Storytelling and the New Studio System?

It’s funny how pleased I am that I face yet another high-profile opportunity to have people watch the content that I create for free. is currently featuring Independent America: Rising from Ruins on its homepage, and will distribute it through a number of other channels, including Hulu and hopefully Netflix at some point (my first film “The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop” is already on Hulu, and is heading for iTunes).  Sure, you can still push for more money via a broadcast TV license, but at least as an indie filmmaker, those are getting harder to find, and they’re paying less.  So we content ourselves with the “digital pennies” as the “analog dollars” slip away, with the sheer hope that online, multiple-channel exposure leads to benefits in other ways (i.e. keep your day job, build your own personal brand).

The world of content — especially professional content — continues to shift beneath our feet.  Three years ago, I used my first class as a digital media professor at the University of Washington to understand just what I had produced with that first “amateur” film of mine (I had been a professional journalist, but I had never filmed my own feature-length documentary before).  The title of the class?  “Selling the Message: The Business of User-Generated Content.”  The “business” then, was under threat from pseudo-amateurs like me, with the explosion of digital media capture tools (aka, cheap cameras) and distribution platforms (aka, YouTube).  The established, institutional studio system seemed to be under attack as this proliferation in new “voices” transformed media into yet another commodity.

But interestingly, despite this commoditization, apparent amateurization, and the uncertainty of the economy, somehow the increased availability of media online has also produced more demand for “professional” content.  Witness Steve Jobs’ remarks this week as as he introduced Apple TV:

So what have we learned from our users? They want hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want. It’s not complicated. They don’t want amateur hour. They want HD — everyone wants HD. They want to pay lower prices for content. They don’t want a computer on their TV — they have computers. They go to their TVs for entertainment.

HD. Anytime. Cheap.  That’s the new reality of video entertainment.  For us producers, it means more work, more technology, less revenues.  That’s probably one reason why networks such as NBC refused to sign up with this newest iteration of Apple TV, afraid that they would get bullied into the 99 cent rental cage — similar to what happened with iTunes.

And yet there’s another tension, even as all this content is miraculously made freely available online.  While the producers struggle to monetize their work, the content providers from the old media world are desperately trying to regain the luster of the Golden Age of monopoly pricing — when this stuff was actually hard to create.  In other words, they’re all wondering aloud whether there’s anyway to reverse the demolition ball of the Web and reconstruct a semblance of the studio system of yore.

Well if you pay close attention to Wired Magazine’s “The Web is Dead, Long Live the Internet” cover story this month, that may indeed be happening.  Many have voiced their strong opposition to Chris Anderson’s conclusions.  But I’m more interested in the observations that led to those conclusions, as well as the ensuing sidebar debate.


– There’s a “struggle for control” over how content is distributed online — and who owns what.  We knew that already, Yochai Benkler mentioned it in his groundbreaking 2007 book, The Wealth of Networks.  The studio system would not so easily abandon the power and profits it once enjoyed, even as utopian web pioneers argued for complete openness — as libertarians, or socialists (depends on your point of view!).

– With the rise of smartphones, the mobile web, and apps, we now see that (a) we can bring more order to how we use the Internet; (b) we need more efficiency in how we do use the Internet given the inherent constraints in wireless streams vs. broadband (at least that’s the argument Google and Verizon seem to be making in their sideways attack on Net Neutrality).

– Although online advertising does produce revenues, it doesn’t produce quite enough to sustain the traditional, high-end, highly-compensated human and technological mass media infrastructures.  Sites like Mashable, Engadget and the West Seattle blog do make enough money to sustain themselves.  But are those revenues enough to keep the New York Times afloat?  Not in its current analog/digital iteration — hence the move to a pay wall.

– The recession was the “panic button” for content providers, with a sudden realization that they couldn’t give away the candy store, largely to Google’s benefit (as the traffic and sales manager of the open web).  Banner ads suck, and essentially lay the groundwork for a “thrift shop” mentality to online content — cheap and ubiquitous.

– Enter Apple, once the close friend of content creators such as myself, newly reformed as aligned with content providers as everyone rushes to create their own iPad app (not so coincidentally, Wired Magazine — owned by Conde Nast — has been heavily touting its $4.99 digital download for iPad.  I think I paid $12 for the annual dead tree subscription).

So what does this mean?  Google open web thrift shop vs. glossy Apple Studio System?  Indeed as one dissenter pointed out in the Wired articles, the whole “Web is Dead” argument has much less to do with the Web itself, and centers primarily  around professional content as producers search for more viable sources of revenue.

I’m still working all of this out, and I’m not without my own self-contradictions.  On one hand, I welcomed the promise of how the Web would set us free from the distrustful media oligopolies of the 1990’s (I used to work for one).  On the other, as a professional content creator, I’d like to find a way to make a decent living from the fruits of my creativity, so I get the need to bring some order to the chaos.  I would just hate to see the Internet co-opted in the same way that broadcast and print were in the 20th century.  Even as I prepare for another school year and attempt to take these fast-moving developments into account for the overarching “vision” of our graduate program for communications professionals (who need to somehow make a living from this stuff too!), I’m also enjoying the book Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture.  While I ponder the Wired articles, this passage stood out for me:

The end result of this ease of distribution and rapid flow of information has been a series of mixed blessings for the indie community.  On the one hand, artists are more in control of how their work gets distributed and promoted than they’ve ever been before, with the proliferation of cheap and easy technologies for doing so.  On the Urban Outfitters conundrum [the co-opted, easy accessibility of indie culture through a mass merchandising profit center] rears its ugly head.  The more overexposed indie music, comics, publications, and design get, the more that those art forms can be co-opted by the mainstream and its masters.

So is it over for the “independent voice” as powerful corporations have their way with the Web as they have had with our other sources of media historically?  I refuse to admit that this is so.  Certainly, viable distribution options may become more constrained in the iTunes/Netflix/Hulu/Facebook world.  But co-option can work both ways.  The tools of storytelling production are in our hands more than ever before.  We will continue to use them, we may resort to the big brand “utilities” from time-to-time to broaden our own reputations but the web is not dead, nor is it dying.  It remains a free, viable opportunity for any of us to create our own channels of story distribution through our own blogs, our own sites, our own relationships.  But we do need to make a sustained effort to carve out our own independently-owned space rather than surrender full control to the newly reforming studio hierarchy (which seems kind of like Terminator 2’s indestructible liquid metal!).

Indeed, rather than qualifying the Web as a bargain basement content repository (aka “thrift shop”) compared to the shiny new APPliance World, could we not see it instead as a vibrant, open village square, with healthy small (yes, Mom & Pop) businesses that provide a sustainable living for its denizens?  Can they coexist, even as attention and dollars flow more into the big box system than into the market square?

I’d like to think so, even if it requires a shift in our mentality and strategy as independent communicators and media makers.  I’m heartened that when I did meet with Wealth of Networks author Yochai Benkler this year, he continued to espouse his decision to give away the online PDF of his book for free, even as it remained a topseller for Yale University Press for months.  He called his creation his “calling card” — keeping his day job as a university professor and earning his keep from speaking fees and royalties as the book gained prominence.  If I can do the same delicate dance with my films — with a healthy mix of occasional broadcast licenses, online royalty payments, community screenings — as I build my own credibility, relationships and profile, while creating content that matters and hopefully makes a difference, then I will happily call myself a sustainable storyteller.