Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Porn, the Internet, and Intellectual Property

After almost two years of writing posts about the reshaping of the media and entertainment industries in the digital environment -- from the rise of microstars on YouTube, to bloggers, podcasters, musicians, and filmmakers -- today on the blog we aim the lens at another industry sector that's been shaken up and reconfigured by the Internet: Pornography. Just as in other corners of the entertainment industry digital disintermediation is taking hold in the world of online porn: new avenues for indies, amateurs taking market share from professionals, the introduction of cryptocurrencies for micro-payments, and aggregators trying to create monopolies. In this way the porn industry isn't all that different from music, writing, book publishing, or any other industry where physical things have morphed into digital things and the value has been accruing to aggregators, not creators.

Burt Reynolds as Jack Horner in Boogie Nights (1997),
pondering the change in format to VHS
Moviegoers from the 1990s may remember Boogie Nights, the film whose backdrop was the the adult entertainment industry's transition from movies watched in sketchy cinemas to VHS tapes viewed at home. Seeing that we haven't yet had a Boogie Nights II: The Internet Years, this post will have to suffice as a way to think about the next round of technological challenges and consumer preferences faced by the industry: the advent of the Internet. The 24/7 all access Internet has meant everything from piracy to personalized services to the emergence of highly specialized content niches.

Kate Darling:
 Intellectual Property Scholar

For this esoteric undertaking I sat down with Kate Darling, a woman of many titles, among them robot researcher and intellectual property specialist. Kate is a freshly minted PhD and the author of a pioneering study on the economics of the online entertainment industry recently published in the Stanford Technology Law Review. Kate and I sat down for a talk on the topic at the G-rated Berkman Center for Internet & Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It went more or less like this:


LK: “What Drives IP without IP: A Study of the Online Adult Entertainment Industry” is the title of your paper. The first IP stands for Internet Pornography and the second one stands for Intellectual Property. And I have to admit I am more interested in the second IP than the first IP.

KD: That’s what everyone says!

LK: Is that what everyone says? And of course your interest would be in the Intellectual Property aspects of things as well, but how did you end up bringing that interest together with Internet Pornography?

KD: It’s actually a play on words, a description of a type of research that has become increasingly popular in legal scholarship, which is Information Production Without Intellectual Property. And there have been a number of studies looking at how industries deal with a lack of, or a reduced set of, Intellectual Property protections, particularly if they’re creative industries and they’re producing creative work. There have been studies on fashion, on standup comedy, on chef’s recipes, and all these communities kind of outside the boundaries of Intellectual Property.

I’ve been really interested in that stream of literature for a while and it occurred to me one day that these industries are really great to look at, as it’s a lot of communities with social norm enforcement. People have been looking at the music industry and the major motion picture industry but it just kind of occurred to me that the adult entertainment industry has always been on the forefront of innovation and driving technology adoption and they are basically operating without intellectual property protections. There’s so much piracy online and they don’t have the same kind of lobbying that the other industries have. So it just occurred to me that that maybe an interesting study for that space of “IP without IP”, but with more parallels to the industries that policymakers actually cared about, would be Internet Pornography. And he “IP” part also worked out, too. You can just substitute Internet Pornography for information production.

LK: To give us a sense of scale, I believe that it says in your paper that this is a billion dollar a year market.

KD: It’s very very hard to get accurate number on this industry, most of the firms are privately held and there’s also a question of how you define what pornography is. So there’s been a bunch of estimates, most numbers on the Internet I found to be inaccurate but, at a minimum, the online adult entertainment industry is a couple billion dollars, according to people in the industry and their estimates.

LK: In your paper you talked about information products and the old way of thinking about information products was copyright and then selling rights or licenses or physical goods. It’s easy to forget with what we’ve seen in the last ten or fifteen years that there was a point to copyright and the whole point of copyright was to incentivize economic actors to make products. This is something that you talked about a lot in the paper.

KD: Yes, exactly. So the theory, at least in the United States, or one of the main reasons or justifications for copyright law is you need to give people a monetary incentive to create, because otherwise, people will just be able to copy or replicate and the creators won’t be able to recoup their investment costs. It’s a very useful theory in some cases and it’s proven true to some extent but what this stream of literature has been showing is something that is intuitive to a lot of people -- except for economists -- which is that there are other ways to incentivize creation, and it’s sometimes a little bit over simplified to say that copyright needs to be the driver.

And what we also often forget is that copyright comes with cost, so there’s 'dead weight' costs of creating monopoly-like rights, and it also reduces access to creative works and raises prices of creative works. So it’s a very difficult balance, because both sides of the equation are very hard to measure. I just think it’s important to realize that it is a delicate balance and that we don’t have the answers. It's not as black and white as we often think, and that’s what these studies together are trying to show, and are also trying to establish the other factors that could play a role or could be incorporated into these very simple criteria that we’ve had so far.

Porn online: At first a growth industry

LK: To bring this now into the context of the work that you did, as far back as I can remember, and I don’t know exactly when it changed, pornography was about the only thing that people would pay for online. That was the one thing that people would always pay for, anybody could set up a webcam and be in business… and then, what happened?

KD: Well, what happened essentially is what happened in other industries but perhaps even more extreme. Piracy, unauthorized use of content, started getting more organized, so I guess the big change for pornography was when the same platform that YouTube uses was adopted for so called 'tube sites', where any user can upload short video clips of adult content and the platform themselves won’t be held liable for copyright infringement because under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) parties like YouTube are not responsible for what people upload to their platform. That created this massive amount of unauthorized content being put out there. Sometimes they insinuated it was even the tube site owners themselves doing it, to create traffic, because they can monetize it, through advertising. And this is why adult content, maybe even more than the music industry, has become a commodity to a lot of consumers. Meaning, if they can’t get a specific piece of content, they are okay watching a different piece of content.

LK: Next best is good enough.

KD: It’s not like a Radiohead album. It’s like, “okay I’ll just watch this other girl on girl thing”. So, except for the niche content market, that kind of really started straining the traditional model of creating and selling content.

LK: What was the methodology that you used? You mentioned that this is an under researched sector. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of academic researchers with a legal background -- as you’re a legal scholar as well -- looking at this industry.

KD: I wanted to do an empirical study where I actually go and talk to people in the industry and figure what are they doing, and how they are dealing with the situation, because I’ve been interested in it and there was just no information. I could find nothing, no one had ever actually gone and talked to these people about how they were still making money. So I had in depth conversations with some of the major producers in the industry and I think it was a good start into figuring out what’s going on. I wish that more people would look into it because it really is a fascinating and very innovative industry.

The AVN Awards, only sort of
 the Oscars of the adult entertainment industry
LK: Did you go to some of those conferences, trade, and award shows that we’ve seen clips of on TV?

KD: Yes.

LK: How were you received in that environment?

KD: Actually, I was terrified when I started this project. I had no connection to this industry. I had no idea what to do but I got my courage together and flew out to LA and Vegas and went to these conferences. And it turned out to be a really really great experience. When I explained to people I was interested in the economics of it,
they were so excited to have someone come in from a university who wanted to talk to them, and they were so forthcoming with information.

LK: And it sounds like from what I read in your paper that these are really business people, who are pretty oriented towards profit loss and cost and distribution, etc. Did you find that as well?

KD: I did, I’m not sure how the industry changed over the past years, and especially dealing with these piracy problems online, but I’m going to guess that a lot of the weaker industry players are people who are fooling around a little bit, and they kind of died out because you really need to be smart and professionals to weather this type of technology disruption. But yes, the people that I was dealing with, they were all business, they were very smart. It is amazing also to hear how much red tape they need to deal with because of the regulation, which makes sense to a certain extent. But their attitude towards dealing with not having support from the government, not having support from anyone, and taking red tape as a cost of business and moving on and pushing on and trying to think of new ways to monetize things was very impressive.

LK: Give me some examples of the new ways that this industry is monetizing, because what used to be the DVD or even photos, those turn out now to be commodities, as you said.

KD: From a bird’s eye perspective, that the main shift has been towards experience goods and convenience goods, as services. Really trying to offer an interactive experience to people that’s not based on content and that can’t be pirated. One example for that is the live camera market. It’s supposed to be very lucrative right now to set up live camera sites where consumers can interact with performers directly.

LK: One-on-one.

KD: One-on-one, or one-on-many. There are different formats and ways to do it but that’s something that people are so willing to shell out for because they can’t get that off of the tube sites. It’s an interactive experience. And then there’s the whole service aspect, if you’re offering people mobile services or cloud storage services for their libraries, or generally ways that make it easy to access content quickly, because the consumer tends to be impatient in this market. They want to be able to stream to every device and that seems to be working out as an extra luxury that people are still willing to pay for. And just generally I’ve seen producers are playing around with things like Google glass. You see them looking at all types of new technologies that will create a new more immersive or different experience for consumers to consume.

LK: And if anybody hasn’t yet seen the movie Boogie Nights that really is the story of one technology replacing another. Going from 35mm film to this thing called video, and private consumption, and packages in the mail. Now, when you talked about the webcam business, are the people who are doing that are they generally independent contractors because I’m interested in how things have changed with the star system and the studio system, which is how the adult industry used to work. Does it still work that way or to what extent?

KD: The feeling that I’ve gotten over the past year is that the industry is really changing massively and power is changing hands, money making is changing hands, so some of the people who are able to monetize this new technology have been in the business for a long time. They remain flexible enough to take over a completely new business model and reshape themselves. In other cases, it’s new market entrants coming in and making use of opportunity.

There was a company that came in and quickly purchased the most popular tube sites and started monetizing that and they’ve since begun to buy up some of the production companies or partner with them. So it’s really interesting how industry is becoming more consolidated and the players are different. This has happened before, just like in Boogie Nights. You see a turnover happen which, interestingly, is what a lot of the mainstream media has called the death of the industry, and I think that this turnover and this changing of hands is more survival that could actually work.

LK: In industries like the music industry, and as economist Joel Waldfogel in particular pointed out, it’s the only industry where as demand and willingness of consumers to pay went down, supply still went up. There are more bands than ever, and more people than ever making stuff, some are choosing to give it away for free, others know full well it’s going to get pirated…how has that played out in the adult entertainment industry, the volume of production?

KD: I’m going to guess that production of standard content has gone down with the problems that they’ve had as it’s been shifting to other business models, but the interesting thing for me was to see that copyright theory suggests that if we remove copyright protection, no one will produce any content. And yet, content is still being produced despite all these other business models, and it turns out that it can function as a loss leader. So people might give it away, producers will put short clips up on the tube sites, and use it to strengthen their brands.

In terms of demand, I think producers have also moved away from the long form movie format because, realistically and I think studies have shown that people do not watch one and a half hour of content.

LK: What, so, 8 minutes or…?

KD: I really can’t remember—I read an article once where the average of people watching in hotel rooms was 12 minutes, which even seems long to me.

LK: So the rest was just a complete waste of production funding?

KD: Yes, but if you do a shoot and cut things into different short clips that you can then sell on their own, it becomes cheaper to produce, and it’s also becomes cheaper and easier to distribute. In terms of producing content there’s still some incentive there. And you asked about the demand side. I don’t have numbers to measure this exactly but this industry is notorious for having very strong and also very stable demand. People have argued that they’re pretty much recession resistant because -- or more so than other entertainment goods because people will cut out movies, like mainstream movies, before they will cut out this type of consumption. I guess the challenge in the current industry is how you monetize that demand. But the demand doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem as for other industries.

LK: An interesting analogy there for the music industry is when the album became unbundled to singles, so now you’re suggesting that in the adult industry it’s the movie that’s kind of been sliced and diced into what, like, 8 minutes short something like that?

KD: Yes, or shorter, so that the tube sites will partner with producers and those producers will put up maybe three or four minutes, but there’s a length that’s set by the tubes sites that they partner with. For instance, maybe if you watch multiple clips, or maybe people purchase 8-minutes clips I think one of the problems that this industry is facing that, the music industry doesn’t face, is the issue of micro-payments.

In the United States it’s kind of difficult just selling individual clips for a couple of dollars because these companies are usually rated by credit card companies and they’re in a high risk category because they’re adult entertainment. So they have a minimum purchase amount that makes economic sense for them, which is not a couple of dollars. There are different models and ways to get around that but it’s like they face a lot more red tape than the other industries with this type of micro payment model.

LK: I think that’s probably why people are so much more business-minded in this industry, because they’re aware of all these challenges and obstacles, and I don’t know if this is a fair assumption to make, but I think people could be in it more for the money as opposed to, say, the music business, where there’s different types of artistic expression, or in the writing business, or film, or theatre. This one seems to be different in that way, is that fair to say?

KD: I would say—I don’t know—this wasn’t part of my interview study, I didn’t ask them why they were doing it or why they’re interested in. I did ask casually, how did you get into this, and for every single one of them, it was an accident or something like no one specifically tried to get into this industry. They just got into it by some side route, like, oh we found out this was making more money than our jewelry business.

When retail fails, there's always the adult entertainment industry

LK: Accidental entrepreneurs.

KD: Yes. Do you know there are a bunch of producers who at least claimed to enjoy what they’re doing artistically. They tend to be more niche markets and they tend to be in markets where they still are able to sell content to a certain extent because it’s so unique and hard to get that people will/might pay for the convenience of having a subscription. That would be a kind of service aspect.

LK: Fair enough. If you have to come up with a short list of bullet points of what you found in this particular industry, that is helpful in thinking about other low IP, Intellectual property industries, what would those be?

KD: I would say the thing that a lot of these studies have observed and that I also found in this industry was a shift towards selling experiences and services, and kind of secondary markets. I think this is something that’s neglected by traditional Intellectual Property theory and economics and that we’re seeing can be another model to finance production. I feel like we still need to be thinking a lot about the balance that our innovation policies strikes and that copyright strikes. It’s hard to say okay, well people can just make money with services and experiences and then, we can get rid of copyright all together. I don’t think that works for every industry. I think that there are a lot of questions left unanswered about what happens to the quality of content when you do that. And what happens to the amount of content.



For Kate Darling's full paper "IP Without IP? A Study of the Online Adult Entertainment Industry", click here.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

When media scandals meet social media


This post is not about the scandal unfolding precipitously around former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. I am not particularly interested in using this space to go through the sundry dirty details of the story, to debate whether or not Ghomeshi has been convicted in the court of public opinion without a trial, or whether or not the only place he’ll ever work again is France. There is no shortage of others filling the traditional and social media horns of plenty with all manner of opinions that pertain to those and other questions, and really, another voice added to those aspects of the discussion is not needed. Instead, I want to examine this story for the way it demonstrates how new forms of media have changed our experience of breaking news and events. That way we sidestep the circus, number one, and number two, even if you don't know who Jian Ghomeshi is, or care about the story one way or the other, there is food for thought contained within.

Now then...


Publishing and broadcasting used to be exalted, almost magical things, a privilege of the few, and therefore a source of enormous power. Now these tasks can be accomplished with the click of a mouse or the tap of an index finger on a smartphone screen. Granted, a single person ‘broadcasting’ a tweet or ‘publishing’ a blog post doesn’t have the same influence as the New York Times or CNN but, with a globally dispersed public as potential workforce, a single message sent out by an individual through the network can impact first hundreds, then thousands, and ultimately millions.

This table is not an exhaustive list but breaks out, I believe, the major distinctions between traditional and digital media in the context of news coverage.


This week many of us have had the experience of taking in the Ghomeshi scandal in a real time, participatory media environment. It has been everything from fascinating to overwhelming to repugnant to addictive. For many it was the first time in the middle of the maelstrom, watching and reacting to new pieces of information, conjecture, and even gossip as it flooded in on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and then news sites. This wasn’t my first time in such a situation as I was living in Boston when the marathon bombings took place in Spring 2013. That was the first multi-modal, in real time, media news coverage I’d been a part of, and it completely reframed the experience for me. The city was on lockdown, which meant I was hunkered down in my tiny bachelor apartment, clock radio with local news going at one end of the room, the TV alternating between the local news station and CNN, and my laptop working overtime, checking Google news and Facebook, and scouring Tweetdeck for new information and hashtags moment by moment.

The stakes are different in the case of the Ghomeshi incident, but no less dramatic. We now know the experience of what Clay Shirky has referred to as the shock of inclusion. We watched as one piece of information dogpiled on top of another; as each lurid detail, wisecrack, or expression of support or protest flashed across our screens. We didn’t know what we should believe, and are unlikely to know the truth for some time.

And it all started because one guy with a podcast and a blog took it upon himself to independently investigate Ghomeshi, based on a tip he had received. It wasn’t the Globe & Mail, the National Post, or the CBC who broke the story, but independent, unembedded journalist Jesse Brown. And if not for his need for libel insurance he could have broken the story on his own, using his podcast and blog and a bunch of hashtags and @ posts on Twitter.

Because this blog is about digital disintermediation, aka the ability to bypass the usual intermediaries and power structures using digital, networked technologies, I decided that the story of this story belongs here. So I got in touch with Andrew Lundy, a journalist friend who has been in the business for 20+ years, and has worked in both old school newsrooms and in exclusively online environments. He’s now Vice President, Digital, at The Canadian Press.

Here are my questions and here are Andrew’s responses:

LK: How would you describe the role of the newsroom as a scandal or crisis unfolds in real time and the digital media avalanche gains momentum every fraction of a second?

AL: For traditional newsrooms, our role is three-pronged. First (and most important I think), we act as a filter, the Dolby noise reduction that assesses the stream of info and discards what's untrue, unlikely, and irrelevant, and amplofies what's true (or at least confirmed) and relevant.

Second, we bring our own resources to bear to advance the story, make it locally or contextually relevant for our audience, and tell it in distinctive ways. Beyond text there are photos, videos, maps, interactives, audio, animated gifs.

Third, we distribute that information on as many platforms as possible. While anyone can be a publisher or broadcaster today, traditional newsrooms still are the gatekeepers to newspapers, TV and radio. And most of the heavy-traffic news sites.

LK: How has your job changed, as things have moved traditional/analog to digital media?

AL: Timing, for one. Everything feels like hyperspeed today. A story can morph a dozen times in a single day now that we have instant publishing and direct access to sources and info, and no control over whom tells the story. So staying on top of a story today is much more demanding than it was 20 years ago.

Related to timing is the news cycle. There really isn't one anymore. There used to be a rhythm to the news day: agendas set in the morning, a lot of action during the day, finalizing stories in the afternoon and early evening, people consuming all that later in the day or the next morning. Hence morning and evening papers, TV news at 6 and 11. Weekends generally quiet and reserved for analysis and long-form storytelling. Sunday New York Times typified that sensibility.

Try following the Rob Ford or Jian Ghomeshi stories on that schedule and you miss everything. News conferences scheduled with minutes of lead time, stories breaking on Twitter at 10pm, the Saturday-night reaction to a social media post becomes a story in its own right. You just never know what to expect anymore, so you have to be ready for anything anytime. And with shrinking newsrooms, that's a real challenge. But there are positives. We can be much quicker to push out info today, and can reach more people digitally than ever before. Digital means everyone is a global publisher. And the range of storytelling options is absolutely exhilarating. In my former life as a print reporter I would have loved to have the range of tools available today to tell some of those stories. Back then all I had was text, maybe a photo or two, and if was very lucky, a flat infographic.  

A few seconds in the life of Tweetdeck this week

LK: I’ve been hooked on my screen for far too many hours watching information come in about this story and one of the many interesting things is that the institutions, the bigger players, seem to be getting many of the parts of the story last…for example, the Big Ears Teddy story appeared in the National Post online about 15 hours after I first saw it come up on Twitter. And before they got it it had been on the Huffington Post and Gawker. How do you keep up as all the information rushes in, non-stop like this?

The old school newsroom:
When accusatory teddy bears didn't have Twitter accounts
AL: Here's where I'll defend traditional media when it comes to speed. I'd hope the lag time pushing new stories is due to the verification process. I know it is where I work today. Being first is great, being right is greater still. Nobody wants to kill Gordon Lightfoot again. Remember the whopping errors mainstream media pushed when the Sandy Hook school shootings occurred?

If traditional media with professional journalists can't set themselves apart from the noisy crowd in terms of accuracy or fairness or consequences like libel, they just become part of the noise.

As far as keeping up, we're constantly monitoring. We always have but the wire and the police scanner have turned into Tweetdeck and targeted Google News alerts. Once something happens on those new platforms, we jump on it and street assessing and verifying.

LK: I’ve heard it said that with online news you can get it right or you can get it first. As part of a professional news organization is there any way you can do both? Or is that an unreasonable expectation?

AL: You can, but the 'get it first' part is tougher today because anyone can push anything anytime. When it comes to enterprise or investigative stories, you'd better do both. The Toronto Star has been very good at that in both their Ford and Ghomeshi coverage, for instance, because they've invested in their investigative resources and have a really strong pedigree in that area with journalists like Kevin Donovan.




And for a taste of the ways the accessibility of information and opinion related to news stories has changed in the age of digital, participatory media:

Click here for a chart of people 'unliking' Jian Ghomeshi's Facebook page, in real time
Here for journalist Jesse Brown's online allegation tracker
Here for the satirical Twitter account @early90sjian
Here for a candid snap of JG at a Hallowe'en party in 2009

...Or view the video below, an op-ed on the Ghomeshi scandal, done in the style of a YouTube makeup tutorial.

(Ed. Note, possibly to self: interesting that I"m using the traditional news term "op ed", which exists to distinguish opinion from balanced news reporting, while media forms like this video comprise a new category.)


Thursday, October 23, 2014

YouTube & Filmmakers: From the small screen to the big screen (or not)

Up until last week I hadn’t thought much about YouTube as a platform for filmmakers. A place for comedy sketches, makeup bloggers, shopping haul people, conspiracy theorists, music videos, precocious kids and pets….sure. But filmmakers…I didn’t really think about that much.

And I mean actual films, not what essentially amount to video selfies aka monologues to camera that are more about the person doing the monologuing than anything else. I mean work that has a style and a structure and lives in a category outside of much of what we see online. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be shot on film to be placed in this category. That’s just a detail. Heck, there are even stars of Vine now, making those short looping smartphone videos that can be strangely hypnotic. Give people a new format and they will create a new art form around it.

Generally the process for making what we’ll call films, short and long, fiction or non-fiction has been limited to a few routes: self-funded, grant funded, or studio or broadcaster-funded. In recent years we’ve been able to add crowd-funded to this list, whereby fans of a person or an idea essentially pre-pay for something they’d like to see, or act as a micro-financier as a show of support for the person or the project. So yes, there are now more options on the production side, but what about distribution, which is where the rubber hits the road. Or the reel hits the road. Or whatever the alliterative phrase should be to denote the finished product making its way to people. Increasingly that won’t happen in theatres, at film festivals, or on cable. Netflix is a new digital home for films, but I’ve been told by an indie filmmaker that their licensing deals have dropped from low 6 figures to low 5 figures, meaning small tens of thousands.  So even a very low budget film, made for say, $100,000 or less, is going to have trouble breaking even if Netflix is its primary route to audiences.

So where does that leave filmmakers? How about just the wild frontier of the web and YouTube?

One of the ways the Internet changes the media landscape is that it’s not beholden to any particular format, timetable, or programming block. Whereas half hour TV shows need to be 23 minutes plus commercials, and feature films need to come in around the 100 minute mark, short films online can be whatever the person behind the camera wants them to be. And no need to think about what the lead in or the follow up show is because everything is on demand.

At Buffer Festival, last weekend’s festival of YouTubers, I came across a range of people using YouTube, Vimeo, and their own websites in a way that overlaps with the world of filmmaking. Take 5 Second Films, which is pretty much what it sounds like. But don’t take the name completely literally, because the films are closer to 8 seconds long if you include the 2 seconds of opening titles and the 1 second of closing titles. Like their slogan says: “Wasting your time, but not very much.” 



And they are brazen enough to impose on your time five days a week. As one of the 5 second filmmakers said on a panel I attended last week: “Maybe not all the films are good, but at least they’re short. Plus you can come back the next day and it’ll probably be better.“ A collective of about a dozen people who reportedly live in the same house, the 5 Second Film crew have been posting to YouTube for just over 7 years,  and now have 200 million views on their channel, making them about the 1300th most popular channel in terms of view count.

But does it all start and end in those 8 seconds on YouTube? Apparently not. The 5 Seconders did a Kickstarter last year and raised just under $250,000 to turn their ultra-short “Dude Bro Party Massacre III” into a feature. An additional $500,000 was kicked in by an unnamed party, and they completed production in Summer 2014. I emailed them to find out what the plans were for it and they said: 

"Dude Bro Party Massacre III" distribution plan is still in the works; we definitely plan to have an online presence; we came up on the internet, and funded our film through it. But we're also looking at possible film festivals and traditional distribution methods."




I also attended a screening of short films and Q&A with Bertie Gilbert, a 17 year old Londoner who had a part in a Harry Potter movie as a child actor and uses the royalties from that to fund what he’s doing now, which is making highly cinematic short films and posting them online.

Bertie in his Harry Potter days
Existential teenage Bertie

“I put my films on YouTube not as a YouTuber but because YouTube is a place where things are put

“I started putting up videos on the Internet years ago and they were shit”, he admitted to the crowd at Buffer Festival. “Reviews of video games, me talking to the camera, lego animations...And then my stuff got more filmic, existential, and depressing over time.




Bertie Gilbert's first film went up on YouTube just under a year ago and he’s got 370,000 subscribers and 2 million views in total. “My subscriber count has been the same for 3 months because I’m losing as many subscribers as I’m gaining, and that’s okay", Bertie told the crowd at Buffer Festival. If people like it, they like it, and if they don’t, I don’t mind.” 

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Bertie Gilbert is teen idol beautiful, has a foundation of Harry Potter fans to build upon, and still lives at home with his mother and sister. These things help with both the business model and the growth of the fan base. And in the interim a talented teenage filmmaker has complete creative control, advances his craft, and does so while getting instant global distribution online.

The final evening of Buffer Festival was on Vlogumentary, the name of a forthcoming Kickstarter-funded feature film. Vlogumentary, as you’ll see in the trailer below, looks at the phenomenon of the YouTube vlog, an intimate form of personally-produced media that is responsible for billions for YouTube views, but perhaps more importantly, has created a new 1-on-1 relationship between media viewers and media creators. Though Kickstarter-funded documentaries have been around for a few years I’m including the story of Vlogumentary here to highlight YouTube as a path to a kind of fame, then funding, then the ongoing support of the fan community.




Shay Carl is one of the earliest and most beloved vloggers on YouTube, and is one of the driving forces behind Vlogumentary. Even though he’s pretty much what you would call YouTube royalty, with over a billion views across his various channels, he is the first to admit he knew nothing about filmmaking when he and director and YouTuber Corey Vidal began work on Vlogumentary last year. “First off, and I should have known this from the world of construction, it ends up being double the budget and quadruple the time”, he told the hundreds assembled for some advance clip screenings at Buffer Festival. 

But this wasn’t the biggest problem. “We ended up doing production, then pre-production, and then post-production, and that’s not the usual order it’s done.” Moving from vlogging to a feature film, as in a real film, with a Motion Picture Association of America rating and al the rest, has meant dealing with things like licensing, clearances, insurance, and lawyers, none of which are on the radar for most vloggers and YouTubers.
  
The 34 year old father of five has been a daily vlogger since 2009, and prior to that had been a car salesman, a real estate agent, a door to door pest control salesman, and proprietor of his own countertop installation business. A former class clown whose weight has yo-yo’d over 100 pounds (which you can observe in his vlogs), Shay Carl has one of those personalities that fills the room the minute he walks into it. People relate to him like he’s their best buddy from high school, the guy who’s always ready to tear into a pizza or three. And women love him too. I know this because at the screening and panel discussion I witnessed a whole lot of them in the audience swooning from his mere presence in the room. What Shay Carl did was create a media empire, first one YouTube video at a time, then oneYouTube channel at a time, before there was any whiff of industry in the random, global dogpile of videos that is YouTube.

But I don’t want the takeaway from this post to be that you need to be a YouTube superstar or create an empire using emerging media platforms in order to get your project made, and ultimately seen. That’s one way of doing things, but is an unlikely outcome at best. The more valuable takeaway, I think, is that there are now doors that can lead to filmmaking careers of various tiers, and they exist in places where there didn't used to be places. Shay Carl’s story is the extreme exception, but in the case of 5 Second Films and Bertie Gilbert, things may be less financially fortifying than they are for Shay Carl but are still mighty encouraging. For example, 5 Second Films and Bertie Gilbert are among the 14 recent recipients of funding from New Form Digital, a partnership between Ron Howard and Discovery Communications. The funding is for scripted short films, less than 10 minutes in duration, with an eye to distribution across multiple platforms, brand partnerships, and extensions into series.
The digital channel, whether it’s YouTube or Vimeo or Vine or an app or a website, can be the primary platform for a filmmaker, or an ancillary one. Whereas traditional filmmaking, on both the production and distribution sides, was a high stakes, high budget game, there are now new options. It may not be an easy or particularly lucrative path to go down, especially in a landscape in which the process has been democratized, but it’s also not just about a chance at the big bucks. The days of show business as lottery ticket are largely over. And I think that’s one of the big lessons we all have to come to terms with in the easy upload world.

When creative expression is everyone’s right and privilege we need to think in terms of the opportunities that accompany a universe filled with entertainment-friendly moments and devices, like the 1-on-1 relationships that can be fosteredwith audiences and the ability to create affinity groups around niches previously thought too small to matter to anyone. Then the focus moves to the ability to hone one’s craft while simultaneously building an audience base. And then to figure out the new possibilities for revenue streams, around that which is unique and valuable to fans. Where attention and enthusiasm go, opportunities arise.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lessons learned at Buffer Festival 2014: People will pay


I have a number of things I want to share with you coming out of my attendance at this weekend’s Buffer Festival aka the gathering of the stars of YouTube and their fans. But I’m about to head out to observe the red carpet portion of the event; yes there’s a gala, where formal wear is expected of both fans and celebs (as per this special offer received via email) but I'm going in civilian garb as I'll merely be a spectator and will then likely come back home and blog some more. And in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the festival, the red carpet is open to anyone. If you want to go to the Gala, it's a $50 ticket, plus however much that tux or gown rental runs you.

In the meantime I’d just like to say that one of the bigger surprises of this weekend has been seeing that in a time when people have either become accustomed to, or expect to, pay zip for their entertainment, the people of Buffer Festival are showing me that there are things for which they are happy to open their wallets.


In yesterday’s post I included this picture, taken yesterday around 5:30 pm at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (that’s the Canadian spelling, btw, for any non-Canadians reading who think I may have gone all French on them.)


You can’t see the beginning or the end of the queue, which gives you an idea of how long the line was. It was for what’s termed a “meetup”, and was one of three or four held each day of Buffer Festival. At the meetup people wait in line first to get into the theatre (again, Canadian spelling) and then a second time so they can form into a line to get their picture taken with the YouTube celebrity who’s there in the person. These pics are from the meetup for Rhett & Link, who I first discovered a couple of years ago for their low budget commercials made for local businesses.


“Our degrees our 2 years and our haircuts are 2 dollars"

YouTubers Rhett & Link, as the loving onslaught of
picture-seeking fans arrives
To get into the meetup you needed to have a ticket for the screening, which are the backbone of the Buffer Festival. And, even more ironically, the screenings were held at mega-cineplexes, those six level apocalypse-feeling places in the middle of downtown that one really has to wonder about the future of. 
Festival.

Yes, people paid $15 to go to a cinema to watch YouTube videos they could watch for free at home or on their phone. The only difference was that the YouTubers on the screen were generally, but not always, present at the events.

So, naysayers, carp all you want, and say there’s no such thing as people willing to pay, that the Internet has ruined the entertainment industry, etc. Yes, the business models are still being worked out, but there are also tens of thousands of people making it work for themselves, and that’s on YouTube alone. What we can safely conclude is that there’s a new type of entertainment and a new type of performer resonating with people, and those are the ones that know how to be relatable and real more than professional and polished, the ones who understand the importance of cultivating relationships with their audience, and adding an actually sincere personal touch.


The walls of the Cineplex during Buffer Festival
adorned with posters promoting not movie stars, but YouTubers

One more data point from this weekend: In the world of YouTube, the superstars of the medium like Shay Carl, with over a billion views on his YouTube channel, take the time to meet individual fans and in these interactions compress the distance between performer and viewer.




And this is hardly an isolated incident. If you search on the hashtag #BufferFestival on Twitter you’ll see hundreds of tweets from people talking not just about the official meetups, but also about recognizing YouTubers on the streets of downtown Toronto this weekend. About being able to just go up and say hello to them, and being warmly greeted in return. You don’t get the Internet version of Tom Cruise’s bodyguards giving you double outstretched palms to keep you away. This, after all, is media made of the people and by the people and the etiquette and culture reflect it.

For more glimpses into the world of YouTubers and their fans at this weekend's Buffer Festival, here are two fan-created video diaries recently posted. Kind of a YouTube Parking Lot. Check them out here and here. Or for a view of the proceedings from the camera of a YouTuber, there's this little romp through a day at the fest.