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The App Revolution (in Filmmaking)

The following article is published in Filmmaker Magazine. Fall 2012, Vol. 21 #1.

There is a saying I once heard: “Once you change the method of distribution, the product has to change.”

This itself is a take on the idea that distribution defines the product. You see this around you every day in the products you buy. Cars are influenced by the dealership networks that sell them. Phones by the mobile network operators and the choice of computer you use at work by whatever the IT department or value added reseller prefers to work with. Mass market restaurants offer what can be sold by wholesalers–typically frozen, long shelf-life staples. Almost every product category is shaped more by what can be distributed than what can be produced. That’s simply because in mature economies distribution is harder than production. In consumer products it requires access to wholesalers who then require access to shops who themselves have access to prime real estate which attracts foot traffic. Production only requires capital. Distribution requires relationships, often exclusive ones.

This pattern is even more pronounced when looking at media products. Production is arguably easier since it’s constrained by talent, which is fungible. But distribution is even harder as it is addressing bigger audiences in shorter time frames. You see this lopsided balance of power in the abundance of books being written relative to those being published. There are thousands of films produced and hundreds get distributed.

But the saying suggests that if distribution were to change then the product itself would change. Indeed, if you can sell ebooks direct, then they tend to evolve into new genres (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey). If you can sell cheap adult video online it tends to evolve into new genres as well (I’ll leave examples to the imagination.) YouTube videos quickly cluster around “Fail” or “Win” compilations which evolved from America’s Funniest Home Videos. They get millions of views. Even before the Internet, the availability of cable created the genre of music video, which created the first music broadcast alternative to radio. And of course, cinema itself redefined theater once it could get shown to millions rather than thousands. The new methods of distribution of media affected what gets produced rather than the other way around. Consider the converse: innovative filmmakers who try new storytelling methods are stymied by a lack of acceptance by existing distributors and find their material languishing in festivals or perpetual cult status.

So we can re-state the saying to a new “Law of new media”: Once you change the method of distribution, the medium itself has to change.

I gave examples of how Internet distribution changed some media formats. However, the Internet itself has not had any effect on long-form cinema so far. In fact, you would be able to tell if Internet distribution did work by watching if the product would change. So far, it seems, at least to me, that the commercially successful product has not changed. One reason has been that film is still a very difficult product to distribute digitally as most of the world does not have the capacity to buy, consume and enjoy films digitally. Another is that the current distributors have had an allergic reaction to the option. As existing products have been crammed into the new distribution chain (e.g. Netflix) the established distributors are experiencing channel conflict and are raising the costs of digital distribution rights. Netflix has seen its costs triple as it ate into Cable market share. Fundamentally, the incumbent distributors are reluctant to open a channel of distribution which conflicts with or reduces margins of the existing channels.

This brings up another corollary: fundamentally, you can’t move an existing media to a new network. You have to think of it as a deeply rooted-in system, and it’s just not going to like moving to another environment. You have to uproot this huge tree, and it just won’t come out and if it did it will not take root in a new place.

The only way to create this new value network around new distribution is to plant a new tree.

This is the problem for the technology industry today. The only way technology companies can solve the “content is king” dilemma (which, by the way, is an euphemism for “Hollywood is king and Silicon Valley isn’t”), is by allowing new content to flourish on top of new platforms. It’s not about moving the old content to the new platform. It’s about allowing new content to be created exclusively on the new platforms. This new content will therefore, by our law, be a new medium.

For me, apps are that new medium. Apps offered a new way to package entertainment for “niche time”. The early fart apps evolved into a whole new genre of games which are now challenging the established game studios. The result is that a generation of developers has moved from building PC or web software to apps with cloud back-ends. The first to switch to this new medium were those with the least to lose and with the most modest of goals. Apps have now a more valuable industry than digital music with over 55 billion installs between the iPhone and Android ecosystems. Consumers are increasingly spending their spare time in front of apps. In the US “app consumption” increased from 43 min/day in 2010 to 94 min/day at the end of 2011. This number already exceeds the time spent in web consumption. I find it difficult to doubt that app time will exceed TV time, especially as TV time is increasingly a dual screen experience.

(Feels like it needs one sentence explaining why. Is it because of their accessibility to small developers, or their ability to reach mobile handsets natively, or because of consumer trend?) If it’s absolutely impossible to move long-form video or long-form cinema to this new medium in such a way that everyone in the world can consume it on every device, then the app ecosystems will take up that challenge and say, “There’s a job to be done, and that’s to enertain people for an hour-and-a-half with characters, plots and wonderful stories, and we will make that happen, and we’ll call this thing an app.”

And that app will solve that job for that person. It’s what’s happening to the game console business. The new game apps are distributed differently, priced differently and produced differently. As a result they are used differently and make a different set of developers thrive.

The new app media will mean that we’ll just have to live in app universes, and go eat popcorn somewhere else. Microsoft and Google and Apple and Amazon and anybody else whose belly is at the bar has been scratching their heads wondering “How do we move that content over to us?” They’ve been barking up the wrong tree. The fundamental question isn’t how to cram old media into a new shiny screen. It is how do you let developers and artists and creative people create stuff that is new and compatible with this new way of living.

Think also about the history of media — movies haven’t been around forever; music hasn’t existed as a recorded medium forever. Not even books. What did people do before these forms of expression? We think of the use cases of going to the movies, or the use cases of sitting in front of a TV on Sunday night, or playing a console game. These things didn’t get done at some point in time. Nor will they be done at some future point in time.

In a few years we’ll move on and we won’t do those things. Each person will probably have his own screen in front of them–many already do–and whatever we do together we’ll do through a shared screen. We won’t have communal experiences that we associate with the old media. Certainly not in a theater. Maybe not even in a living room. And that is how we will move into a new value network.

It is inevitable. As a technology provider, you shouldn’t try to squeeze a 19th-century model into a 21st-century model. Just let it go. Create a platform and give people the freedom to create on it. As a media creator, you should try to learn what the new model demands. New forms of interaction, new story telling opportunities, new ways to communicate with audiences. Create experiments and learn. It’s the only way.