Written by Orly Ravid
Now that Sundance has announced its new line up, it seems appropriate to discuss the issue of a film’s distribution after premiering or acquisition at festivals.
It is often the case that films do not get released until 6 months to a year or even more from when the film had its festival premiere…At least this is the case when traditional distribution is pursued as opposed to planning the distribution and marketing to coincide with the premiere and work off that plan accordingly.
Here are 10 reasons for the delay in time between a premiere launch at a festival and traditional distribution into the marketplace:
1. The time it takes to find buyers. These days the market cycle is longer than it’s ever been. Sometimes even a year after a festival or market, sometimes longer to sell titles. It’s a buyer’s market, so few films enjoy the pleasure of contested bidding that forces prices up and faster closings. Sundance, of course, is one of the few festivals that commands such a dynamic and more films than at most other festivals will secure distribution, at least domestically, as a result of premiering there.
2. Once a deal is closed, then there’s the contract and delivery which takes time… months sometimes.
3. Long lead times for press are required, at least four months, and that planning usually does not happen until after deal closure.
4. The distributor needs time to find open slots/appropriate slots in the calendar for theatrical – and it’s competitive out there so getting a booking takes time, and getting the right one for the film takes even more time, again, months. Sometimes even 6 months is needed to book the right theatre for the right time.. Some of the best screens are locked in well in advance.
5. Cash flow is needed to launch marketing campaigns. This can be an issue for some distributors. Recouping some revenue from previous releases will be needed in order to fund future ones.
6. Major digital outlets take several months to upload and make a film available. Cable VOD has solicitation windows. DVD and digital also require set up times and announcing the title and marketing it ahead of time so again months of planning and slotting. One wants to be strategic about release time.
7. The time of release is sometimes specific to the film. It may be theme driven and demand specific timing or it may want to avoid direct competition. Also inventory shifts in retail stores dictate the optimal time for DVD release (ie. certain times of year, like Christmas or Halloween, call for more of a certain kind of film).
8. Internal scheduling of the distributor. As you know, distributors will have other releases that they need to navigate given what their key outlets have planned.
9. Grass roots and other marketing also demand lead time.
10. Overall, the difference between DIY and traditional distribution is that in DIY, you can plan months in advance to set up the outlets and use the press attention at a festival premiere to catapult the film into the market, even if you aren’t 100% sure which festival will be your premiere. Having everything in place to pull the trigger when you get that acceptance puts you in a good position to release. In traditional distribution, the distributor cannot do advance planning and so the planning starts after the initial buzz has been created at the festival.
I know some of you have been confused or frustrated by the lag time between a festival premiere of a film and the release. Hopefully this helps to explain the matter.
Orly Ravid November 30th, 2012
Tags: cable VOD, DVD release, film distribution, film promotion, film sales, independent film premiere, independent film release, Sundance Film Festival, theatrical release, traditional film distribution
In our continuing look at film sales, today we are featuring an interview with an international sales agent for independent films, Ariel Veneziano of Recreation Media. He has handled international sales for many films including the highest grossing documentary of its time Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine, the highest grossing independent film of all time Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and America’s most watched television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The Film Collaborative works closely with Recreation Media for its international sales efforts.
SC: How are things different now than they were 5-10 years ago?
AV: In one word: worse. Sorry to start this off on a down note!
SC: Do you mean money-wise or just sales interest at all?
AV: I think both. It is best to acknowledge what the reality is. At the same time, there are some opportunities that have emerged, new ways of doing business that didn’t exist several years ago. It is important for filmmakers to have a reality check that there have been changes in the way viewers consume media and that has led to radical changes in the market. People go to movie theaters to see independent films much less than they did. Although global box office appears higher, this is only for a very small percentage of films. We’re talking Twilight, Iron Man, Dark Knight, James Bond. That share of the box office numbers is cannibalizing all of the other films out there.
Home entertainment revenues have been shrinking. DVD is progressively becoming marginal, and while broadcasters are multiplying, the license fees they are paying, especially for independent product, are getting smaller. While VOD and digital distribution are on the rise revenue wise, there is also an overabundance of product being made because of the sudden availability of low cost production methods.
Piracy is a threat to revenues. People still watch movies, but they don’t always pay for them. There is now a generation who sees this like going to the faucet and turning on the water, you don’t pay for every glass you fill. You pay a monthly fee and you can get a lot of water. Same with many internet subscriptions, one fee, unlimited choice. The good side to digital and particularly online distribution is the ability to, in theory at least, reach a broad audience without need for a large infrastructure. Are there ways to capitalize on that trend? Yes. Are they easy? Not necessarily, it is a very fast moving situation and even the so called experts who have done this for years, they don’t know what is going on. There’s a lot of chaos here, the wild west.
SC: If we were to look at 5 years ago, what would have been a pretty normal deal scenario for an independent film with no names, but some festival pedigree?
AV: If we’re talking about one of the major festivals, like Cannes, Venice, Berlin that you could put on the poster, those are the big 3, you could have made several hundred thousand dollars in worldwide sales. But that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
SC: Right, I was noticing out of Toronto in September that films with more than notable names were being picked up in groups for $5 million, when their budgets must be nearer to $20 million combined. Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions bought Stuart Blumberg’s “Thanks for Sharing,”(Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins), Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s “Imogene” (Kristin Wiig, Annette Benning, Matt Dillon) and Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”, all of them for a reported $5 million. So those films are not making their money back in advances. It used to be you could be made whole or close to it, but now that is not nearly the case.
AV: Right, it means you have to be smarter with the budgets, keep them low. Smarter with the finance plans and use soft money, something that isn’t going to be high risk for investors. What happened in the music industry is now happening to film. When is the last time you bought a CD? With technology progressing so fast, storage capacity growing, speed of transmission of data, availability of mobile devices. Few people are going to want a DVD collection, why? I can access a gazillion movies in my cloud storage. So if people aren’t really spending money on music, the revenues for albums have gone way down. Why would they continue to spend for films? If you want to know what the future holds for the film industry, look at the music industry.
And because there is so much uncertainty, buyers are trying to safeguard themselves. They are being much more particular about titles they take on and for what prices because they don’t know how well it will sell.
SC: So when you go to a market, what attracts their interest to buy anything?
AV: Bigger theatrical pictures. For foreign buyers, they want to know the film will have a wide domestic theatrical release. Some domestic distributors can promise that like Weinstein, Summit, or if you are an international sales agent who struck a deal with a studio early on to release the film with a minimum 1000 screens, buyers are receptive to that.
Cast of course makes a difference. Certain genres like action do very well. Everything related to action travels well. So, adventure, sci fi, thriller, fantasy are all cousins of the action genre and those typically do well.
SC: One genre I see a lot in indie film is the “coming of age” drama story. How well does that kind of story do?
AV: AWFUL in terms of revenue. I am talking as a businessman. As a viewer, I love coming of age dramas, but I can’t sell them. Nobody wants to buy them unless: 1) it is directed by a world class filmmaker. If it is a Woody Allen or Terrence Malick film, you’ll sell it 2) big names in the cast and when it comes to getting buyers excited about the cast level, the bar has gotten a lot higher as far as this 3) based on a best-selling novel 4) selection in a MAJOR festival. For international revenue that would be Cannes, Berlin, Venice. Sundance has an impact domestically, but internationally people don’t care. Toronto the same, it is fine for a repeat screening, but if that is your only claim to fame, not going to help you that much.
Coming of age drama is one of the worst for travel; that and comedy. Buyers just flee unless it comes with any or lots of those 4 criteria. So Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, fits 3 of those criteria. World class director, A level cast, major festival selection. That is desirable to buyers.
SC: So you are really saying that a microbudget indie film with all of those things absent really has no chance for a buy at a foreign market?
AV: None. Absolutely zero.
SC: This is good to know, we’re tempering expectations here. This doesn’t mean there is no audience for the film. It simply means that it has no value to a buyer.
AV: It is going to bring in too little money for them that it isn’t worth investing in. But you’re right, does it mean you can’t put it on iTunes or some other online outlets on your own and get people in foreign countries to pay to see it? You can absolutely do that. But since it is such a wild-west scenario at the moment, the revenue could still be zero for you.
SC: Are you saying that there are no prospects even in broadcast for this kind of film?
AV: No prospects, but as with anything there are a few exceptions. A Lifetime movie, like a women in peril kind of film. If it was bought by Lifetime in the US, then there could be some broadcast value elsewhere. But that is a very specific kind of film, very formulaic.
SC: What about a low budget documentary? What if it was picked up by HBO in the States?
AV: Now we’re mixing types of films. Docs are a little bit different, but it depends on what they are about. If it strikes the right chord with something timely, you find the right broadcaster who is filling their schedule with a thematic type of programming and your doc fits that profile, then boom you have a deal. A small deal probably, but still a deal. A theatrical doc is the exception, docs are mostly for TV. Having it on HBO? No, it doesn’t make a difference. Not PBS either. It is more about the right subject matter, being topical.
The brands broadcast buyers respond to for narratives are Syfy Channel, Lifetime, Disney, Nickelodeon, maybe Hallmark. Again, those films are very specific and formulaic. No fancy effects, no flashbacks and weird montage, just very straightforward stories.
SC: A foreign sales agent does what? You go to markets, but what is done in between? Should I get a specialist foreign sales agent or a worldwide sales agent?
AV: Typically domestic and foreign markets are two different animals. There are some sales companies that can act as a good one stop shop, handling both within the same company and that can simplify administration. But the option to hire a dedicated domestic sales agent – also known as a producer’s rep – is a common way to go as well.
What we do as a sales agent is that we help you maximize revenue on the film from all available sources around the world. So that entails marketing, highlighting an existing campaign or creating a new one; working the press, getting a film into the right festival. Then leveraging the relationships we already have with buyers around the world. Negotiating and papering the deals. Delivering the movies. Invoicing and collecting the revenue. Monitoring how a film does in a territory and requesting (or demanding!) the revenue reports. Structuring the deal correctly so you can have some money up front and then see more money later down the road – if the film does well. It is a “technical” job and is very relationship driven.
Probably the most important aspect for a filmmaker in electing a sales agent, is working with someone you can establish a relationship of trust with. Trust can be an elusive thing sometimes. You keep hearing stories about filmmakers being ripped off by sales agents. Some films are probably not meant to be handled by a sales agent because it is just too many layers of middlemen for too little available revenue, and the filmmaker would have been better off handling it themselves for the amount of sales revenue that can be gained from it. It will be a lot of work though for the filmmakers and some people are very naïve about that, thinking ‘oh who needs a sales agent?’ and they take their film to markets or put it up for sale themselves online and at the end of the day, a lot less revenue comes in than they thought. It is a lot harder to make money than it seems…
SC: Sometimes filmmakers try to call buyers and they find their calls aren’t returned. Buyers don’t know who they are.
AV: Trust me, sometimes we have trouble getting them to return our calls too! And they do know who we are.
SC: What is the typical length of time for a sales agent agreement?
AV: There are two types of agreements. One is a straight distribution agreement where the sales agent comes on just to sell the film into territories. Another is when a sales agent comes in with a minimum guarantee, some money upfront. If they put in some money, they will be more demanding on the terms. If it is just straight distribution, the filmmaker has more leverage to negotiate it. So a typical term is 10-15 years.
SC: Why does it need to be that long?
AV: Well there are two questions here. The first is the sales agent’s engagement term. How long is the agent going to be selling the film? And the second is for how long is the agent allowed to sell the rights? How long will the contract last for each deal brokered? I might sell the film to a buyer in the first year, but the buyer might want a 20 year contract on that film especially if it is an all rights deal where they can exploit each window over a long length of time. They might spend a lot of money to release the film theatrically and make up the bulk of that money on DVD/VOD and then digital then broadcast which can then mean relicense and relicense over a long period of time. You know, when you watch TV, there are rerun movies, things that came out a long time ago. Those have been relicensed over time. So if you are going to all this effort and expense, you want to have a long period of revenue coming in on that.
If a producer and a sales agent have a good relationship, they should both want that. It is not just about selling and walking away, there is the monitoring of the sales. You may get an advance from the buyer, but then there is a revenue sharing structure that has to be enforced. A buyer might release theatrically and not make money, but then it goes into DVD and broadcast, and especially in Europe broadcast is where a lot of the money is, when that revenue is coming in, you have to make sure reporting is being done correctly. That can be many years after the fact. If a film is doing really well, you may have to check the reports or audit them to make sure you are getting all that is due. It can be complicated to do this and costly. You want your buyer to comply, but you may have to send in someone to check the records. You need to manage the revenues coming in, the agent gets commission and expenses and then the rest flows through to the filmmakers. So for us this lasts 15 years typically.
SC: 15 years to maintain the film, the sales contracts on the film?
SC: So then the question is if after a year or two, the agent hasn’t made deals in many territories. Why should they still hold the rights to my film for 15 years? If I know that I have an audience in Indonesia based on my website traffic, but it isn’t enough to satisfy a broadcaster or a distributor in that territory, I could service them directly from my website, but I can’t do that because legally I don’t own my film, the agent does. An agreement for that length of time in this case doesn’t seem to serve anyone.
AV: Well in TV sales it can take a while for a sale to come through. The decision making process is slower in TV. Also it can be about the right theme being programmed in the schedule. A film may not be a fit for this year’s schedule, but maybe for a schedule 2 years from now. If the agent has the rights to a film that fits, a sale can be made then.
But I think good practice for a sales agent is to yield to the filmmaker if they find after a reasonable amount of time that there is no real sales potential. A clause should be worked into the contract that after X amount of time, if no sales are pending and interest is limited, then the rights go back to the filmmaker or the sales agent agrees to arrange for another type of distribution (iTunes aggregation or other kind of digital VOD distribution) and any revenue would be subject to whatever commission was agreed – if the sales agent helped to get the film onto a revenue generating platform, then they should get a commission out of it.
SC: Walk me through the revenue flow. If it is just a straight distribution deal, the agent has not given the filmmaker an MG to represent the film, how does the money flow from the buyers through the sales agent to the filmmaker?
AV: Everything is up for negotiation, but here’s the typical structure. The revenue comes in from the distributor, the agent takes a commission, then the agent takes reimbursement on the expenses that have been capped and agreed, then the filmmaker gets the rest. Let’s say there is $100,000 of revenue. Commission is 20% and the agent spent $10,000 in expense. The commission is $20,000 plus the $10,000 for expenses so $70,000 goes to the filmmakers.
SC: Ok say that it isn’t $100,000 in one go. Say it is $2,000 this month and $5,000 last month and all of this revenue flows through the agent. Does that mean every time there is revenue, the agent gets 20% of it, or is this a flat 20% of all revenue?
AV: Usually reporting is on a quarterly basis in the first year or two and after that it is only twice a year. So every time there is a statement, commission is disbursed.
SC: And how do you show me expenses? How do I know what my expense was for the trailer or the one sheet design and printing or the market booth?
AV: Again different companies have different practices, but typically expenses are amortized across all of the current titles the sales agent is handling. We have costs from the markets that we split across the slate of films. We do a fair assessment of the films we are actively selling and then there are direct costs. If we hold a screening of a film in a venue during the market, 100% of that cost is going against that particular film. But a booth at Cannes for all of the active slate of films, that cost will be amortized across the slate. So everything should be documented as far as expenses. If you feel like the expenses are unfair, you should have audit rights in your agreement.
When you have that ongoing relationship with your sales agent and they are motivated to do repeat business with you, they will want to do things right. Ideally you want to work with someone you can 100% trust, but we hear every day how there are disputes in Hollywood studios, independent studios. Lots of creative accounting, people don’t always report accurately and things end in arbitration or litigation.
SC: A few years back someone on a panel said that especially in low budget filmmaking there are a lot of first time filmmakers, but not a lot of second time ones. So relationship building on either side, the agent or the filmmaker, there isn’t a lot of loyalty there. The filmmaker may never work again, the agent may not even want another film from this person, the filmmaker will choose whatever agent seems to be bringing them the best deal. So is the motivation to be loyal and honest really there?
AV: Well maybe filmmakers should have more of a career plan. Don’t think one film at a time, but have a vision for what your career will look like and plan for the relationships that will help you realize it over time. Also, films aren’t made by only one person. There is the producer, the director, the writer, the cast and sometimes cast members are also producers. There can be relationships with all of these people that benefit a trust factor being present. And then there is the carrot and the stick principle. Yes, we want to have relationships where we believe all are being honest, but we know some people are more honest with those they know than with those they don’t. You have to trust, but verify.
You can always question what doesn’t seem like a reasonable expense. You won’t go through every receipt and say ‘are you sure at that dinner you talked about my movie?’ Come on, you aren’t going to do that. But if you see some weird expenses for things you don’t remember happening, like a screening at a market, then you should question it and request backup documentation. The sales agent should be able to provide it.
SC: Lastly, what kinds of things should be included in my sales agent contract. Should there be non performance clauses, bankruptcy clauses, a limit to the years my title is held by the agent?
AV: Well, I am going to be on the other side of the negotiating table and I will want less encumbrances of course. So who am I advising here?!
SC: If we are transparent and honest people who really want what is equitable, we should be honest about this. Also what kind of things are you expecting from the filmmaker in the contract?
AV: I will want to be efficient. I want to know that they have all the deliverables ready or in a timely manner. This includes master drive or prints as physical material, but also legal documents. Chain of title, music clearances, E&O everything that is included in the delivery list. So many times attention isn’t paid to the details of this both from the physical perspective, but also the budgeting perspective. Often these materials have to be created and that costs money and a budget needs to be available for this. We might have an offer that will bring in a good amount of revenue, but if the producers can’t deliver the items required by the buyers, there is no deal.
Sometimes we take on that expense ourselves say a 35mm print might be needed, but one wasn’t made. We wait to see how interest goes at the first market and if 5 territories want to do a theatrical release, then we will take on that expense because we know it will be recouped. A 35 mm print may be optional depending on the film, but there are other things that are required. For example an M&E track so that the film can be dubbed in foreign territories.
SC: What is the worst thing people tend to forget or deliver in the wrong format?
AV: One thing that happens a lot is stalling, letting things drag and not delivering the final elements. The final music tracks are being cleared or the M&E track is being finished. Several situations where the film never really seems to be finished. The deals were struck, the buyer is getting impatient waiting for everything to be sent over. A film isn’t like red wine, it doesn’t get better with age, it doesn’t gain value, it does the opposite. The film got old and it never came out.
Also, one thing that is perpetually a disappointment: still photography. Good photography is super important to promote the film, to design into the campaign. Buyers really want good stills. On low budget films, good photography is perpetually dismissed. Make everyone’s life easier, get lots of on set shots. Not behind the scenes stuff with the crew goofing off and doing set ups. Get shots from the scenes, good shots of the cast, the atmosphere of the scene, things that we will see on screen.
SC: What would you tell someone who hasn’t yet made their film, but they are about to embark on the process. What to expect?
AV: First start with why you are motivated to do this? Making money isn’t always the prime objective for some people. They have an urge to tell a story and yeah, maybe some business person may find it genius, but it is ok if they don’t. Be very clear about that with yourself and others, that you are doing something that has only a remote chance of making money. That way, you won’t be this frustrated filmmaker who is suddenly surprised when all the odds are against you. You knew it going in. Maybe this first film is a calling card and all part of the career plan. Ultimately, if you want to make a career in this industry, you are going to have to make film that connects with paying audiences and make some commercial sense. First films can be something very striking visually or artistically, but not make much or any money. They can have an artistic integrity that isn’t necessarily attractive to a buyer, but can find a small audience. In order to capture industry attention, the films are going to have to be accessible to an audience.
I thank Ariel Veneziano for sharing his time and information with us. Remember, The Film Collaborative does handle films sales on a limited basis and we are always open to advising our members on the best course for getting their films out to market.
Sheri Candler November 20th, 2012
Tags: Ariel Veneziano, Berlinale, Cannes Film Festival, domestic film distribution, independent film sales, international film distribution, international film sales, Recreation Media, sales agents, Venice Film Festival
In light of the American Film Market just wrapping up and Sundance on the horizon, we thought we would devote some time to explaining how film sales works and what the landscape is looking like for independent films at the moment. Many of you may not truly be aware of how a sales agent relationship works. Indeed, by conversations we’ve seen on forums and in social media spaces, many newer filmmakers do not understand the repercussions of signing a sales agent agreement for their films.
Typically sales agents do not act like real estate brokers, but more like intermediary distributors. What I mean is they do not facilitate a deal that a filmmaker does directly with third parties and then charge a commission that gets paid out as does a real estate broker. Typically, sales agents first license all the rights from a filmmaker (meaning they then possess all the rights, meaning the film isn’t yours to control during their agreement term) and then re-license them per territory or in a worldwide deal depending on the territory they have been assigned to sell in contractually. The agreement is between the agent and the buyer, not between the filmmaker and the buyer. Often sales agents’ terms are 20 years, or 15, 12, 10, 7, but rarely less than 7 and the more old school ones are longer. The reasoning is that they need the rights to be able to sell the rights. So for at least 7 years, the film is no longer in your possession and by the time you get control of it again, it is indeed considered an old title.
There are some advantages to working with a sales agent of course. They will spend money traveling to markets, producing sales materials, courting buyers and they handle all delivery and oversee the distributors they’ve signed agreement with, keeping a watchful eye and monitoring accounting. Sales agents usually have better buyer contacts than most filmmakers and more leverage, and they have more market intelligence. Bear in mind that they front this money for the film (that they own for a time), but it all must be recouped from the sales revenue with sales commission before any is passed back to the filmmaker. There are also times when the delivery items (also known as deliverables in a sales agent agreement) must be completed and paid for BEFORE the agent will take it out to buyers. In some cases if this hasn’t been delivered upon signing the agreement, an agency may pay to have these items fulfilled if they find a buyer who requires them (like 35mm prints) and the deal is large enough to recoup this additional cost plus commission.
The taking rights component is an issue because these agreements last for a number of years and the filmmaker is shut out of much or all of festival distribution and the ability to conduct direct distribution efforts (internet distribution) plus all the rest. I’ve written all this before; and many seasoned filmmakers already know it, but I write it again to remind of one key thing during this AFM/film sales season: DO THE MATH.
At The Film Collaborative we do sales too, sometimes, in a very boutique fashion. We spend little at markets; we sell only certain strands of films that we have lots of experience in handling. We do NOT take rights ever and the deals are, almost always, between the BUYER and the FILMMAKER. Rare exceptions are when we are doing a bulk TV deal and even then filmmakers still have 100% approval and collect within a few days of us having collected from the broadcaster.
There’s more that can be said about the specifics of sales and samenesses v. differences between our model and the traditional one, but the point is to remind of this one key point: Oftentimes the potential deals that a traditional sales agent can do for you and what you can do for yourself or with us are the same, but the math (because of fees and expenses) will net you less.
There are times when certain types of films have a certain sales potential that may be better served by a motivated sales agent who has the cash to augment the deals and can command more and stand better to collect etc. But most of the time, for indies, the deals these days are so few and far between and for such small prices that if one does not pick a company that follows our model, one will get screwed. Sometimes, the screening fee from festival distribution is the same or more than the sales money (yes, screening fees can be negotiated!). Sometimes the benefit of DIY distribution by the filmmaker can net more than an MG on a sale. Sometimes there are no sales. Sometimes the expense recoupments due to a sales agent exceed the sales revenue. So the key is get real sales projections, back up with corroborating information, and DO THE MATH. Admittedly, this is no easy feat these days and sometimes the sales potential isn’t pretty.
Sometimes films represented by veteran agencies do the exact same deals we do, but instead of the filmmaker getting the money directly from the buyers, it passes through a sales agent who recoups expenses and higher fees such that the net is ultimately less to the filmmaker, who cannot even exploit any rights to her own film.
Before signing agreements with sales agents, ask the agent about the sales potential of your film, the one they are asking to represent (and own for a time). Ask to see the projections in writing and analyze that they really are comparable films (genre, actor names, topic, timeframe of the sale should be in the last year or two, not 5 years ago when the film world was very different). Ask about their intentions for marketing your title, beyond designing a one sheet and perhaps a new trailer. Ask how many films they are representing this year at the markets and will your title get its proper attention. Beyond the markets, will your film be promoted in any other way (publication coverage, special screenings, social media outreach, highlighted on their website and in their weekly email blasts)? Think if it will be worth it to relinquish all rights to your film for at least 7 years. Be in reality about the real sales potential of your film, do the math, and make your decisions accordingly.
Orly Ravid November 13th, 2012
Written by Sheri Candler
This week’s post should help those who are thinking about giving transmedia/cross platform storytelling a try. Andrea Phillips first encountered cross platform storytelling over a decade ago and has been writing in the space since 2005 as a full-time, free-lance transmedia author. She worked on the interactive treasure hunt Perplex City, HBO’s immersive online sensory experience The Maester’s Path for its show Game of Thrones, and with musician Thomas Dolby on an online experience for his concept album, a community-based web game based on Dolby’s entire discography called A Map of the Floating City.
I interviewed her upon the release of her new book A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling: How to Captivate and Engage Audiences across Multiple Platforms and asked about the differences between this form of storytelling and more traditional forms, whether this takes a different skill set and how she sees this field evolving over time.
SC: Are there different principles of storytelling for transmedia?
AP: Yes and no. The basics of telling a good story are going to be the same no matter what medium you are using, but if you are going into a big transmedia project, you have to leave things more open ended than you would traditionally. You have to give yourself opportunities to extend the story late and more places where things aren’t answered, more loose ends.
In the book, I talk a lot about Chekhov’s gun, that traditional storytelling principle where if you have a gun on the mantle in the first act, then it has to be fired. (ed note: from Wikipedia: Chekhov’s gun is a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. The phrase “Chekhov’s gun” is often interpreted as a method of foreshadowing, but the concept can also be interpreted as meaning “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.”) But in transmedia, this isn’t a good technique because you want to put lots of things in the story like this, you may need something later to use and, if it has been precedented, you can build on it.
There are lots of things in transmedia that go against the idea that the story will unfold 100% the way you envisioned. Sometimes the audience won’t react to something the way you expected them to and one of the fantastic things about working in digital media is the ability to adapt to the reaction you are getting. In films, studios do test screenings and change the ending if the audience reaction is poor or not what is desired. With an interactive narrative, you actually have a chance to change the whole story if it is playing out differently than you had envisioned. If the protagonist is portrayed as unsympathetic, you can either change the story or use that info to help him get what’s coming to him. It’s really fun stuff!
SC: Some storytellers might say “I have my whole vision for a story and I don’t want to constantly evolve it.” Is there a mindset change to this kind of work as well?
AP: “There can be, but let’s step back. There should be wiggle room, but it doesn’t have to be the whole story. The classic story of Hamlet doesn’t become a better play if you let the audience vote on the ending. You don’t necessarily want your audience deciding what the story is, but if you give them even the feeling that they have a part in influencing the outcome, it is a very powerful tool for participation. They have an investment in the story just as much as the author does.
SC: The main component I see in this is making the story interactive. The difference between the traditional way and the interactive world that we live in now is the ability to have participation rather than passively watching or reading what is put in front of you. Do you think that when we talk about educating audiences or drawing them in to the storytelling, does it depend on their age or their mindset or their history of playing video games or collaborating with other people? Is there an audience boundary that is keeping this from getting bigger? Or will this just evolve over time as we see more of these kinds of projects?
AP:”I think there are some audience boundaries, but also context boundaries. Sometimes you just want to sit quietly and read a book and not have to click on something or go look something up later. Sometimes people will want a single medium story and that will probably always be the case. The trick is to provide that single medium experience for the audience who still likes that, while identifying the audiences that want to be more engaged with the story. It is surprising, it doesn’t always have to do with age or gender or tech savvy. First find the audience that really loves your story and once you have a fandom, or base of supporters who really love the stories you tell, they will want whatever you can give them. Digital media winds up being a fairly cost effective thing to give them more of the story. It is much cheaper to roll out a social media footprint than it is to make subsequent films for instance. You are still giving them things that they want that will keep them involved in your story, until you do have the ability to get that second film, or subsequent project out.”
SC: What kind of budget considerations are we talking about when one wants to make a transmedia project? Does it mean you have to have the budget of The Dark Knight Rises or Prometheus or The Hunger Games? Or can one do it with some simple tools and elbow grease?
AP: “You definitely can do it with simple tools. The Alternate Reality Game community (ARG) is a group of fans who have gotten together to make experiences for each other out of pocket change and love. You don’t need a Dark Knight budget to make a transmedia experience. Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr are relatively free, shooting video isn’t free, but if you are already shooting a film, just adding on additional videos probably isn’t going to be so expensive. It is the sort of indie spirit thing as any other indie art project would have.”
SC: I hear indie filmmakers say “OK, I’m going to have a film. And then I’ll think about all of those other story aspects because those are more of the marketing or promotional efforts that come later.” Or they only see this effort as something that will fill the theater or sell DVDs. Is this a good idea or should it be planned from the start so that it is all incorporated together?
AP: “I am definitely, definitely of the opinion you should plan it all up front. Mainly because if you just tack something on later, it is going to feel tacked on. If you want it to reach its maximum power, then you have to make it all in one piece and plan for how everything will interrelate. Even from initial writing, initial conception.”
SC: In reading through some of the ideas on transmedia projects from filmmakers, I feel like some people paint themselves into a corner. These story tangents go off onto other paths and then disappear because they haven’t been clear about how it all weaves back into the overall project. Also, Lance Weiler has talked about how in his early projects, games they created to be solved by the audience in a week, only ended up taking a day and it caught the creators by surprised so they had to scramble to keep up.
AP: “This is one of the rookie mistakes that I talk about in the book. Never deploy anything unless you are ready for it to be solved. The audience is always smarter than you think it is. They are as smart as the smartest 20 people among them because they all collaborate. They will always outthink you, never think you will be smarter than your audience. Also this may come from a more marketing mindset. Some people think they will put an interesting bit of something out there, as a marketing tactic and they don’t give it much mind as to whether it leads anywhere. It gives the audience a negative feeling about your story. When you set up an expectation and then there is no payoff, it is extremely frustrating for the audience.”
SC: What do you think about all of these transmedia events, and new media funds, and new emphasis on transmedia storytelling in independent film? It seems like creators are being told this is the only way to be creating stories now. Many times these events seem a little haphazard and confusing, like they are being programmed by people who also don’t know much about this form of storytelling.
AP: “I think it is a confusing time for the creators. The audience doesn’t care about this conversation at all. They just want to know if this thing you are putting in front of them is worth their time or not. They don’t care if it is transmedia, cross media or who it was funded by. In one sense, it is an important conversation because creators have their careers to think about, but from the audience perspective, none of this is relevant if we aren’t doing good work.”
SC: Right, this is a time of experimentation. Where there is chaos, there is opportunity and you have to look a little harder for it. There is no one process that has been developed to succeed, and as an independent filmmaker, you wouldn’t want that anyway.
AP: “I had an interview with a gentleman who was very frustrated with me because he kept asking me for a blueprint on the one right way to make a transmedia project. And my answer was it depends on what you are trying to do. The book is not the one true way to create a transmedia project as much as it is a flowchart of lots of different ways. There are things you can do, and there will be trade offs to doing that. It is much less about rules than about my advice on what you can do depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your work.
The interesting thing about transmedia right now isn’t the stories, but the structures. We are in an amazing period of experimental structure and I am not sure this has happened in storytelling ever before. There has been experimental structure in individual arts such as writing with the novel, and in film. But now we are seeing this happen across all media and figuring out how to use multiple media and include the audience with digital tools in order to tell a story. The thing that fascinates me is how people fit all the elements together in their story.”
SC: As time and money are needed to create these stories, what do you see as sources for revenue? I think we shouldn’t come into this thinking if it doesn’t make millions, it isn’t worth doing. But what do you see as a way of generating revenue?
AP: “First I’d like to say that anyone who doesn’t think an artist has a right to make money is on the wrong side of history. There is no shame in commercial art. I do see some interesting things revenue wise. You for sure see the Hollywood studio model which largely depends on licensing and on selling movie tickets, a very traditional and stable way of making money.
But I also see things like Accomplice which has a live performance aspect, short, location based experiences where one buys a ticket to see it. I’ve seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries which uses the Youtube advertising revenue stream and you can also see projects selling merchandising (posters, comics, tshirts). There’s really no limit which is the other interesting thing. Not only is the storytelling structure changing, but the business structure is too. You can hypothetically make money any way you can imagine. The question becomes how much time and money are you spending to make the project, and is it more than you could ever get in return? Knowing that only comes with experimentation and experience.”
SC: Are many film schools teaching this kind of scriptwriting/storytelling? I don’t think that many are doing this yet.
AP: Quite a number are teaching this actually. Emory, UNC, FSU, Ball State, MIT, Columbia, USC, all have programs. There is definitely an academic interest in it and especially in film schools. I am much more excited to see this being taken up by film rather than only by games. Film has been considered much more legitimate as a storytelling medium in the hierarchy of culture so transmedia is becoming much more legitimate too from its association with film.
I do think it is valuable to teach these skills to students. Film, theater, and creative writing students because it is something that exists in the world and sheer exposure is a valuable thing even if you aren’t choosing to work in it in your individual career.”
SC: Do you think this will evolve to where stories will only be told this way? I see this as a way to be in dialog with an audience and it is becoming more and more expected that the audience will be able to speak with creators. Will it be possible to say, “Oh I am not going to be in talks with the audience, I’m just going to write it as a straight book or film?” Is this really going to be an optional thing in 10 years time?
AP: “I think it will stay optional. As I said, sometimes the audience doesn’t want the whole experience. There will also be a significant number of creators who aren’t comfortable working this way or have a creative interest in not making their story interactive. I do think in the commercial space that you may not be able to get funding for your webseries or film if you don’t have a transmedia plan though. That is a reality I can very easily imagine.”
SC: In getting back to the book, tell me how it is laid out
AP: “The book is in 5 sections. The first is an introduction to transmedia. The second is an intro to storytelling. Further sections cover structure, production and then big picture which is ethics and money. The structure section is the heart of the book. I talk about considerations like using email, will you send it via your character, will the character answer? I don’t say, ‘You must use these social media outlets.’ You can’t say that, it depends on what you are trying to do and I, as the author of this book, do not know what you are trying to.
SC: Ethics, that’s an interesting section to include. What are ethical considerations to creating transmedia projects as opposed to writing a book or making a movie?
AP: “When you are putting pervasive elements into the world, things that look like they are real, you do wind up with ethical considerations. For example, a common trope is flyers for missing persons. I consider this not just ethically poor, but also bad design. As a consumer walking down the street, the first thought is not, ‘Oh my gosh, this must be part of a game or film. Let me take down this number or website and partake of this entertaining experience.’ It is probably, ‘Oh, what a terrible thing has happened. I am going to lock my doors when I get home.’ Creators need to think about the context someone will have when they happen across this material.
My favorite example I use in the book is the Parkinson’s Disease example. Let’s say you have a fictional pharmaceutical company and you make a website for it, as is the way for any transmedia project. Typically, there will be news published on this fictional pharmaceutical website. So you make some fake press release about Parkinson’s Disease, announcing the results of fake trials of a drug that improves symptoms and is expected to come to market in 3 years. Now, imagine that this website gets some Google juice and someone who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease is searching the internet for treatment options and finds this news. They make a treatment decision based on your element of fiction that was not signposted as fiction for someone who found it by accident on Google. That’s problematic because you could do harm to someone out in the world.
Many times creators don’t think about these things until something bad has happened. Things happen in the real world because of content we put out there. The world isn’t yet accustomed to questioning everything behind a story to see if it is real. All you have to do is look at how many articles from The Onion get reported as news.
My thanks to Andrea for spending time talking to me about her work and her new book. I have read the book and it is excellent, a real primer for those interested in learning more about creating interactive stories using both online tools and offline experiences. I especially liked her descriptions of World Building as it is something I don’t think creators spend enough time thinking about. World building is a good exercise whether you are creating a story structure on which to hang technology and user experiences or you are thinking through all the elements you can create and layer to immerse an audience into the world of your characters for marketing purposes, to pull them into the story experience. Every story exists in a “world” and creators should strive to bring the audience into it, let them experience it from many angles, give them something to do there, not just assume passive viewing.
For more on Andrea’s thoughts about the future of storytelling, see this video
Sheri Candler November 7th, 2012
Posted In: transmedia
Tags: A creator's guide to transmedia storytelling, A Map of the Floating City, alternate reality games, Andrea Phillips, Chekhov's gun, cross media storytelling, Game of Thrones, HBO, interactive participation, Perplex City, The Maester's Path, Thomas Dolby, transmedia, world building