Sunday, May 9, 2021

Going back to the internet of the 90s to think about the internet of the future

Ah, the internet. Home to permissionless publishing, constant connectivity, and peer to peer networks. 

We don't need a 'them' to green light whatever it is we may want to do online. Plus we get to click on the things we want to read or watch, and ignore those things we don't want to know about. 

Well, most of the time, anyway.

At this point I think it's safe to say that we've all been on the internet long enough to know that such openness and on-demand everything can yield less than optimal outcomes. Whether it's the bad actors that manufacture disinformation or the ones responsible for ad fraud, bots, or a litany of other undesirable things, the internet exists in the contradiction that the greatest treasure trove of information ever amassed can also have a sewage pipe attached to it. That's the flip side of the ubiquitous connectivity and networks. It seems self-evident that we're infinitely better off with the internet than without it, but we're also at a point in its evolution (about 25 years in to the consumer internet phase of things) that decisions being made now, and companies being built now, will determine where this crazy experiment in global connectedness goes.

So what can we do about it now? Sometimes looking back can provide a valuable lens as we look forward, as was the case at a recent event that brought together some pioneers of the internet with an academic who has been studying online communities since they began to emerge in the 1990s.

The pioneers sharing their perspectives were David Bohnett, founder of Geocities and Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr. As a quick refresher, Geocities hosted tens of millions of websites at its peak in the late 90s. Some say it was a precursor to social media, with web software that let anyone create and publish a website. And it's easy to forget what a big deal that was at the time. But it really was. 

You didn't need to know how to code, you didn't have to pay extra for domain names or hosting. It was all taken care of by Geocities. As noted in a Wall Street Journal article in 2007 on Geocities: “Back then, entries were known as home pages, not profiles. But the basic, expressive elements of today’s Facebook and competitor MySpace…were all right there.” So what happened to Geocities? Well, it was purchased for $3.5 billion by Yahoo in 1999. And shut down a neat and tidy 10 years later. Its founder David Bohnett started his own venture capital firm, investing in other startups, and now runs a foundation focused on improving society through social activism.

A few years after Yahoo's acquisition of Geocities, along came Flickr. It launched in 2004 and was one of the first, if not *the* first online photo-sharing sites. You had pictures that you wanted to post online and tag? Flickr was the place to do that. Basic features were offered for free, and you could pay extra for a premium account with added bells and whistles. After a year of explosive growth Flickr was also acquired by Yahoo, though at about $25 million it fetched nowhere near the price of Geocities. 

As Caterina Fake's co-founder Stewart Butterfield put it: "Flickr missed some of the uptick in the market, as others sold for more when the market took off: Myspace sold to News Corp. for $580 million in July 2005 and later YouTube, which Google acquired in October 2006 for $1.65 billion in stock. We definitely made the wrong decision in retrospect. We would’ve made 10 times [what we did]. But it’s not like I regret it." Fret not, however. Things turned out fine for Butterfield. More than just fine. After a series of entrepreneurial ventures he created Slack, which got acquired by Salesforce for $27 billion in December 2020. Things turned out well for Caterina Fake too. She did another startup after Flickr, and it got acquired by eBay. She became an investor herself, taking bets on Uber, Etsy, and Kickstarter, among others. Today she is a partner in an early stage investing firm called Yes VC.

And with that, let's go to the event, with David Bohnett, founder of Geocities, Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, author and academic Nancy Baym, and moderator Jad Esber, co-founder of the startup Koodos* for a discussion of such questions as:

  • How can what we've learned from the social internet's past help us create a better shared digital future?
  • If each new social platform is as a new type of 'society,' how have these assumptions shifted over the years?
  • And, of course, what might be coming next...

PS And you can see the full transcript from the event here.

*Disclosure:  I'm an advisor to Koodos. And may I say it's been a fascinating ride.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

8 Takeaways from 8 Episodes of the Now & Next Podcast

It’s been a year in which coming up with creative solutions to pressing problems has taken on a whole new meaning for the screen-based industries.  And Season 3 of Now & Next, the podcast that I host, has made it a priority to explore the range of ways in which people in film, TV, games, and digital content creation have been keeping things up and running during the long haul that is Covid-19. 

Not surprisingly, we found a number of common threads emerging over the course of the 8 episodes of this season:
  • A new community-minded focus taking precedence for everyone from entrepreneurs to industry associations
  • An awareness of the ongoing challenges of implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives that go beyond ‘ticks in boxes’
  • A deeper understanding of the new demands on digital creatives working from home and for actors and crews working on set during Covid-19

As a handy guide to Season 3, here are 8 takeaways from its 8 episodes. You can click the episode number/title below to go straight to that podcast audio file, or click here to subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts. And here we go...

Episode 1: Practicing “Safe Sets” in the COVID-19 era 

Takeaway: In a time of crisis helping the industry helps everyone

On this episode we meet a young serial entrepreneur named Alex Kolodkin who, when Covid-19 led to a shutdown of movie and TV sets across Canada, started a new company to help equip the industry with up to date and accurate health and safety information that was vetted by a team of medical professionals and that also provided certification for TV & film professionals. 

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But there’s a twist. He isn’t charging anything for the services offered by this latest venture, called Safe Sets International. Why is that you ask? Alex explains it this way:

“I felt useless sitting at home while Covid ravaged the industry. There were times where I was just twiddling my thumbs and thinking, I wish I could do something, and the only thing I can do is sit at home…[but] when I see that there’s a challenge, my instinct as an entrepreneur is: how can I help? That’s where Safe Sets came from. My way of helping is just to get education out there for everybody, and I think it’s the simplest thing I could have done.”

Episode 2: Making on-screen racial diversity easier to achieve

Takeaway: Achieving meaningful diversity & inclusion continues to be a challenge in TV & film

“I’ve been hearing about creating diversity and inclusion since the late ’70s. I’ve sat at more roundtable discussions about increased diversity and inclusion than most people have. And the needle is moving very slowly.” Those are the words of award-winning actor and founder and Executive Director of the ReelWorld Film Festival Tonya Williams.

Tonya joined us on the podcast to talk about both the achievements made and challenges faced over her 20 years with the festival whose focus is to support and showcase the work of Canada’s racially diverse filmmaking and production community. Most recently Tonya launched Access ReelWorld, the most complete database of Black, Indigenous, Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American talent in the Canadian entertainment industry.

Episode 3: Virtual production moves closer to mainstream
Takeaway: Boundary-pushing technology doesn’t have to mean big budgets

What if, instead of bringing all the elements of a live action set together in one place – the actors, crews, props, and locations – filmmakers could build out the production digitally, one layer at a time? That’s the promise of virtual production, the approach to filmmaking we’re exploring in this episode with the Alberta-based production team of Andrew Scholotiuk and Dylan Pearce.

In recent years this style of production has moved from the exclusive domain of mega budget, major studio movies to the more modest budgets of indie and DIY filmmakers. This is because truly cinematic visual effects can now be rendered in real time using iPhones and video game engines like Unity and the Unreal Engine. As Dylan Pearce explains in this episode:

“If you have an iPhone or a camera that utilizes face capture technology, you can start to play with creating your own face capture and digital avatar. You can open up Unreal and use your phone, and then you can start to digitally move around a character’s face in real time. There’s also an app that utilizes your phone to fully mo-cap somebody. Now, this might not be Hollywood level grade, but it’s a wonderful foundation to learn the platform and to get familiar with it so that when you do have a production, you understand it and you can put your money in the right places for it. I think that’s the first step.”

Episode 4: Staying eco-conscious on set during Covid-19

Takeaway: Production can be green even during Covid-19

On this episode we meet Clara George, a pioneer in the greening of film and TV sets. Clara has spent close to three decades working as a producer in film and TV and during this time became increasingly aware of how little things could make a big difference when it came to reducing the environmental impact of production.

Today, being in charge of sustainability initiatives is Clara’s full-time job, and she’s been able to do everything from keeping eco-consciousness on set top of mind, even during Covid-19, to reducing her productions’ overall carbon footprint by shifting from fossil fuels to the clean grid of hydroelectric power. Clara’s current plan is to take these sustainability initiatives put into place on her productions in Vancouver and create a template for the whole industry.

Episode 5: How the game industry is staying relevant during Covid-19

Takeaway: Virtual schmoozing is real, especially in the game industry

Almost every industry says it’s a relationship industry, but the game industry is probably more reliant on in-person networking and trade shows than other media and entertainment sectors. Just ask anyone who has attended events like GDC in San Francisco, E3 in Los Angeles, or GamesCom in Cologne, Germany, and you’ll likely get an earful of stories about these epic gatherings of tens of thousands of people and round the clock socializing.

And then Covid hit in March, and the game industry was one of the first to go into ‘safe mode’. Developers, designers, and project managers grabbed their headphones and computers and quickly moved to working from home. Covid meant those legendary industry events were no longer possible. But then the Canadian game industry responded, with a virtual version of a large-scale networking event that came about as a collaboration between the provincial interactive media associations across the country.

On this episode we’ll hear about how a variety of game studios have been adapting, and how the virtual networking offered by the new Canada Games Online event helped keep the industry’s momentum going by bringing studios together with publishers, investors, and other strategic partners.

Takeaway: Movies can be social, even when we’re home alone

Sometimes it takes a pandemic to take an interesting idea and push it to the next level. That has certainly been the case for Hilary Henegar and Fiona Rayher, the two British Columbia-based entrepreneurs behind Hoovie. The project started as small, in person screenings of ‘conversation sparking’ movies, generally from the film festival circuit. But during Covid, Hoovie has been nudged into its next incarnation, as a technology platform.

On this episode you’ll hear about how Hilary and Fiona have orchestrated the shift from a business model based on backyard and living room screenings to virtual events that aim to cultivate community by bringing a social dimension to the viewing experience as well as providing a new way for filmmakers to reach audiences. 

Takeaway: A 20-something from small town Saskatchewan has a few things to teach Disney

Jacob Pratt describes himself as “just a res kid”, a reference to having grown up on the George Gordon First Nation reserve, about 100 km north of Regina. These days that ‘kid’ from Saskatchewan finds himself based in Los Angeles, having recently completed a Masters degree at the University of Southern California, and running Skoden Entertainment, an Indigenous story focused entertainment production company.  

His first client? The multinational media and entertainment conglomerate called Disney.

On this episode Jacob explains his journey from the Canadian prairies to the heart of the global entertainment industry, and how he convinced Disney that the best way to break decades of on-screen stereotypes of Indigenous peoples was to work with him and his company. As Jacob puts it: “How can we reverse or eliminate those stereotypes? The number one answer for me was: Use the same medium that created and reinforced those stereotypes to reverse them.”  

Takeaway: The shift to work from home mode may not be as simple as it seems

We’ve all heard the saying ‘be careful what you wish for’. Well this year it’s taken on a new meaning, as millions of people no longer have to wonder about how great working from home is, or perhaps isn’t. On this episode of the podcast we meet Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan and Jim Munroe, two long time game arts and industry professionals whose current project is conducting research and reporting on what the shift to working from home has been like for people in the game industry.

Marie and Jim are currently putting the finishing touches on the report, and its title, “Isolation Nation”, provides a hint at some of the findings. Not surprisingly, many are feeling anxious and alone and are having to learn new skills, such as being their own boss and finding ways to keep their morale up without the usual office socializing and team building events.

Marie describes the research project this way: “People are really isolated right now, and I say that’s more the case for people making games, especially small studios. Life is easier when people can solve problems together. So the goal of this project is to gather knowledge from people making games all over Canada, in small studios, in larger studios, or people working alone. And then gather that knowledge together into one resource so that people can share the things that they’re struggling with, and how they’re getting past them.”  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

A double shot of podcasts for the Season 3 finale

Tis the season...for what, I'm not sure this year. But one thing we do know is that for the past 9 months some of our best companions have been podcasts. To bring Season 3 of Now & Next, the podcast I host, to a close, a double shot of episodes have just been dropped for your earbud fulfillment. In one we meet an indigenous actor, producer, and filmmaker who as a kid wondered why there was no one who looked like him in Home Alone. Today Jacob Pratt is based in LA, and his latest project is creating Indigenous themed content for Disney. The other episode picks up on this theme of home alone-ing and offers a preview of a forthcoming research report on how people in the game industry are adapting to working from home. Enjoy.

Now & Next Podcast S3 E8 – Isolation Nation: Insights into #WFH

Have you ever said to yourself ‘if only I could work from home whenever I wanted’? And then followed up with a list of all the ways in which it would be better than the daily grind of an uncomfortable commute, overpriced coffee, and hours spent pushing paper and clicking keys at your desk, interspersed with hours in meetings and boxes of muffins? Now, for better or worse, most of us know what that’s like. Spoiler alert: it’s not as great as we thought it would be.

On this episode of  the Now & Next podcast we’re taking a closer look at an industry that was one of the first to go to full work from home mode: the game industry. In some ways it was a fairly straightforward transition, because the majority of developers, designers, producers, and testers were already working independently and on screens for much of the time. But has the transition really been that seamless?

The guests on this episode of the podcast are Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan and Jim Munroe. They’re long time game art industry professionals who have been tasked with finding out what the shift to working from home has actually been like for game industry personnel. They’re putting the finishing touches on a research report about the sector’s transition from studio-based work to home-based work called “Isolation Nation”.  Marie and Jim provide us with a sneak peek into some of their interview-based findings so far, such as the challenges of people having to be their own boss at home, the tendency to work too much, as opposed to working too little, and mechanisms for keeping morale up when the opportunities for the usual team building events are limited due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

Marie describes the research project this way: “People are really isolated right now, and I say that’s more the case for people making games, especially small studios. And we think life is easier when people can solve problems together and share knowledge. So the goal of this project is to gather knowledge from people making games all over Canada, in small studios, in larger studios, or people working alone. And then gather that knowledge together into one resource so that people can share the things that they’re struggling with, and how they’re getting past them.”

On this episode, learn more about:
  • How did the gaming industry respond to Covid in terms of getting people set up to work from home? (02:37)
  • How team health is affected by working from home (09:00)
  • Ways studios are trying to build camaraderie and trust with people that joined during the pandemic (11:25)
  • Studios dealing with mental health challenges (15:00)
  • The most surprising discoveries Marie Claire and Jim made from doing this research (18:35)
  • Getting creative work done while being stuck at home during a pandemic (22:30)

Dig Deeper:

Now & Next Podcast S3 E7 – Breaking On-Screen Stereotypes from the Inside Out 

As a child growing up in southern Saskatchewan Jacob Pratt found himself watching TV – as most kids do – and wondering why he saw no one who looked like him. Jacob grew up on the George Gordon First Nation reserve, about 100 km north of Regina, and remembers that the only images he saw of people from his culture on TV and in movies were stereotypes like people dancing around drums or as members of a tribe from the 1800s riding into town on horseback. 

“Why is there no one that looks like me in Home Alone?”, he thought to himself.

It took several years for Jacob to process, and ultimately answer that question for himself. He built his career in the entertainment industry one step at a time, first as a dancer, then as an actor, and more recently as a producer and director. It was along this journey that Jacob realized that the stereotypical images of Indigenous people he had seen his whole life were not just created by the industry, but reinforced by it. “And then I started thinking to myself, well, how can we reverse or eliminate those stereotypes? And the first answer that came to me was: use the same medium that created and reinforced those stereotypes to reverse them.”

On this episode of the Now and Next, Jacob Pratt talks about his journey from a town of a few thousand people on the prairies to the heart of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, where he recently completed his Masters at USC, and launched his own company, Skoden Entertainment. Skoden is an Indigenous story-focused entertainment production company whose first client happens to be Disney. But this is not the story of an overnight success. Far from it. While still based in Canada, Jacob hosted, produced, and directed several shows on APTN. And it was while doing an internship at Disney, as part of his Masters program at USC, that he forged the relationships that would lead to his current work with the entertainment industry giant.

On this episode, learn more about:
  • How using the entertainment industry can be a great way to reverse stereotypes created and reinforced by the media (02:20)
  • The biggest challenges in bringing Indigenous stories created by Indigenous filmmakers to a wide audience (6:30)
  • The story of how of Jacob got the deal with Disney (09:00)
  • Skoden Entertainment’s plans to impact Indigenous communities more directly in the future (10:30)

Dig Deeper:

Monday, December 7, 2020

Making Movies Social Again

If we’re going to be spending so much time alone during Covid-19, we might as well do it together. And not on yet another Zoom meeting. Instead, how about taking the experience of watching a movie, add a group of like-minded individuals, and finish the evening off with some captivating conversation? And do it all at a safe distance online.

That is essentially what Hilary Henegar and Fiona Rayher, the entrepreneurs behind the startup Hoovie are doing. The two friends began organizing in-person events in Vancouver a few years ago that were essentially ‘pop up’ movies. They called them Hoovies, a blending together of the words ‘home’ and ‘movies’.

These events took place in living rooms, in backyards and in basements – anywhere where people could gather and share the experience of watching a documentary, art house movie or film festival award winner together. The evening was capped off with a post-film discussion, usually accompanied by some wine and cheese, and oftentimes the exchange of phone numbers. People were meeting new people and sharing new ideas at Hoovies. Then Covid-19 hit, and like many entrepreneurs, Hilary and Fiona had to adjust their model. “Since Covid, said Fiona, we’ve pivoted. We’ve really tried to bring the magic of what we used to do to the online world.”

On this episode of the Now & Next podcast, we’ll hear from the two BC-based entrepreneurs about what it’s been like shifting their model from people’s yards and homes to their laptops and tablets. As Hilary explains in the interview: “What we know is that there’s this longing people have to interact during the film. As one of our users has said, you can actually feel the audience in the room. And that’s been a real guiding light in how we build the technology.”

And there’s good news for producers too. On top of adding a new social dimension to the viewing experience, Hoovie also provides a new way for filmmakers to reach audiences. Some filmmakers are already finding new audiences in this way while others are using the platform as an additional window, both with a revenue stream attached.

In this episode, hear about:
  • Using cinema as a tool to build online communities (1:40)
  • How food remains an integral part of a movie watching experience, even online (7:00)
  • Why independent films are uniquely suited to a social cinema model (10:30)
  • The new distribution window for filmmakers offered by Hoovie (14:35
  • The story behind how Bob Stein, the founder of the Criterion Collection, fell in love with the Hoovie model (21:53)  

Dig Deeper:

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Staying in the Game: Indie Video Game Studios During Lockdown

There is no doubt that all sectors of the entertainment industry have been severely affected by the pandemic, and the game industry is no exception, as it has historically relied on networking at large annual in-person events. When you can’t just pack your bags and head to some of the industry’s biggest events like GDC in San Francisco or E3 in Los Angeles, you miss out on the opportunity for those happy encounters that sometimes happen by the sandwich tray or the coffee machine. 

And then there are the parties. All those parties. Where a good chunk of the fun seems to be talking your way in when you're not technically 'invited'.

But because large in-person events are not an option in the current landscape, a number of online events for the video game industry have been emerging, like MEGA MIGS, the virtual version of the gathering that usually takes place in Montreal. And created specifically for these locked down and working from home times, Canada Games Online recently came together as a collaboration between the provincial interactive media associations across the country. 

These virtual industry gatherings bring game developers together with publishers, investors, and other collaborators. And as with most B2B events, the goal is to find new partners in order to reach new audiences and markets around the world. 

On this episode of the Now & Next podcast, we check in with a handful of game development studios to find out how they’re adapting to changes in their day-to-day operations during Covid-19, including finding fresh ways to network and get their name and game out there to the world. 

And I also talk to the head of one of Canada’s largest industry associations for game developers, La Guilde du jeu vidéo du Québec, and learn about the initiatives happening at the industry level to help keep things moving along amidst the business challenges brought on by the pandemic.

In this episode, you'll hear from/about:
  • Angela Mejia, the co-founder of Clever Plays Studio, on what the transition to working from home has been like for game developers (01:24);
  • Tony Walsh, founder and CEO of Phantom Compass, and Rob Segal, co-founders of Get Set Games, on the ease of attending virtual events (04:21); 
  • How the new Canada Games Online event came to be (06:45);
  • The gaming industry is a true ecosystem, meaning that the health of one part affects the health of the whole (10:45);
  • Nadine Gelly, CEO of Quebec’s LaGuilde, on Canadian game companies particular advantages in the new landscape (12:25)

Dig Deeper:

Friday, November 13, 2020

Going from Broadcasting to Podcasting

Thanks to Vocal Fry Studios for this profile that tells the story of my pretty accidental return to the microphone for Now & Next, the podcast I host that is now into its third season.

You can read the piece here. In the meantime, below you'll find a related Exhibit A and Exhibit B.


Exhibit A: The 'couch studio' being used for the Covid-concurrent Season 3 of the podcast

Exhibit B: Cue the confetti... 

We made it as high as #3 on the charts in the "TV & Film" category on Apple Podcasts!

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Veggie Burgers & Clean Grid Power: Eco-conscious TV & Film Production

At a time when fast food restaurants all over North America are serving veggie burgers and most retailers are charging extra for plastic bags, it seems reasonable to assume that the level of eco-consciousness is fairly high. And while that’s true to a large extent, there is still a long way to go. The film and TV industry is no exception, according to Clara George, my guest on this episode of the podcast.

Based in Vancouver, Clara is the VP of Studios & Sustainable Production Services at Sim International, a role she transitioned into after close to three decades working as a producer in film and TV. Clara has had a longstanding interest in environmental issues and has been active in a variety of sustainability initiatives over the years but it wasn’t until Covid-19 hit earlier this year that she made greening film and TV production her full time focus. While the Covid-19 restrictions might seem like a step back in terms of sustainability efforts, they’ve actually provided an opportunity for people to become more aware of unnecessary waste on set, and come up together with new solutions, as Clara explains in this episode.

Among the strides Clara George has made in sustainable production practices: shifting a number of BC-based productions to clean grid power, making a fleet of close to 100 hybrid vehicles available for short term rentals for productions shooting in Vancouver, and finding workaround solutions to the high emissions diesel generators that have been a staple on film and TV sets for several decades.

In this episode of the podcast Clara also shares some examples of how she’s been able to essentially ‘sneak’ more sustainable practices onto set, and explains that crew members and producers are learning to both think and behave differently when it comes to issues that have an environmental impact. And to top it all off , Clara says such initiatives either cost nothing to implement or, even better, end up saving the production money.

In this episode, learn more about:
  • What can be done during COVID-19 in terms of sustainable production (01:28)
  • What made Clara rethink her entire career during COVID-19 and how she is working to instigate change at the city of Vancouver level (03:50)
  • How a few people can make a difference in terms of sustainability and a trick from Clara to encourage some initiatives on set (11:20)
  • Making sustainability a common goal in front and behind the cameras (13:35)
  • Clara’s pet peeve on set regarding waste in production (17:48)