Each year, thousands of interactive, film and music professionals and their groupies (yes, interactive folks have groupies too) gather in Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW). The music festival hosts nearly 1500 up-and-coming bands, all looking for a label to sign them. The film festival serves as one of the major domestic launching points for new independent films. That leaves the interactive conference, now in its 14th year, which has become one of the industry's proving grounds for new technology innovations.
Marketers come from all over the world, and particularly Silicon Valley, with hopes of learning how to make the leap from venture-funded darling to mainstream power player in their industry. The dominant theme this year was mobile, with services like Twitter and Mozes attracting attention and running up SMS charges for attendees. At the same time, there were as many Hollywood types trying to understand how the internet was changing their business model as there were programmers and designers looking for some much needed natural sunlight.
So, what did they learn? Here are three big lessons:
The future of movie marketing is fan communities
Start with a good story, tease your audience with the opportunity to help decide the plot or create the best marketing angles and reward them with a place in the film's credits. That was the message sent during the "Building An Online Fan Base" panel, moderated by Scott Kirsner from CinemaTech and featuring Ian Schafer from Deep Focus (who helped to promote Clerks II using the strategy described above) and Lance Weiler, who Wired Magazine described as "one of 25 people helping to re-invent entertainment and change the face of Hollywood," among others.
Much of the buzz among attendees was about how YouTube could be used as a tool for distributing motion picture content online, but Schafer countered that "it depends on the kind of movies you want to make. If you want to make small, personal films that aren't going to be distributed theatrically, online promotion and building a fan base will be an important part of what you do to get attention." Schafer added that "MySpace is really good for connecting with people where the films are already online, but it is much harder to get someone to read about your film and then go out to a theater to watch. If the movie is only a click away, then they will be more likely to act."
Weiler suggested "creating a channel" for the film. He then described how he started with a web-based comic book for his independent horror flick, "Head Trauma," then offered text messages to fans featuring secret notes from characters in the film. The ultimate goal was to drive users to a secret micro-site for the film that featured interactive mobile messaging and voice response functionality tied to the activities a user pursued on screen. "The immersive experiences is key," he added.
That was consistent with what panelists David Gale of MTV New Media, Rick DeVos of Spout, Seth Nagel of iKlipz and Scilla Andreen of IndiFlix argued during a panel entitled "New Dogs, New Tricks: New Media Goes to the Movies" about how Hollywood was adapting to the new media age. "Fans are looking for a deep library of clips and, when they find them, will play a huge role in spreading them across the internet," said Gale. "But the industry needs to reconfigure itself for that to happen."
The panel discussion entitled "Community Ecology: Finding Balance When Working with Fan Groups" prompted those in the audience to wonder aloud whether engaging social media was risky for major brands -- or studios -- considering the lack of control it allowed. Jake McKee, the lead samurai of Big in Japan, a social media service, responded, "when there are multiple groups, you're building relationships. If you think about how you would approach a 'normal' relationship, things become clearer. If you're on a first date and you start telling the other person how to think, you're not going to have a second date."
Shorts will be the new blockbuster
The cost and complexity involved in making a blockbuster film is growing ever greater, while audience attention spans are getting shorter. As a result, more filmmakers plan to create short films and distribute them directly to audiences via the internet, without the major studios or theater chains getting in the way. Typically, technologies don't really propagate until there is a social basis for them, but the popularity of short films is evidence that the trend is reversing.
The challenge for the industry, Tom Mernitt of CNET noted, is that, "big networks are going to have to reduce their death grip and hope that their branding is good enough. When you put out good content, people will find it and they will pass it around and they will come back to see what else you put out because they trust that you are putting out good content." Many companies are trying to tap into emerging behavior to find what it will take to have a significant effect on their market. The big opportunity for people who understand design and culture will be to help identify what will provide the necessary engagement people want to experience.
The film industry will be democratized
Technology is already allowing users to create and distribute their own movies without being a professional filmmaker, and it will only get easier. Consider, Eyespot, web-based editing software that allows audiences to create their own music videos featuring emerging bands before posting the mash-ups online to share with the world. Eyespot is designed so that anyone can upload, edit, mix and share almost all formats of digital media without needing to download software or pay a fee. And by working with the labels and talent directly, they are able to offer creative -- and legal -- opportunities for fans to take part in the production and marketing of music.
The studios will need to embrace and expand their offerings in this realm, releasing different types of content and enabling users to co-create and share engaging media.
As evidenced by all the panels and presentations at South by Southwest, the technology to do this is more available than ever. What is lacking is the will of the content providers to make the paradigm shifts in their marketing protocol. Luckily, that doesn't seem to be too far behind.
Brian Reich is director of new media at Cone. .