Forward thinking: the cross-media future

Power to the Pixel Think Tank: PART ONE

The potential for a  participatory, collaborative cross-media movement that can renew creative industry models or strike out into new territory was the key theme of the 2009 Power to the Pixel Think Tank in London. Michael Gubbins reports.

The Think Tank was made up of a range of leading thinkers and practitioners in the cross-media field from around the world.

The tone of the discussion had clearly moved on from previous years – driven by a sense that the business models for existing media were already failing both audiences and content creators and could not grasp the opportunities of a changed world.

But the Think Tank was set up to avoid a moribund debate about what was wrong with today’s media industries, choosing instead to take on the more active challenge of envisaging a shape for a new cross-media world.

The earlier Power to the Pixel forum attended by hundreds of film-makers and part of The Times BFI London Film Festival, reinforced the need for looking forward rather than revisiting well-worn debates.

The Think Tank itself was made up of those who have already been through the discussion about the decline of existing models and had already taken the leap into reinventing new means of working.

But the question for many film-makers and content creators at the forum is whether these cross-media pioneers are an exclusive hardcore or whether they are marking out a trail or trails that others can follow.

In other words, are we at the beginning of a cross-media movement?

These articles look at the key themes in the Think Tank discussion.

From consumers to collaborators

The audience is the essential starting point for discussion of a cross-media world.

A demand-led consumer culture is among the main factors that have undermined existing industry business models. From piracy to release windows, the creative industries have tried to work out ways to hold back the tide of demand.

The cross-media world, however, is about working with customer trends rather than restricting them.

Specifically, the panel questioned the future of a system in which value resides in the selling of rights to a restricted territory and for a single platform. The rethinking of value as something that is based on relationships with audience will be explored later in these Think Tank reports.

The idea that the point of interaction with content should be the choice of customer is contentious. In film, for example, it denies the almost religious centrality of the theatrical window.

In fact, most of the participants are confident that cinema has a future but that its value will be based on its social setting which, far from needing protection, gives it a unique position if it can offer customers choice, an experience, comfort etc.

But at heart, the cross-media argument is  that audiences ultimately decide the hierarchy of platforms. The music industry learned the hard way, that where and when product is used was simply not in their gift, and business models based on restriction suffered.

The engaged audience

Consumer control in cross-media terms takes that power to new levels.

Audiences will decide at what level their engagement takes place but their centrality is crucial – in an internet age, audiences become communities.

“Every project creates its own federated group of people,” says Michel Reilhac, Executive Director, Arte France Cinéma. “Audience can invent itself.”

The active audience is not then necessarily one that takes a direct part in the financing or creation of content, even though crowd-sourcing has taken the headlines.

As Sara Pollack, Entertainment Marketing Manager at YouTube rightly pointed out, the large majority may be happy as consumers.

But the notion of the “engaged audience” can be defined widely. In the modern media, audiences choose what they see, whose recommendations they follow, on what platform they wish to see content.

A number of people pointed out that the very fact that audiences assemble socially online and make up communities that can be understood, mobilised and serviced, represents a sea change from the analogue age.

Turning engagement into value

If value will be drawn from servicing an audience rather than just exploitation of rights, this is an area that film-makers need to understand.

The panel mostly rejected the term consumer or customer as inadequate with audience as a more neutral term. Film-maker, story architect and cross-media pioneer, Lance Weiler talks about audience as collaborators.

“I think about the audience in a way that I can collaborate with – how can I make something that means something to them,” he said. “I want to empower them – and in letting go you do things differently.”

The idea of the audience as collaborator – particularly a collaborator with whom content is freely shared – goes against the grain of the entire rights-centred approach of the existing media.

There have been accusations of naivety about the approach but large areas of the media are struggling with these issues and, as Weiler points out, there are commercial independent models in the open-source software world.

If collaboration also means collecting freely-given data about audiences, then Weiler suggests, we are entering a field that is the obsession of many other businesses.

Ben Malbon,  Managing Partner and Founder of BBH Labs, which has been doing pioneering work in marketing, said that advertisers and marketeers were having the same discussions about where true value resided in a multi-platform, demand-led world.

For the film industry, in particular, the discussion is often polarised. Perhaps that is partly because there is a growing realisation that you cannot simply integrate the new forms of distribution with the old business, as had been done with VHS and DVD.

“We have an entire new paradigm but we’re breaking it by trying to fit it into our old models,” says Brian Newman, consultant and former President of the Tribeca Film Institute.

Some of that reluctance goes beyond technology, he suggested: “Resistance isn’t to technology, it’s to the audience.  People are scared that they have to engage with their audience.”

Power to the Pixel founder Liz Rosenthal puts it more bluntly: “Audience is a dirty word, connected to consumer.”

This is not an easy subject in Europe, where cultural exception is used to justify production but not distribution – which is mere trade.

Audience collaboration is a culture shift with big consequences for business and policy-making as we shall see in the next two parts of this short series. But the direct connection between content creator and a collaborative audience is already having a profound effect on those who have experienced it.

The Think Tank panel:

CHAIR: MICHAEL GUBBINS, journalist and consultant (UK); SCILLA ANDREEN, Co-Founder & CEO, IndieFlix (USA); OMID ASHTARI, Agent, CAA (USA); PETER BUCKINGHAM, Head of Distribution & Exhibition, UK Film Council (UK); CHRISTY DENA, Director, Universe Creation 101 (AUS); MARTIN ELRICSSON, Producer & Creative Director, The company P (SWE); TED HOPE, Producer and Co-Founder, This is that (USA); MAUREEN McHUGH, Writer & Partner, No Mimes Media (USA); BEHNAM KARBASSI, Producer & Partner, No Mimes Media (USA); BEN MALBON, Managing Partner & Founder, BBH Labs (USA); BRIAN NEWMAN, Consultant and Former President, Tribeca Film Institute (USA); NINA PALEY, Filmmaker, Sita Sings the Blues (USA); MICHEL PETERS, Co-Founder & CEO, Content Republic (UK), STEVE PETERS, Experience Designer & Partner, No Mimes Media (USA); SARA POLLACK, Entertainment Marketing Manager, YouTube (USA); MICHEL REILHAC, Executive Director, Arte France Cinéma (FR); LIZ ROSENTHAL, Founder & Director, Power to the Pixel (UK); SLAVA RUBIN, Co-Founder, IndieGoGo (USA); DAVID VARELA, Producer, nDreams (UK); HUNTER WEEKS, Filmmaker, 10MPH and Ride the Divide (USA)
LANCE WEILER, Filmmaker, Story Architect and Digital Innovator (USA).