Thursday, December 02, 2010

Funding transmedia - a comment

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the debate in the comments on Simon Pulman’s post commenting on the presentation of the ARG Perplex City at the NYC Transmedia meetup a couple of days ago. Andrea Phillips presented the work they had been doing on the ARG, which in itself is an impressive and inspiring talk. The live stream is still up here.

Now, if you read the discussion, you can see two slightly conflicting points – the need to create great content and thus gain a loyal following that will interact, and the need to have someone stump up the money to pay for all that great content and the work you put into it. I think this is more and more the case now; back in the days a tv show could be bought straight up by a television channel, who paid what it cost to produce it. Nowadays you can’t make much of anything without a sound business plan as the foundation.

This is how it should be, I think. Yes, there should be creative freedom. Yes, there should NOT be intrusive ads that interfere with the story being told. But creating a viable business plan is as challenging creatively as creating the content itself, in many cases. It just juggles other parts of your brain, which can only be a good thing.

I also find that there is a shift going on in how people experience brands connecting to content they are attracted to. It is not about making people realize that they have to pay for great content, it’s simply about making people realize that great content can’t be made for free. The currency that your audience is paying you with for access to the great content (be it tv, ARGs, comics, webisodes, whatever) is not €€ or $$, it’s their time. This time of theirs, willingly given to you as the creator as payment for your work (strangely enough, even though their time is the only currency they can’t get more of in any way. Your content must be great!) is something that you can then sell onwards, to get the necessary funding in to make your project a financially viable one.

The trick is, of course, to do it with taste. I find for instance the writings on Propagation Planning quite interesting in this aspect, resonating well on a number of points with the workings of a transmedia producer. I also think a near-brutal honesty will work in many cases. Openly state that ”hey, we’re doing this, but we’ve only got funds up until three weeks from now. We’re working to bring in a brand, so don’t be startled if you see everyone changing to Toyotas all of a sudden, ok?”. If they like what you make – and they will, right? – then they’ll like you making more of it as well.

9 comments:

Simon Pulman said...

To shift the discussion slightly: my understanding is that in much of Europe there is virtually no stigma attached to illegally downloading content. People don't see it as morally or legally wrong, and there's nothing you can do to convince them.

That's fine. What I think we're on the same page on is that the audience has to realize that they are going to pay for that content somehow - either by higher broadband fees or by extremely intense product placement and targeted marketing. Both of those "solutions" raise certain equality and privacy concerns, however, that could conceivably cause certain content providers to pull out of European markets altogether.

It baffles me when I see this "content is less valuable; experience is everything" argument that many in Transmedia make. That's great, as long as you can find a way to monetize - and preferably replicate and resell - that experience.

The other thing I don't think that Transmedia artists necessarily grasp is the concept of opportunity cost. Something like Perplex City might break even or make a mild profit. To the creative, that's a great deal - we got paid, we made a little money for the investor, and we created something amazing. And for some benevolent investors, it might be. But if that profit doesn't match even putting your money into an index fund, many investors will go elsewhere. Entertainment is traditionally high-risk, high-reward. If you're going global with a Transmedia project, you need to show the potential for that huge upside - otherwise, I'll give my money to that kid in the Bay developing some app for the iPhone instead.

Simon said...

Agree 100%. I stand by my opinion in the post above - creating viable business plans for transmedia projects is as much of a creative challenge as creating the content for the projects themselves.

Still, transmedia is in its early days, and the more projects do get financed, one way or another, the better understanding everyone - including the people with the money - will get about how to be able to give a great experience through good content while still making a buck at the end of the line.

One of the projects we're working on right now, The Mill Sessions, is just about that - making the financial patchwork for a transmedia project, where there is a win-win-situation for everyone involved. It needs to be well designed, it needs to be able to convince all partners and it needs to deliver in the end. Interesting days ahead :)

Simon said...

Also, re: illegal downloading of content, I guess there might be a difference in how different territories view the issue.

Still, say that Nokia sponsor my feature film and insist on heavy product placement. If it has 10.000 people coming to the opening weekend, while 150.000 download the torrent from The Pirate Bay, shouldn't Nokia be well happy about that?

Simon Pulman said...

Precisely. They should be delighted, and that is the model towards which we are moving.

However, I want to play amateur economist/sociologist for a second and speculate on the knock-on effects of branded entertainment and product placement.

Under the traditional model, a US production company sells a show to foreign markets including, for argument's sake, Spain. The Spanish broadcaster pays a license fee for the content and supports its costs with advertising breaks. The adverts featured are a mix of international, regional and strong national brands. Spanish companies can reach Spanish audiences.

Now the piracy/product placement route. My understanding is that piracy is ubiquitous in Spain. Since half the target audience (13-30) steals the show well before it airs in Spain, the Spanish channel sees declining profits and can't pay as much for the show. In reaction, the US production company shifts slightly towards a product placement model.

So the show has become "branded entertainment." But which brands can afford this kind of placement, and are suitable for a show with global reach (assuming localization is impossible)? The massive pan-European and worldwide ones - Coca-Cola, McDonalds and, yes, Toyota and Nokia. Certainly not Spanish businesses. So Spanish businesses receive less exposure, cannot compete, jobs leave Spain, and the Spanish people march through the street in protest at the unemployment that they contributed towards.

Amateur analysis, yes, but I suspect there's some weight to it. Ultimately as a content provider, my goal is to create something that resonates extremely strongly with China's youth. I don't care if every single person in China pirates my content. I don't care in the slightest. Because if 500 million young Chinese people steal and watch my show religiously, I'm providing an incredible marketing platform for Coke and McDonalds to target China's rising youth.

Simon Pulman said...

And, I should add, the strength of Transmedia is that it allows young people - wherever they are - to carry that experience (and brand) with them across platforms, experiences and physical locations.

Simon said...

I like your vision. Well, not the unemployment-in-Spain part, but rather the Chinese-youth-vision.

What I would like to see is a show - if we're continuing on your model with traditional tv vs new branded entertainment - where the integrated product placement was done in such a way that it could be replaced according to territory. I'm not talking about a 2 second shot of a wine bottle, which is a Turning Leaf Chardonnay in the US and a Torres Merlot in Spain, but rather something much more ingenious than that.

Shoot a scene with Kiefer Sutherland picking up a Samsung phone. Now re-shoot it, and have him pick up a Telefonica-branded Blackberry. Or just work with graphics.

Might be naive, but that could be one way of doing it...

On another note, you need some help with that Chinese venture, let me know :)

Simon Pulman said...

Yes, precisely. That is the goal - not merely with products but with entire scenes if possible. This is what we are working towards - specialized, localized content that is tailored to markets. Look at the success of Lost - a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-lingual cast placed in a neutral location. People want to see their identity and values reflected on screen.

To expand that in a Transmedia context, my goal is to create content that enables this kind of cultural spinoff in a natural, logical way in the narrative. But we should probably continue this discussion in private because I'm getting into the realm of proprietary thinking here.

Kimberly said...

Forgive my coming late to the party, but I'm just now discovering the Transmedia blogs that are out here in the ether :)

The integrated content you guys are thinking of can be done in a variety of ways. It's certainly not beyond the pale, it just requires forethought, and possibly additional budgeting (for some media it works better than others). If you're working with game content, it can be as relatively simple a matter as designing shaders that can use a variety of different brand images (so you key it to use image A if the game detects the user is using Spanish subtitles or image B if the game detects the Mandarin localization). It's trickier for video, simpler for web or text.

What I am not sure of is *why* it's not being done as of yet (or perhaps it is and we just havent seen it). Are there already clear business reasons in place (i.e. it just doesn't pay out) or is it resistance to change?

Simon said...

Hi Kimberly, welcome to the party - it is actually just getting started :)

A brief comment - I think it has a lot to do with having to fork out a bit more money for something that does not necessary give any proven return. Right now everything (or most things at least) need to be made as cheap as possible, so anything that'd add an extra cost would need to find extra funding somewhere else. This in turn would mean that the producers of the content would need to have all this thought out and figured out well in advance. Truth is, we're not really there yet.