POWER TO THE PIXEL’S REPORT FROM THE PIXEL FORUM CONFERENCE 12 October 2010
Cross-media is rapidly heading towards the mainstream because it is in tune with the realities of audience behaviour in a digital age – that was the key theme of this year’s Power to the Pixel Cross-Media Forum in association with the BFI London Film Festival.
Mike Monello, Co-Creator of The Blair Witch Project and Co-Founder of creative agency Campfire said: “We are not at the cutting edge…we are trying to catch up to audiences.”
Young audiences in particular were already immersed in a converged world and already expected to be engaged on their terms – what they wanted to watch, when and where.
The key to cross-media storytelling was essentially social – about connecting.
It was a lesson learned from The Blair Witch Project more than a decade ago, but one which the mainstream industry largely failed to absorb, suggested Monello.
The phenomenal success of that film was not limited to what was seen on screen but was part of a ‘story universe’ with a powerful narrative created in collaboration with the audience long before the film’s release.
The ideas had since been developed in other work at Campfire, including award-winning campaigns for products such as HBO’s True Blood series and Audi.
The trick now was to think of the job of the filmmaker or storyteller, not as about delivering just a crafted story, but to expand into what he calls “experience design.”
Designing experiences that offer multiple points of entry to a narrative fits what Michel Reilhac, Executive Director at Arte France Cinéma called “game-ification.”
Increasingly, social relationships have begun to reflect the kinds of interaction we see in gaming or in online social networking.
The development of these trends are not surprising given how much time young people spend in gaming environments.
He quoted games designer and alternate reality game pioneer Jane McGonigal’s suggestion that by the time they reach 21, young people may have spent as much as 10,000 hours gaming – about what they spend in school.
With such a pervasive influence in so many lives it has inevitably spilled over into the real world.
Certainly, games thinking has been a key part in the development of social networks, through which so much of today’s social interaction takes place.
For filmmakers and storytellers, the impact of game-ification is most obviously felt in the kinds of content they need to produce to engage today’s audiences.
Games created both a dynamic personal relationship with content with social networking creating a dynamic element of cooperation. It was both individual and intensely collaborative.
A second immediately relevant issue was the evolution of online rewards for activity. Status, rather than cash was king in the world of gaming and social networks: the number of Facebook friends, a place on the games leaderboard, etc.
It is an idea with clear resonance for marketing, suggesting that audiences could be engaged online by rewarding loyalty and enhancing status.
Jamie King, Founder of crowdsourcing service and P2P distributor VO.DO, for example, told the forum how he had created an online currency which had played a big part in encouraging audiences to use their own social networks to promote films.
These ideas about a changed form of engagement and the potential new business models they will help create have become common currency in the advertising world.
On opening the Forum, Power to the Pixel Founder Liz Rosenthal said cross-media was still in the process of breaking out of the perception that it was just a “fad, weird niche or a form of marketing of existing products.”
The change in attitudes, suggested some speakers, was motivated by the fact that there are now objective reasons to believe that cross-platform storytelling was coming of age.
Wendy Bernfeld, Managing Director of media consultancy Rights Stuff, said that while internet revenues had indeed been slow to materialise, game-changing technologies and platforms were being developed at a rapid rate.
In a very short period of time, we have seen huge advances in internet-enabled television; the rapid rollout of a variety of forms of video-on-demand; the establishment of games consoles as a centre for entertainment; and the accelerated evolution of mobile platforms, from phones to iPads.
These new platforms and the wide variety of on-demand business models were not yet entirely understood – even by producers for whom they represented a big opportunity.
But there were already a wide variety of platforms beginning to pay money for content and a modest but significant amount of commissioning of original content.
“We’ve heard all the buzz about how nobody makes money on the internet but this is the year when people start signing big cheques.”
Jean-Paul Edwards, Executive Director Futures at leading media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD said there was no reason to believe that there would be any slackening of the pace of technological change of online development for another decade.
There had already been a “shift in the economics underpinning content” as the cost of production and the means to distribution fell, he suggested.
“Making and distributing content was expensive meaning that thousands of hours of content were made each year, now it is billions. And everything is converging.”
He said the advertising industry was deeply engaged with cross-media thinking because they could see it reflected the way that audiences were behaving.
It was no longer a question of convincing audiences to change their behaviour but of tapping into what they already did.
That remained a challenge, of course. “It is not content that is scarce but consumer attention…we need to think about the way people engage with technology rather than just producing content.”
A missing ingredient in much of the cross-media story has been hits. Without them, it was possible to write off those involved as geeks or brave failures.
Now there are bona fide success stories from which to draw inspiration.
The forum heard from Paramount Digital’s online phenomenon the Legion Of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD), directed by John M Chu (Step Up 2) as a cross-media project.
Keith Quinn, Senior Vice President at Paramount Digital Entertainment described the project – which combines mobile, internet, TV and some theatrical release – as a “nirvana for a studio looking for new media elements.”
LXD is a narrative about a group of heroes battling evil through dance, bringing together new talent largely identified by a phenomenally successful social network campaign.
Every episode made it to the top 10 of Hulu in the US, beating movies with multi-media advertising budgets. Its worldwide reach has been similarly successful with the capturing of key 18-35 audiences making it of particular interest.
Tommy Pallotta’s Submarine, through its work on Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, was similarly able to show how a smart cross-media campaign could make a big impact at a fraction of the cost of conventional media marketing. Allowing consumers to remix trailers was a particular story.
But Pallotta, in his cross-media documentary Collapsus: The Energy Risk Conspiracy, was able to show how multi-platform releasing could bring new audiences to documentary.
Bringing young audiences to serious subjects and to engage a broad audience for documentary was similarly demonstrated by environmental interactive documentary project Waterlife (presented by Rob McLaughlin, of the National Film Board of Canada), and Prison Valley (Joel Ronez, Arte).
In each case, the storytellers were looking to find ways to reach audiences who traditional media has failed to engage. In each, multiple points of entry were created in highly interactive story environments.
It took the central theme and gave ownership to the audience.
Evolution of an art form
For Maureen McHugh, what we are seeing is not the reinvention of an old media but the creation of a new one.
This “naïve” new form is in its infancy – arguably only a decade old. “We are still on the verge of a breakthrough into the mass media and the problem is that we still don’t really know what this art form is.”
She articulated a central theme of the forum, that creative storytellers and the audiences they attracted were making up the rules as they went along.
But there are clear unifying factors: the multiple platforms, the fact that content is tied to person rather than location; and an interactive relationship with audiences.
She said these new forms were unlikely to kill existing media but they would marginalise them – just as happened to the stage with the advent of film.
Currently, part of the problem for cross-media development was that it was still too tied to the earlier art forms, including videogames and film, following a lead in creativity and business that were unsuitable. She noted that screenwriters rarely made good cross-media writers, for example, because they were tied to the “excrutiatingly formal” conventions of the screenplay.
“We need a different range of skills…writers who can change gears really fast,” said McHugh.
But cross-media is beginning to find its feet.
One of the real pioneers in the field, Lance Weiler, said we should not lose sight of the fact that these are exciting times with new opportunities.
Weiler calls himself a “story architect” and sees the essential starting point as an original vision for the story “a theme , a story I am dying to tell.”
The trick is then to leave room for interactive engagement – a universe for the story with room for people can bring their own ideas.
“We are in a wonderful time because stories will not only have more platforms but more means to make a social connection,”
New tools will provide new opportunities (and Power to the Pixel saw a demonstration of the clickable video service Wirewax).
Weiler has been consistently at the forefront of seeing the opportunities new technologies represent – geolocation, for example, plays a big part in his latest project Pandemic.
“It is really important to look at the technology creatively, how it can enhance what you do and really service the story.”
This new world has been divided into different levels of engagement – roughly speaking 5% producers, 20% players and 75% passives.
But he believes that advances in technology, in social engagement and in cross-media thinking have the potential to create more active audiences.
The challenges are clear enough but for Weiler, one of the strengths of this emerging medium is that no one needs to face the learning curve alone.
The future is being built on engagement and sharing – and the Power to the Pixel London Forum is a good a place to see it in action.