Sunday, December 27, 2009

What Are You Really Selling? (Part 4 of 6)

This is an article in a series called The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Value. You may read all the articles in this series by clicking here.

There is a larger and more urgent question: are filmmakers, especially independent filmmakers, really aware of what business they are in? If they think they're in the business of producing and selling movies, they are dead wrong—filmmakers are actually in the business of entertainment. Consumers don't buy movies to support a filmmaker... they buy movies to be entertained. All too often businesses define themselves strictly around providing a tangible item and then fight to the death when that tangible item is replaced by a better product. Horse and carriage drivers weren't in the business of providing a horse and carriage—they were in the business of providing personal transportation. When cars were introduced and took over their market, horse and carraige drivers futilely tried to hold back the tides of progress. Newspapers aren't in the business of printing newspapers (a tangible), they're in the business of providing newsworthy information (an intangible). Before the digital age, where printing was costly, there was a place for newspapers... but now, when killing trees is increasingly unpopular, newspaper print production seems the pargon of waste.

Another great example is iTunes—they aren't in the business of providing media to consumers. If that were the case, they might only be selling DVDs or digital files with highly restrictive DRM. Instead, iTunes is actually providing quality and convenience at a low cost. I know (and so does Apple) that I can get almost anything iTunes offers for free from countless pirated web sites, but iTunes offers the best quality version on an intuitive platform for next to nothing. Why would I bother BitTorrenting when I can find anything I want, easily, and download it immediately... and do it legally?

As I was walking around Disneyland a few years ago, I realized that Disney doesn't simply sell merchandise for their films. Merchandise is a tangible, and as such, any other company could do that. What Disney does, what really separates them from everyone else, is that they sell an intangible. Disney cultivates and sells the magical experiences all children want (be a princess, be a pirate, a Jedi, etc.)... and offers it in the shape of physical merchandise (toys, keychains, stuffed animals, sweatshirts, etc.). Since most parents will do anything to please their children, parents trip over themselves to buy merchandise to sustain that magical Disney pixie dust. If you look at Disneyland closely, everything they do there is infused with this concept: "free" parades, fireworks, random musical numbers, barbarshop quartets. Pirates of the Carribean isn't just any old theme ride—it's a boat ride through supernatural piracy.

Filmmakers aren't in the business of selling movies—movies are the tangible. Instead, filmmakers are in the business of selling the experience their movie provides. Once you understand that distinction, you realize that clinging to many aspects of filmmaking could threaten your long-term career in filmmaking. If you focus your energies on enhancing the experience movies provide, then the movie becomes just one of numerous media adding to that experience. Depending on your career goals, you can either make the movie the main part of the experience, or you can let it be only a secondary part of the experience.

The Blair Witch Project has sometimes been described as an outlier, something so far above the mean that it's an exception that proves the rule. However, I believe Blair Witch was so successful because its filmmakers understood (perhaps only intuitively) that the experience of the story was what audiences wanted... so the filmmakers built an entire world outside of the film which enhanced the film's experience. For example, on the Blair Witch web site, you could see "real" pictures (from the local Sheriff department's murder investigation) of the film cannisters from which the movie is supposed to have been edited. Allegedly, college archeologists on a dig found all three film canisters 20 feet under the ground nestled snugly beneath an undisturbed stone wall over 100 years old. How could the cannisters have possibly been buried there without disturbing the stone wall above it? It's a small detail, perhaps even unnecessary to the movie, but a detail with such supernatural creepiness that it piqued a lot of people's interest in the movie's storyline, and thus enhanced the experience of the film. On their web site, you could get immersed in Blair Witch's detailed alternative reality. You knew it was all fake, but the more you looked at it, the more you wanted to see the film to find out what had happened. In the end, it was fun to squint your eyes and pretend it was real just to feel what the characters might have been feeling. Cloverfield took this approach a step further by creating web sites for an ARG treasure hunt and gave all the movie's main characters Myspace profile pages to interact with the public, a remarkably inexpensive but effective marketing campaign for a studio film.

This article is part of a series called The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Value. You may read the entire articles by clicking here, or the other articles here:

  1. Save the Tower Theatre
  2. A Plea to Consumers
  3. A Rotating Film Tour
  4. What Are You Really Selling?
  5. Transmedia: Connecting With Fans (12/28 09:00 PST)
  6. CwF + RtB For Filmmakers (12/29 09:00 PST)

1 comment:

Miles Maker said...

Indie filmmakers hold the advantageous distinction of being both brands AND individuals. Audiences don't flock to see the next Lionsgate film but they will jump at the opportunity to support Tyler Perry. Thousands of dollars have been donated (given) to Nina Paley after watching her totally FREE movie, "Sita Sings the Blues," a testament to their willingness to express appreciation for her Art and to see her make more of it.

To steer the focus away from making memorable movies and toward merchandising sickens me. Indies are already struggling to complete their beautiful little films to pay people and achieve higher production values. Where does the manufacturing revenue come from? And yes products are replaced by better products, but a film is a unique visual journey; an original experience all to itself. The only 'better' product one might create is a remake of the original--in which case attention ultimately returns to the original for the opportunity to generate more revenue as comparisons will be made. On top of that, remakes are usually made when the original story was compelling enough to warrant one.

Entrepreneurs don't simply stop selling something because it can be found for FREE (i.e., bootleggers and bit torrents). There will always be those who choose access and convenience and the traditional buying experience and those who choose to discover a FREE source--which ultimately increases the demand for the premium product anyway. Establishing value for money ensures the demand for all the extras that come with a purchase and the 'experience.' "Blair Witch" was very effective with transmedia storytelling to develop their audience, brand their entertainment vehicle and build value for money. The film may very well have been available for FREE somewhere but most purchased the experience and catapulted the film to financial success. I do believe in selling the experience. It doesn't come cheap at Disney--but Disney is Disney, and if you want Disney you pay for Disney. I'm sure there are FREE versions of Disney product floating around too.

The FREE model is unsustainable for long-term growth. It is unscalable in posing additional unwanted risks to investors and anyone producing a movie over six figures, which isn't remotely close to a nominal production budget for experienced crew and quality post production. This also limits the stories suitable to be told with this model.

At the end of the day I am a filmmaker first and a merchandiser second--hell even third or fourth! I don't make movies to sell something else--I sell the conversation a movie provokes; my Artistic expression and the escape i provide for viewers. This experience is extended with transmedia offerings for FREE, but my body of work must hold value to sustain growth, or I will be forced to churn out lower quality FREE content at a hellish pace to support my life's endeavors.

There are far too many other ways to sell story merchandise than to undertake an all-consuming route in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds to complete an independent feature film with little or no money. Passion for visual storytelling propels us and that sacrifice separates the Auteur from the filmmaker; the former is a brand with a loyal audience and the latter is a one-off wonder who must reinvent himself with every title. Perhaps a filmmaker's merchandise is more valuable to consumers than the cinematic experience itself.