Michael Gubbins looks at some of the main conference themes discussed at the Power to the Pixel London Forum.
Before last week’s Power to the Pixel forum at The Times BFI London Film Festival, a delegate asked a highly pertinent question: “I can see this is the cutting edge, but the cutting edge of what exactly?”
The event is now in its third year and as intellectually stimulating as ever, but do the disparate group of disciplines, projects and ideas represent a common theme or movement beyond the use of digital technologies? Is this a stage in the evolution of film or a decisive break for new territory?
What the forum, the workshops, the Pixel Pitch and Think Tank pointed to were a set of themes that seem to represent a clear, if inconsistently implemented, approach. They include:
- The use of the creative potential of a wide range of media
- A break with narrow single-industry business models
- The use of tools, skills and networking opportunities enabled by the internet
- A close, even collaborative, relationship between content creator and audience
The hundreds of film-makers gathered for the forum at London’s National Film Theatre were certainly presented with a sense of mission.
That mission is less the cutting edge of an existing creative industry and more of the creation of a ‘cross-media’ form of creativity that transcends industry boundaries.
Of course, working across media platforms is not in itself new and the toy of the book of the film of the game is at the heart of much of Hollywood’s current output.
But the forum heard that cross-media working crucially reaches beyond the business models to appeal to, and work directly with, audiences.
For some speakers, this has been a means of working – and a philosophy – that they have employed over a number of years.
Perhaps what Power to the Pixel this year represented was these ideas and models entering the mainstream of creative business.
And at least some of the sense of direction and purpose this year came from the difficulties of the current independent film industry around the world.
It is an industry “running on empty” suggested Ted Hope, multi-award winning producer of such films as American Splendor and 21 Grams and co-founder of This is that corporation.
The point was echoed by consultant and former Tribeca Film Institute president Brian Newman: While the film industry - and other creative media industries – delight in pointing out that less restrictive and ‘free’ business models had delivered little to few, he said the old economics had left most empty-handed anyway.
The crumbling of old business models in the short term may prove the most powerful incentive to change. Those with little real stake in the existing business model were more likely to experiment, the forum was told.
A number of speakers reminded delegates that cross-media working was delivering culturally diverse and innovative products to engaged audiences that was missing from a film business dominated by a few ‘gatekeepers’ from fund managers to critics.
For any film-makers and storytellers there remains, however, a fear factor. Most can understand the potential of new routes to market – and the forum featured a useful panel on new platforms such as The Auteurs, Babelgum and Indieflix.
Many accept the idea that the film industry is not suffering from over-production problem but under-distribution.
Power To The Pixel, however, challenges content producers to take a broader view of their role as we shall see in tomorrow’s article.
That includes understanding the potential of digital technologies.
A number of questions from the floor focused on what they saw a necessity to learn deep technical skills and to appeal to a “hardcore” of tech savvy, net-native gamers.
Yet the actual technology advances over the last couple of years are among the least interesting aspects of cross-media change. Most speakers, however exciting their projects, were using relatively well-established tools.
One of the true pioneers of the field and an increasingly influential voice in film and beyond, Lance Weiler, has long been a believer that the tools are available to film-makers if only they know where to look. Democratising the means of production is at the heart of his Workbook Project.
The journey to the Power to the Pixel stage for many of the speakers began with a Google search or word of mouth. This is a movement that is based on a generous sharing of findings which, as Weiler points out, has been successful over many years in open-source software.
What is constantly evolving is that content is changing to meet changing customer behaviour and demand.
Online series and content for mobile phones (jokingly dismissed as a non-starter a few short years back) is among the most obvious areas of expansion. Ben Grass, managing director of Pure Grass Films, demonstrated the power of these new means of distribution with successful projects such as Beyond The Rave, Kirill and the mobile-based When Evil Calls.
The role-playing games at the centre of other projects may again be based on evolving technology but at heart they are about interaction between audience and creator. The work of David Varela, a producer at nDreams and Martin Elricsson, producer and creative director of The Company P, is worth following to get a sense of how this interaction is evolving. (See future video spots on this site)
But cross-media is about adapting the opportunities that technology brings but at heart it is about audience, interaction and collaboration.
Customers to collaborators
If Power to the Pixel’s cross-media message can be summed up in a couple of words, you could do worse than the two E’s – engagement and empowerment of the audience.
Projects differ on how far the relationship goes but all are committed to the notion of breaking down the barriers between creator and audience.
Few have gone as far as Weiler, who has established a reputation as the leading pioneer in these areas. He refers to himself as a “story architect” rather than film-maker and is comfortable with a role as a “facilitator” rather than an author.
But all have exploited relationships. Some, such as The Age Of Stupid, would have been unthinkable without the audience as collaborators.
As film-maker Franny Armstrong and producer Lizzie Gillett explained (in a presentation that deserves its own show), the audience is the funder, the marketer and gives political power to its uncompromising message about the environment.
Some share the free content activism of Nina Paley, whose Sita Sings The Blues has been one of the most celebrated releases under the free sharing Copyleft approach; others, such as Steve Peters, partner at No Mimes Media has shown the power of customer-centred alternative reality gaming (ARG) in marketing movies and content, including the Why So Serious? Campaign for Batman sequel The Dark Knight.
What unites is a sense that serious advantages go to those who break down barriers to move towards open collaboration, a marked break from the closed rights-centred models of most existing media.
A marked feature of this year’s event was mature debate about value – indicating perhaps that these trends are being taken seriously.
The business model of the traditional film industry is very strongly rooted in rights – closed, restrictive, platform specific and geographically distinct. The cross-media world is built however on open models, relationships, reaching beyond borders of technology and country.
As the presentation of Christy Dena, director of Universe Creation 101, demonstrated there is a multiplicity of different approaches that may spawn different models.
There is simply no one model that can be grabbed as representing transmedia business but there is a common sense that value resides chiefly in the relationships built with audiences.
For some, that relationship turns audience into collaborator, beginning but not ending with financial support. The Age Of Stupid, for example, derives every aspect of its existence as a product and power as a movement on collaboration, which the term “crowdsourcing” scarcely does justice.
Others are exploring mutual interest between brands and content. Film-maker Hunter Weeks has managed to attract big names such as CBS Sports, Crocs and Fender to his films, wishing to tap into the close relationship he has with audiences. Typically he has shared his experience in the 10 MPH DIY Manual.
Weiler talked about the value of data that a close relationship with audiences naturally generated. It is a theme that many publishers have been talking about over recent years – the shift from providing “eyeballs” to advertisers to providing targeted data to business.
These new approaches should not be taken, however, as quietly evolutionary for film. They challenge industry conventions in areas such as release windows and, of course, ask big questions about intellectual property rights.
There is not, however, a ubiquitous view on models other than a general sense that the cross-media mission is to close the gap between creator and audience.
A cross-media movement?
Power to the Pixel therefore represents a broad church but every branch of the creative industries has found that changing relationships with audiences has a highly disruptive effect on existing industry models.
Engagement, collaboration and empowerment seem benign words but they represent deep challenges for industry. Power to the Pixel brought together what looks very much like a cross-media movement that embraces those challenges as the future.