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December 22 2010

18:17

'The Social Network,' Streaming Boom Dominate Film in 2010

From Pandora to Palo Alto, digital and social media grabbed movie headlines in 2010.

The year started with a box office record-breaker that captured our 3D imaginations ("Avatar") and is ending with David Fincher's fascinating look at Facebook ("The Social Network") collecting awards for film of the year (American Film Institute, Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review, New York Film Critics, et al). Although, according to Facebook (Top Status Trends of the Year), the most talked about films among its members were actually "Toy Story 3" and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse." The latter was also the most watched trailer on YouTube this year with 17 million views.

When it came to Twitter, the dream merchants of "Inception" produced a summer blockbuster and the top film-related Twitter trend this year.

Inception.jpg

As an overall trend, however, moviegoers continue to explore different platforms to experience films, from streaming and downloading to apps or social networks. As a result, they are disrupting traditional models of distribution and revenue sources (see Blockbuster Files for Bankruptcy After Online Rivals Gain, a report from Bloomberg, for example).

I asked several filmmakers and digital executives for their thoughts on the biggest trends, behavioral shifts and technology developments of 2010. Below are their responses.

Film Trends of 2010

Opening Friday Reviews
"Mobile apps and social media came into their own this year, as one of the most important ways by which moviegoers share their opinions, read reviews and decide which movies they're going to see ... Moviegoers relay their opinions to millions of other people the minute they leave the theater. Opening weekend used to forecast box office -- now, it's opening Friday." -- Steve Polsky, president and COO, Flixster, whose app is used by more than 23 million people

EpixHD.jpg

Multi-Platform Viewing
"Consumer demand for anytime, anywhere access to movies means it's not just about watching in theaters and on television in living rooms, but also about watching on computers and mobile devices like iPads and iPhones. This was the biggest transformation of the movie industry in 2010. Studios are realizing that they need to reach consumers on their terms and that we have an opportunity to reach more people if we embrace what consumers want. The demand for entertaining movies has never been higher; people are watching them in new ways and Hollywood continues to tell stories that captivate audiences around the world." -- Mark Greenberg, president and CEO, EPIX

Internet-connected HDTVs
"Although 3D has been the hot topic this year and received most of the press, I believe the real story was the quiet rollout of consumer HDTVs with Internet capability. Over the last year, I have been testing this exciting new delivery method and have discovered that it is a viable alternative to traditional broadcast to the home. If you understand the power of social networking and direct marketing, it becomes obvious the worldwide potential of this exciting new opportunity." -- Randall P. Dark, president and CEO, Randall Dark Productions

Movieclips.com.jpg

Streaming Content
"The greatest trend in 2010 was the growth of viewers watching movies and TV over web-enabled streaming devices. Of course, Netflix is leading the charge in streaming content, but other players will emerge in 2011 and I think digital historians will look back on 2010 as the year the streaming wars began and DVD started to assume its place alongside the cassette tape and laser disc." -- Richard Raddon, co-founder, Movieclips.com

Happy kickstarter.jpg

Crowdfunding
"Continuing the trend towards the democratization of filmmaking that began when affordable cameras and editing equipment became available in the past 15 years or so, crowdfunding has opened up new avenues for film financing. IndieGoGo.com and Kickstarter.com offer a simple interface through which fans and investors can help fund film and media projects that often would not meet traditional financing requirements. This revolution enables independent artists to not only get the financial support they need to complete their projects, but also to build a fan base that can later become essential to the marketing and distribution of the project." -- Academy Award-nominated director Roko Belic, Wadi Rum Films (Happy - The Movie)

2011: Transformative Innovations?

With "The Social Network" an early favorite to win the Oscar for Best Picture, 2010 may end up being remembered as the year when our web-connected way of life finally reached a tipping point on the big scren. As Sean Parker stated in the film, "We lived in farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're gonna live on the Internet."

The release of "Tron: Legacy" furthers this theme for 2010, giving moviegoers a new digitally immersive experience, while also spurring conversation on the future of our virtual existence and networked worlds. 2011 is sure to expand upon the trends above and quite possibly introduce some transformative innovations.

Or as Kevin Flynn states, "Now, I kept dreaming...dreaming of this world I thought I'd never see. And then, one day, something happened. Something extraordinary."

*****

What do you think were the extraordinary innovations and trends of 2010? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and Web companies on digital and social media engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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November 16 2010

17:00

“That heady feeling of being totally integrated”: The elusive promise of community, flattened and “real”

In the future-of-journalism business, we’re obsessed with adoption: getting online, getting hip to the web, leaving old analog practices behind, embracing the interactivity of social media. For a long time, not getting online — not getting hip to the digital program — seemed the provenance of clueless curmudgeons, middle-aged city desk editors, and Andrew Keen. Rightly, I think, we’ve devoted most of our energy to figuring out the details of what Jay Rosen has called “the migration point of the press tribe.” Getting to the other side of the chasm means getting wired in.

One of the things I always loved about Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything was that it covered enough historical time that it was as much a book about blogs ending as it was a book about the adoption of blogging. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to read several fantastic pieces that I think speak to this question of “getting offline” in ways that go beyond the usual curmudgeonly prattle. Two writers went down this road voluntarily: Marc Ambinder wrote a farewell post called “I am a Blogger No Longer,” and Zadie Smith, in a review of The Social Network, referred to herself a 1.0 person living in a 2.0 world, a person who killed her Facebook page after a few weeks. A third blogger, however — Ruth Gledhill of The Times of London — was forced to shut down her blog when the newspaper she worked for went behind a paywall. No openness to the Internet, no point in running a blog.

For me, it was Gledhill’s comments about “life behind the paywall” that got me thinking. “In one sense,” she wrote:

I have my ‘life’ back as my blog took up all of my waking hours when I wasn’t writing news stories and I was neglecting our son and other areas of my life outside work. It was definitely an addiction. When I was wired up, I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere. I still miss that heady feeling of being totally integrated with the ‘ether’.

Ambinder’s comments about non-blog journalism being “ego free” may have garned the most attention on Twitter, but I think Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket is right when he flags this as the piece’s key point. Ambinder’s point intersects well with Gledhill’s:

The mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing.

The fact that one of these comments is primarily positive (“wired up,” “physically part of the internet,” “heady feeling,” “totally integrated”) while the other is negative (“endless discussions,” “exhausting,” “relentless,” “punishing”) makes it clear to me that both writers are talking about the same thing. They’re talking about an intensive process of speaking and listening, grounded in a social network that is itself embedded within a dynamic community. In both cases, the journalist is open, responsive, locked in…and open and responsive to a network of ultimately real people, not to some abstract entity that looms just over your left shoulder. This would be a hard feeling to describe to someone who had never Tweeted, blogged, surfed an RSS feed, or gotten lost on Facebook, but if you’ve gotten this far you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about. There’s a certain frisson there. I can actually feel it as I write this post.

Having spent many years teaching and befriending journalists, and having participated in some poorly defined acts of citizen journalism myself, it seems that people generally go into journalism for a number of reasons. I’ve found that my would-be journalism students are usually curious. They want to get to the bottom of things; they deal in practical reality, not theory; and they (let’s face it) love to snoop. They’re practical, inquisitive, fact-minded folks.

In addition to them, though, I know a number of journalists who went into the industry because their communicative work gave them the chance to ground themselves in a particular community, to be embed themselves within a particular public. They want to stand near the center of the communications circuit. They want to listen to people and tell them things, all at the same time. They want to learn new things, things that matter to individuals and groups, and then tell them about it. They want to know that they’ve made a difference, that the people have heard them.

One of the things I think you realize as a journalist, however, is that your “public” quickly gets reduced to your beat, and your community most often consists of folks we might call “sources” (an ugly phrase). In everyday terms, the best journalists spend most of their time talking to a rather limited group of people — and even when that circuit of people expands they’re still primarily dealing with people they usually refer to as a “source.” Journalists are workers, and as workers, they become attuned to practices that make the most logical sense, that help them do their job, and get them out the door headed towards home as quickly as possible. For journalists, the practical necessities of journalism narrow the scope of the public.

This is why I think so many journalists get so excited about the social possibilities of digital technology. In the most basic sense, “the shock of community” that the Internet provides gets represented by quantitative audience metrics. Whatever audience-tracking tools may or may not be doing to the editorial process, there’s no mistaking the fact that when reporters first encounter those heady sheets of Omniture data, it blows their minds. “Finally! The invisible audience has returned! These are the people I cared about when I first went into reporting…I forgot about them — but here they are!” In more poetic terms, it’s what Gledhill talks about when she writes that “I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere…totally integrated with the ‘ether’.” It’s not just metrics, but it’s comments, links, email, and conversation.

When I was doing research in Philadelphia, this is how a local journalist/blogger described the evolution of his blog:

…the key lesson is that my blog got picked up and accepted as being an authentic part of the blogging community, which in his case was the left-wing blogosphere. And the way I did that was to link to these other blogs, to engage with them, and to seek them out. Some of our other blogs that are run by journalists are struggling with how to gain that acceptance. I remember a moment in September 2003 when one of my posts was linked by the leftwing website Buzzflash [which was popular at the time]. Comments came rolling in. Emails to me went through the roof — that was the kind of national attention I was looking for!

Ambinder, on the other hand, points to the aftermath of that social-network high: the endless comment moderation, the exhaustion that digital immersion can cause. And Zadie Smith goes one step further. For Smith, the community journalists have been so excited to rediscover isn’t actually real. It’s limited. It’s flattened. On Facebook,

If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos…Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees.

Smith’s point is philosophical: digital technology reduces us. Like any grand philosophical point, it’s ultimately unprovable, which is why I’ve tried to come at it from an oblique angle, by talking about publics and journalism. Does online journalism give us a community that’s more real, or less real, than the one we leave behind? I think that digital technology does flatten people. But it flattens more than just people. It flattens objects, concepts, publics, and relationships as well. And it’s not just digital technology that flattens things; the daily act of working, of day-to-day practical living flattens things too.

Reporters may go into journalism to be with the public; they eventually find beats and sources and the daily grind instead. Reporters may go online to find a community more responsive than the one they encounter in their daily work, but it’s a community that can be exhausting, pummeling, and not quite real. So get offline if you wish. Get online if you can. But in either case, never make the mistake in thinking that you’ve found a community, a public, a reality, that’s more authentic than the one you’ve left behind. We can’t will authentic community into being. It sort of sneaks up on us. And just as quickly — as soon as we turn our heads — it’s gone.

Photo by Matthew Field used under a Creative Commons license.

October 04 2010

18:00

A movie with its own backchannel: How “The Social Network” shows our reweaving of conversations

Many of the big-time reviews of The Social Network have focused on the film’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, “the youngest billionaire in the world.” Is he an evil genius — or simply a genius? Is he a menace to society, or a savior of it?

To know where the film stands, at any rate, all you have to do is listen to its score — so ominous, so severely simplistic, so straight-out-of-Jaws, that, at moments, you’re sure you see a dorsal fin poking through Zuck’s hoodie. It’s not just that The Social Network is plagued with anxiety about its subject matter; it’s that The Social Network is plagued with anxiety about territory itself. The film’s settings — the dorm rooms, the board rooms, the back rooms — feel tight and dark and crowded, even when they’re not. The spaces suffocate. For a movie named for a collective, The Social Network has a bad case of claustrophobia.

And the BuhDUMBuhDUM brand of anxiety that the film indulges toward its pseudo-protagonist translates to its 500 million other pseudo-protagonists: the “friends” — the film’s corps and chorus, omnipresent if mostly absent — who lurk just beyond the borders of its other confined space: the screen. While its trailer, a work of art unto itself, highlights The 500 Million, people-izing them, implying the profound consequences they suggest for human communication and connection, the film deals with their power by marginalizing them. In director David Fincher’s rendering, the individuals we find at the other end of the Internet are numbers, little more. (“Thousand. Twenty-two thousand.”)

But here’s where things, for the Lab’s purposes, get interesting. If Facebook teaches us anything, it’s that people don’t tend to appreciate being blurred together as backgrounds to other people’s stories. And, not content with being marginalized, several of the 500 million have fought back against the film’s downplay of their power — by, simply, asserting it. By creating a backchannel to the movie and contributing to it. People I’ve never seen writing movie reviews before have been reviewing The Social Network in earnest — writing their reactions on their blogs and sending them around on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. Others have posted, appropriately enough, directly to Facebook. The background has blossomed to life. In addition to the typical movie-subsidiary stuff — the director/writer/actor interviews, the professional reviews — we’re seeing as well a counterweight to the mainstream narrative: the embrace of the sense that we viewers are not merely viewers at all, but characters. We own this film. We are this film.

The Social Network’s backchannel, in other words, represents the crystallization of a phenomenon playing out across the culture, not least in journalism: the normalization of participation. Until recently, when it came to films, that participation was pretty much limited to the up-or-down vote that was a ticket purchase at the box office. Now, though — via, appropriately/ironically enough, the new architectures for discourse whose foundation Facebook helped to build — our participation is much more than facelessly financial. We augment the film through our public reactions to it. (Sometimes, we augment it even more directly than that.) We challenge the thing-itself quality of the movie by insisting that we are part of the thing in question.

We talk about the problem of context in news: the fact that a single article or segment, while it works fine as a singular narrative, is a poor conduit for the contextual information that people need to understand a story in full. The response to The Social Network is a reminder that our evolving relationship with context extends far beyond the news. It represents, in fact, something of a perfect storm of new media maxims — Shirky’s cognitive surplus, Jarvis’ network economy, Rosen’s people formerly known as the audience — waving its way into the culture at large. The film suggests something of a critical mass…expressed as, quite literally, a critical mass. Amid our anxieties about the atomization of cultural consumption — the isolation of Netflix, the personalization of choose-your-own-adventure-style news — we’re seeing a corrective in collaborative culture. We’re re-networking ourselves, flattening our relationship with Hollywood as much as with The New York Times.

What’s most noteworthy about that is how completely un-noteworthy it seems. Movies, of course, have always been more than what they are; films have always had as much to do with the social experience outside the theater as the personal experience within it. What’s new, though, and what The Social Network suggests so eloquently, almost in spite of itself, is our ability to transform the sidewalk experience of theater-going, the how’d-you-like-its and what’d-you-thinks, into cultural products of their own. There’s The Social Network, the film…and then there’s The Social Network, the experience — the conversations and contributions and debates and ephemera. And those two things are collapsing into each other, with the film-as-process and the film-as-product increasingly, if by no means totally, merging into one experience. Participation is becoming normative. We know that because it’s also becoming normal.

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