Rewiring and Rethinking Hollywood — Practical Solutions


There was an earthquake in Hollywood this week, and Steven Spielberg was the cause.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
- Steven Spielberg at a USC panel

He said what everyone in town knows to be true. The film business needs a massive refresh. A rethink. Tabula rasa.

Before we begin, let me get one thing clear: I’m not approaching this post as anti-studio, anti-Hollywood, anti-anything. My family’s been in Los Angeles for four generations (and Runyon Canyon is not only my backyard, but she manages to kick my ass everyday.) I’m proud of what built this town, and I want us, as members of this industry, for it to flourish for another century.

Now, let’s start by identifying something that’s missing from the entertainment experience today: omnipresence.

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple are omnipresent in the lives of moviegoers. These players fracture attention, absorb time, and open the door to a level of mental noise we’ve never before seen as a society. Yet they have access to our customers in spades. That’s important.

Make no mistake what type of business these companies are in: the continuity business, much like newspapers were 30 years ago — propelled forward by their use of mobile computing to delight and addict their customers.

We, as the entertainment community, need to learn something from this: we must find ways to weave the film product into the lives of our customers, every day.

The emerging, modern customer doesn’t live in theatres. They live on phones, tablets and MacBook Pros. They barely watch “TV” as we’ve known it. Even the idea of television is foreign to the younger cohort of consumers. And, to attract these customers in their own habitat, it will take a fundamental rethink of what our “product” actually is.

What it requires may be startling: we need to nullify the notion that all we are selling is access to 120 minutes of a motion picture.

We need more two-way channels. More interactivity. More bite-sized content, with more adventure. Nothing can remain static ever again. Stories, the bedrock of this industry, will need to become fluid and elastic.

We need to realize that there’s an endless narrative behind a film. It starts at the inception of the project and runs well past release — “from the cradle to the grave,” a friend once told me.

Start by giving fans access to the entire process of development, creation and distribution. Enhance the experience by creating different access layers. Make certain key members of the project part of the experience. Discriminate heavily on price. That’s okay.

We want our fans to evolve into zealots. Let them by giving them new tools to reward their devotion while amplifying word-of-mouth in an organic manner. Our product touches people like no other. It just needs to be packaged correctly and offered up in the digital world.

There’s much to learn from George Lucas in this regard. He practically invented the art of fan immersion with the creation of the “Star Wars” universe and its myriad of touchpoints. He welcomed his fans in. The Veronica Mars Movie and Zach Braff’s “I Wish I Was Here” are two recent examples of this mentality. But this is barely even the beginning.

The point is that we’re operating under the rules of the past.

When distribution was scarce and options to enjoy entertainment were limited, the supreme focus on the theatrical release made practical business sense. But those days are gone. People now have too many options. And the competition for attention is only going to increase as consumers migrate towards over-the-top solutions in the living room and beyond. VOD isn’t just the future. It’s the now. Consumers want, need and will appreciate world-class entertainment on their terms.

This isn’t yet-another-anti-windowing treatise. Rather, we need to look inward and ask ourselves, “How can we delight the hell out of our customer while at the same time being rational about what economic models make sense ever the long-term?”

We all need to start caring more about building relationships with customers in an ongoing manner. On the flip side, we need to understand what people care about: franchises, talent and issues. We need to build around this core — and we must create more innovative ways to satiate the customer in an ongoing manner to survive.

Executing this concept is exacerbated by another massive pain point we all face: not knowing enough about our customer. Facebook, Twitter, Google and Netflix are collecting mountains of data points on their customers. They’ve got it all: email addresses, home addresses, browsing habits and credit cards. And they’re using this data to build walls that are ever harder to scale from the outside — with more richly-targeted content, advertising and people relevant to you.

This information is beyond strategic. It’s fundamental. And we’ve got to figure out a way to own it too.

The effect of getting this data would end a persistent problem theatrical marketing departments face: starting cold every time. Studios are still living in silos (development, finance, marketing, distribution…). How can one operate in a silo and effectively manage to follow a customer through the entire lifecycle of a project?

I believe it’s impossible this way.

Hollywood has always been what I call a closed-connected system. Closed-connected systems are even harder to penetrate than closed systems alone because each individual party has a vested interest in keeping new entrants out. As anyone who has worked in the business, understands creating a project requires huge amounts of human coordination.

If Hollywood is to succeed we must open up. We must evolve.

Let’s do it together.

Special thanks to Scott Hurff for editing help. Get his new book on product development here. I’d also like to thank Sandy Climan for pushing my thinking forward.

Please follow me on Twitter @BrianNorgard. Apologies for any grammar issues — just dropped this one down.


12 thoughts on “Rewiring and Rethinking Hollywood — Practical Solutions

  1. Hey Brian! Great theoretical article – finally some modern film theory, very much needed that we think deeper about the issues and challenges of modern film marketing/distribution/immersion.

    I like your suggestion; how realistic this tabula rasa is, is another question :D
    But it’s certainly the right thing to write about it, publish it, and get a dialogue going. I’m sure the studios are working heavily on figuring out solutions; but possibly they think too much inside the box of the past.

    I’d like to add my observation that subscription services seem to be the future – Netflix, Spotify and most recently Moviepass are more convenient than piracy, higher quality experience and create an illusion of “getting something for free”. I think subscription-based entertainment is the future of television, cinema and online distribution.

    • Clearly starting with a ‘blank slate’ is not realistic for everyone but I framed it in this way more as a challenge. The best material always comes from the edges. I want to inspire those people to keep going. Keep creating. Keep dreaming.

      On your second comment regarding streaming, I am a huge proponent of SVOD. You are going to see a ton of new striations of this model with Netflix leading the way. Thank you for the feedback.

  2. Rob Anderson says:

    I’ve been saying this for years, but here it is again: we must look to emerging technologies to transcend the problems outlined in this essay. Digital projection – allowing independent filmmakers to connect to independent fans – is the wave of the future. This will allow filmmakers to deliver content via broad-bandwidth pipes to interested audiences who are familiar with their work. The model will be artist-based rather than studio-based, with some lucky devils finding themselves riding a herd of several hundred thousand fans who will watch each film, no matter what. The current example is Tyler Perry, whose films do very well.

    • Rob, you are correct in saying that digital projection is a technology which helps lower the cost of physical distribution and thus levels the playing field when it comes to the distribution of motion pictures. Logistics however are only one part of the model however.

      Realizing that digital distribution left them vulnerable to competitors and smaller players, studios have created a commercial hurdle for independent distribution to take place; the virtual print fee (or VPF). The VPF is a fee paid to an exhibitor to subsidize the purchase of digital cinema equipment. Most VPFs will run out by 2019. Until that time it will be just as expensive to distribute movies to cinemas as it was with 35mm.

      Of course, once the exhibitor does not have a financial incentive (and contractual obligation) to play certain content, it will be much easier to get a film into theaters, and I agree that the model will shift towards an artist based approach like the one you describe.

  3. Might this new model work in the context of a small-scale version of the classic studio system, where companies put writers, directors, actors and technical people under contract, then produce and finance a large number of relatively low-budget films, each with as distinctive an individual character as Paramount, RKO, Warners and MGM had in the 1930s? I think many in the industry would trade sporadic huge paydays for lesser, but more consistent salaries.

    • Coordination is essential and is one of the reason the studio system emerged as the dominant content creation model. You’re seeing this happen again on YouTube with MCNs. Now, will this happen at a smaller scale? Most definitely however it’s no longer compulsory. The new studio is the talent and story.

  4. Dave Toole says:

    Transmedia offers the promise of creating a new story arc that bring together Hollywood and Silicon Valley, more to come……….

  5. Thanks for the article, I agree with everything you suggest. I always thought studios should shoot a library of “Stingers” (the little clips that sometimes show after the credits roll) and then tease them out over time afterwards. If a sequel is planned, obviously these would drop hints sometimes about parts of the sequel (as with Thor’s hammer after Iron Man 2). Or, they could simply be random/humorous (as with falafel eating scene after Avengers). Or, they could show content from the movie from a different perspective, etc etc etc. With a little planning, the studios could save some viral ammo to keep driving engagement after the big event is over, to drive deeper engagement for existing fans, keep stoking the viral coals and increase likelihood of acquiring new fans. Obviously, as part of a larger overall strategy leveraging much of what has already been discussed here.

  6. Pingback: Saving Hollywood | Blog | Milyoni

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s