution game as well, though none has given content-makers the control that Google has up until this point. At the moment, all of these companies can be lumped into one category: "Send us your stuff and we'll post it." Now, that may seem like a terrible deal for filmmakers, but not so fast. After all, film festivals don't offer any better economics. The game has always been to get visibility and critical acclaim, and distribution will follow.

So it's safe to theorize that a huge hit on MySpace or iFilm could well lead to an e-mail expressing interest from a TV network or film distributor. Or, for the more technologically inclined, there is now for the first time a self-distribution option that allows filmmakers to tie their Web exposure and press back to a Amazon's Custom Flix DVD-on-Demand solution. Apple's iTunes music store has jumped into film downloads with both feet, and the results are pretty impressive. As consumers become more accustomed to purchasing the content they want, there is a clear path toward more alternative content purchases.

And don't expect Yahoo to let Google stay out front for long. The current leader in user-submitted video, YouTube, is currently in play, and Yahoo's Terry Semel had plenty to say about user-generated content (UGC) when he took the stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas back in January. And fast approaching are the telecommunications companies--both landline and wireless. Verizon has a huge TV initiative in the works, and Sprint has made real inroads with its MobiTV offering. In the future, when video will be everywhere, it's hard to imagine a medium or a platform that won't be looking for content from both professional filmmakers and amateurs alike.

While the whole UGC buzz might seem scary to filmmakers, keep in mind that no one benefits from the price of content being "free," so you can expect Yahoo to get excited about being in business with high-quality content makers.

Google's elegant and innovative solution to video upload and search will open the door for filmmakers to share trailers, works-in-progress, footage and other elements of their work with the public. Because the Google service is free and flexible, there is an opportunity to experiment with the marketing and pricing to find new markets and new revenue streams.

As consumers find that they have more control over the content they receive, and more ways to gather, manage and view it, there will be the blooming of thousands of niches. While these micro-audiences may not interest a network or a theatrical distributor, filmmakers can do very well with tens of thousands of $1.99 downloads. In fact, a filmmaker with a catalogue of four or five films that continue to sell at a reasonable clip might begin to amass quite a living from both current and catalogue work.

We've all made films that came and went. Finished, distributed, vanished. But that is ending. Some of our older work deserves to remain in that box in the attic. But there are films, stories, videos, etc. that are just waiting to see the light of day. And now we've arrived.

So I'm starting to think of my career as a catalogue, and the various ways it can be presented and organized as just part of my job of telling stories.

So tomorrow, storytelling will be about making films, and then finding the places in the world that are hungry for our stories. Thanks to the evolution of the Internet, those places are getting easier to find.

 

Steve Rosenbaum is managing partner at MagnifyMedia.com, a team of storytellers and software wizards dedicated to enhancing user-generated content on both the Web and TV.

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