Why TV's lack of an innovation strategy is a growing problem

Great Global Bake Off - title cardsI'm pretty new to TV, drawn like many by the existence of a business model far superior than film. With TV you can cover up to 80% of your budget on the first commission potentially, sell one other territory (or find gap finance) and from then every subsequent sale is profit. After two years typically in the UK, the rights can revert to you forever, Great British Bake-off can sell to the highest bidder. And in the UK as an indie, the format rights are yours to sell for remakes around the world, so Ver Firina in Turkey, or Le Meilleur Pattisier in France can keep pushing profits higher.

But coming into the TV world after a long spell in tech and even longer observing from the sidelines of film, I'm amazed at how rigid it seems. Peers with a huge slate of feature docs behind them are told they have to start nearly at the beginning, their film success bears little impact on how long it will take for them to be producer/director. Commissioners seem to want to see exact replicas of existing hits, by people with track records. Sales are made by describing how exactly your show is like an existing successful show or strand.

Of course there's exceptions to this, and new concepts do often appear. But these typically come from seasoned hands in the industry, not new entrants. If you want to innovate as a newcomer, sign up to YouTube. 

Compare this with the tech startup world. Provided their team looks competent enough, new entrants can get finance for any level of innovative idea. There's still finance for established concepts or remakes (the 'Uber of India' or 'the ARM of smart-watch chips') but a completely new idea can fly simply if it sounds convincing and the team have proven they're competent.

The problem may be classic too-deep management hierarchy – large multi-national media companies own super-indies, who own production companies, with their own experience-led hierarchies. The freedom for innovation at each level is reduced by the high cost of failure for the individuals concerned. For almost everyone involved, it's not *their* company, and if they back a dud, they could be fired. It seems much closer to the studio system with a tough, competitive environment that doesn't tolerate failure.

If it aint broke…

Still, this is how TV has long worked, so it could be argued, if it aint broke, why fix it?

For as long as there weren't innovation platforms for TV, the system worked ok, but now we have YouTube. A feminist analysis of video games may never get commissioned conventionally. Online, Feminist Frequency's Video Game Tropes is a storming success, getting 25 million views, 700k Twitter followers and raising $168k on Kickstarter. Vice has pivoted a sub-culture magazine into a multi-billion dollar company, part-owned by Disney, in recognising early the huge hunger of younger ‘millennials' for fresh voices and approaches.

Of course many YouTube channels imitate the formats and styles of trad-TV, but the most popular tend to look and sound like nothing you could find on TV. The more different the better, provided it meets the basic needs of being engaging and sufficiently well produced. The main problem is that advertising revenues from YouTube are pitiful – millions of views can translate into barely a few hours pay at Equity rates.

Worse, the message from MIPTV earlier this year was even YouTube ads weren’t safe. Laura Henderson, Global Head of Content & Media Monetization at Mondolez International (ie Kraft, Cadbury, Milka, Kenco, etc) explained "consumers are in the driving seat – they're skipping ads, blocking ads". Advertisers see neither trad-TV or YouTube as a safe or cost-effective means to reach their traditional consumers. "Cost per reach point is rising exponentially" she explained. So advertisers are looking ever more seriously at producing their own content. Branded content, co-produced by the brand, is growing so fast YouTube keeps changing its rules about creators' brand relationships, recognising it was a form of advertising on their platform they were unable to monetise. 

I wrote about Branded Content for Moviescope after my first trip to MIP in 2014, and by 2016 it was an even bigger story, making up an ever growing chunk of Vice's production output. There's countless examples. Mondolez created the Sour Patch House, where musicians could stay for free provided they made music (and ideally snacked on the giant bowels of the sour dotted around). Mattel tells stories around Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine; the Lego Movie was actually pretty awesome. Shell, somewhat disturbingly, supposedly has $100m+ annual production fund which they operate through Darlow Smithson, normally keeping the 'documentaries' produced uncredited.

RedBull, of course, is the king of this space, making so much from documentaries and live-streams of their adrenaline sport universe they created a new production arm, Terra Mater, without the Red Bull logo or any connection with outdoor pursuits.

There's a good case study about how Factory Media conceived a six-part 30-minute TV show, The Indestructibles, raised £1m from Casio to produce it, built a big following on Facebook and YouTube, then gave it to the men's channel Dave for free. It met product placement rules, but effectively was a 30 minute advert. Appealingly though, the broadcaster didn't care that the agency weren't established TV producers, it was free programming.

Where does this leave us?

So these are our choices if you have an original, innovative idea for TV – be it drama, comedy or format:

  • Stay within trad-TV and make derivative programmes until you have sufficient reputation to try something new.
  • Find the money yourself to make original content on YouTube for a tiny advertising income, or for the slowly burgeoning and high-risk tVOD market.
  • Or make adverts pretending to be programmes for web and trad-TV.

I can't help but feel the disruption cycle isn't complete.

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Filming hip hop on 9/11 – remembering 15 years on

I imagine everyone has their 'where were you on 9/11 story', like how my parents' generation had their 'what were you doing when JFK was shot?' story; two events in America notched in the calendars of our mind bigger than perhaps anything else.

I've never told my story of that day because it's always been mixed up with a sense of failure – and because there's 7 billion stories of that day, so why does mine matter? The only important stories were the people in that tragedy: the victims, the perpetrators, the causes, the response. Tales from bystanders seem almost indulgent. But then maybe its our way of explaining what #NeverForget means.

For it was already a strange day, unlike any other. It was the first day in my life I had a professional film crew by my side: a camera operator (son of my commissioning editor) and sound recordist, whose sister worked in finance in lower-Manhattan in New York. It was the only day I've had such a crew of paid people I didn't know, helping my shoot.

Natty - Defcon recordsWe'd climbed to the roof of our neighbouring office building in Goswell Road, Clerkenwell to film part of a documentary on UK hip hop. At this time, Netribution was just about staying afloat, producing a weekly magazine and making the occasional documentary for DKTV (Different Kind of TV) a new community channel that had started up on Telewest and Flextech. We'd set up the website to fund our films, but instead were making films to fund the website, that co-founder and editor Tom Fogg and I diligently created a new edition of each week.

A month or two before at a party at the Truman Brewery I'd been blown away by the freestyling of Natty, who could turn anything he was given or confronted with into a rhyme. He'd acapellad his track with another artist, Dwella, War – about the modern war industry. At the time I'd had an ongoing dispute with my girlfriend who considered rap to be all misogyny and violence, and here I discovered political, conscious lyrics. To any serious hip hop heads at 22 I must seem a bit late to learn this, still I was drawn to telling a story about non-commercial, politically and socially engaged hip hop. Another song, Industry Nerds, attacked the 'bling-fast cars-gold chains-sexy girls' nature of mainstream hip hop and Natty told me about the huge UK hip hop underground spanning grafiti, fashion, scratch-DJs, beat-box and b-boys.

We'd filmed Natty performing War in this abandoned building (right), my youthful cliché-instinct drawing me to a location as grimy as I could find, littered with dead pigeons and rubble. At one point during the recording we kicked in some of the roof above him to increase the sense of edgy underground. The reality is Natty and Dwella were from Tunbridge Wells, but I was more concerned with a evocative location than truth.

We'd recorded the song – which gives me shivers still, knowing what happened next – and were shooting some cutaways when Tom, also my collaborator on the documentary, burst out of the door to the roof with great urgency: "two planes have flown into the twin towers!". After getting him to repeat the story several times, we rushed downstairs to the small Netribution office where we had a small badly tuned TV and saw in horror how it was all true. 

He'd been sat working on that week's issue of Netribution, when his brother, one of the managers at the Ivy, had phoned him. "We've got the head of ITN and the head of [possibly Channel 4 News, I can't remember] having lunch here. Their pagers have gone crazy but they can't through to their office on the phone, what's going on?" Tom turned on his TV to watch the second plane hit and let them know.

We didn't have time to stop and watch the news as we had a full day of scheduled interviews. So we headed up towards the Highbury Estate to interview Taskforce: Farma G and Chester P. We were all, of course in a state of shock. The sound recordist most worried about her sister in New York (who was fine), while some of the other rappers were already discussing the event in context of a conspiracy theory.

Farma G and Chester P TaskforceWe arrived at Farma and Chester's flat (left), and as the TV news played, started to shoot cutaways of their room which we could intercut with the interview. In the rushes you can hear the news playing and then the towers collapse. We're all dumbfounded but somehow carry on. I interview them. I don't ask a single question about what's happening.

To this day I don't really know why I didn't. At the time, I'd my list of prepared questions, we had our schedule of interviews, but in truth I just wanted the day over as quickly as possible. I wanted to go home and curl up in bed with my girlfriend and watch the news.

I can't think about that day without cursing myself for not being able to adapt under the circumstances – Chester and Farma are two of the most interesting, intelligent, conscious rappers in the UK (their Butterfly Concerto unlike anything else in hip hop), and rather than hear their perspective on what was happening, I asked pretty generic questions.

We then headed to Dark and Cold Records in Soho for the final shoots of the day. Natty had done a great job of getting UK legends in presence: London Posse's Rodney P, DJ Daddy Skitz, Fallacy and more. I was new to UK Hip Hop and only understood later how important they all were. I remember Rodney being taken aback by my relentless questioning. There was a shirt with the twin towers on it in the shop, it was held up morbidly. The tensions was high, but everyone was more focussed on hip hop than the unfolding news. 

We finished and went to Mother Bar for a quick drink. In those days there was a huge mural of the Twin Towers on the wall. I headed home.

The next day Tom and I drove out to the country where Natty and Dwella were recording in a studio. We bought half a dozen newspapers and poured over them still-stunned in a coffee shop on the way. There felt a clear sense the world would never be the same. The photos of people falling, jumping in the guardianm like many are impossible to forget. 

I went home and in the coming months and years felt the experience had proven to me I wasn't a natural documentary maker – I was more concerned with following the pre-written questions than adapting to the circumstances. The eventual documentary covers the UK hip hop scene in some breadth on a micro near-no-budget, but other than one performance in Tunbridge Wells that mentions Bin Laden somewhat awkwardly, the wider context is never revealed. I later learnt that Vimeo's VIP of Distribution Peter Gerrard also was shooting a hip hop documentary in the US at that time, stranded mid-shoot as flights were cancelled. We should swap footage. But the day put me off making documentaries – I've made only one more since.

A couple of years later I made a short video remix, taking Ani DiFranco's 9/11-related song Self Evident, combining it with footage from Koyaanisqatsi and a protest march against George W Bush during his state visit to London amidst the Iraq War. I released it online under a pseudonym.

The final shot is of the cemetery right next to ground zero. I'd seen it while the towers were still there, I'd got to go up one the year before and remember how they shadowed this graveyard in darkness. Filming it during a New York trip in 2003 with Shooting People, I was struck by this gaping empty space, painfully sad and loud in its absence, but where the light could now come in. 

 

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Perspectives from a microbusiness: why free movement is a deal breaker

Turbine Hall, Tate

I get it. The people have spoken (well, 37% of the electorate or ~26% of the UK). Brexit means Brexit (tho no-one knows quite what that is) and the decision is clear. There may be a multitude of reasons why people voted Brexit – to save money, to avoid EU regulations, to get more parliamentary sovereignty, to cut welfare for EU migrants, to send a message to Westminster, to send a message to Brussels, to get rid of non-whites, to get £350m a week for the NHS – but change is coming. What sort? Well, although had the EU offered David Cameron a better deal in February, we'd probably have voted to Remain, making it plausible the EU could offer us a better deal now, that doesn't appear to be happening. The British negotiating positions looks like either Single Market without free movement or if not given that, full Brexit, perhaps with a right-to-remain agreement for current residents in exchange for similar deal for Brits in the EU or a Canadian-style trade deal. In either scenario the system of democratic influence into the operation of the EU we currently have; the seat at the negotiating table for new deals, treaties and funding schemes – that has gone, as are the network of MEPs who exist to communicate local issues to the EU.

Removing free movement means that if I was going to open a big factory, if I couldn't employ enough cheap skilled workers to do that in the UK, I could just set up a factory in in Poland and do it there. Poland would get my PAYE, VAT and Corporation Tax and there would be no tariffs for me to sell my stock back into the UK. I'd employ fewer local businesses to support and build my factory. It's good for me, Big Business, but terrible for countries and communities. This is the thing about free movement that politicians seem to not bother explaining. Economically speaking, free movement is designed to protect local jobs and the local economy, it's a concession to social issues in an otherwise purely business deal.

Though for me, free movement means something different. It means the ability to not have to make the trade-off between being able to travel and being able to hold down a job or start a business. I can currently both work and run my business while travelling and living around the EU. I'd prefer if that was the world (and to be honest, provided I bring money with me, and keep moving, that's true). I appreciate many people in many jobs don't have this luxury, tho they doubtless earn more. Still, remote working, the gig economy and digital businesses are only growing, ten years from now my lifestyle of working for clients while starting ventures from any nice place I chose (with Wifi) could be the norm. What kind of lifestyle do people want their kids to have? My brother is just starting a top MA in Sweden – for free! Why prevent people from the freedom to bounce between Florence and Copenhagan, Paris and Krakow, Berlin and Madrid, building a network of peers, co-workers and friends? Why deny that luxury to British citizens?

If free movement goes, then I guess I would to, and move to a country that does offer it. Businesses and entrepreneurs will be the first to be offered plenty of EU27 incentives and residency by other states, something that's already begun with the Berlin billboard van. America wants to fast-track visas for entrepreneurs with startups. The public funding systems in some EU countries are brilliantly set up to support startups and small business (not to mention research, art, film, tv production, theatre, etc).

I can imagine some Brexiters would call those who Leave a traitor to their country – actually all of this is the reverse: it's because I want to stay in the UK and run my business from here that it matters so much to me that we get the best possible post-Brexit deal. I know I'm not alone.

Why the EU matters to a tiny business like Netribution

I've not done the sums but maybe up to a quarter of my business in recent years has come through the EU. Netribution is a tiny outfit that's chosen to stay really lean and small with the lowest possible overheads in order to maximise time to develop new ideas. Still, through this microbusiness, I've worked on Honeycomb, an EU Interreg project researching and building creative digital micro/SME business networks across Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England; and Interreg's Scandinavian World of Innovative Media, bridging Copenhagen and Malmö with some of the region's most creative digital people and microbusiness. You can download a copy of the research I did for Honeycomb here, and watch the slightly stumbly lecture on web film distribution I did for Swim here.

Eight years ago with Adam P Davies, Netribution launched our 490-page world Film Finance Handbook at Cannes. We sold copies in the local bookshop and the American Pavilion, and on upturned boxes in the street to passing multi-million dollar producers. We even thrust a copy into the hands of a then Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell – better access then we could have got in London. Best of all, we paid no tariffs and had to fill in no forms.

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Why London's startup status should be safe (for now)

The uncertainty following the Brexit vote, has been met with talk of startup investment falling through, cancelled Horizon 2020 (the £88bn EU innovation and tech fund) bids, and a sinking Sterling, all lead to a sense that London could soon lose it's position as arguably Europe's startup capital. Loss of access to the single market, which will happen unless the UK government agrees to maintain free-movement, or the other 27 EU member states agree to create an exception on the EU's founding principle; London would be an unhelpful location for anyone selling or operating across the EU.

Many startups are considering their options, given how competitive and fast-moving the market is. However, London still has at least two advantages, and sounds like it is be about to get a third.

1. The city

"This is the most incredible place" an Italian told me on Friday night. The week before a Spanish neighbour explained "I am heartbroken because I thought this was the best place in the world, the most tolerant place in the world." Still, if London can keep sufficient autonomy from government, get further devloved powers, it's place as a leader in creativity, culture and rich multiculturalism should be safe. We have a Muslim mayor marching on Gay pride. All of this makes for an attractive (if expensive) place to work, and as a global tech startup HQ, there is, at least, minimal gun crime.

2. The language

While sites targeting particular countries and regions will use a local language, for apps and sites targeting Europe and the US, English is commonly the first language used, often multi-lingual versions don't come until later. With America set to overtake the economic power of EU-minus-UK, then this is unlikely to change soon. Britain will always have an advantage over other European cities beyond Ireland, for this reason. Not only is the country full of good (and often under-employed) writers, the creative sector as a whole has a disproportionate share of Oscars, Grammies and Emmies.

3. Commercial property costs could go down  40%

Wth most of the property investment funds ceasing trading to meet demand for withdrawals, some estate agents have forecast reductions of up to 40% in the cost of commercial space as they revise down expectations of demand. Indeed with the ability to easily rezone commercial properties for residential use, introduced by the Coalition to attempt to deal with housing shortages, we could see residential costs fall as well. Cost of living and office space are perhaps two of the strongest advantages other European startup capitals have.

But there are potential issues:

Impact on labour & talent

While it's true that the rise in racism and hate crimes could put off talented people from wanting to move to the UK to work, none of the Leave campaigners have ever suggested ending migration for skilled or needed workers; no-one has suggested the end to migration, just a different system of it. However, there will be less cheap labour around, which could have it's consequences with people moving their companies to where the cheap yet skilled labour is instead. 

Madrid, for instance, has huge numbers of unemployed digital people, would be in the EU, with a widely-spoken language and low cost of living. But this decision won't be made for two years or more, and relocation in the event of a bad post-Brexit settlement can still happen (as Lush are already doing).

We forget that free-movement was intended to protect native workers: would we rather a company set up in the UK that employed mostly migrant workers, but who spent most of their money here – and paid taxes here (£25bn over the last decade) – or that they set it up in Poland and we saw none of that money? I imagine that depends on where their taxes are spent - on stretched local services, or on central government management?

Science, tech & innovation funding

What seem immediately concerning is the collapse in H2020 bids - and the impact this will have on universities and micro/SMEs. Don't get me wrong, my limited experience suggests the fund is often abused and much needing reform, but it has provided key funding while successive governments have wavered in their support. British technical excellence and invention is something of national pride, and a key driver of the economy – and support for these areas need their income securing. The EU funded the huge new Graphene centre, for instance, and has backed countless startups, and the technology they use. Funding from the EU helped me undertake a number of business supporting projects including Honeycomb in Norther Ireland the Republic., and in Copenhagen and Sweden. If we lose our academics to countries in the EU which can still get this funding, we'll be feeling the effects for many decades. We would risk falling far behind the rest of the continent in the sorts of innovation that offer perhaps our best hope of recovering our economy and paying off the debt.

Political uncertainty

Contender to be the next PrimeMinster ('the Conservative's Corbyn' some call her as she sits towards the tea-party wing of the party), Andrea Leadsom has called for BBFC-style website verification where anything published online first would have to be approved by a regulator like the film censors to agree if it is legal and what age it was suited for. Given this would require Facebook and Twitter to be resubmitted several thousand times a second, the risk of such erratic legislation would give any web or digital startup concern.

Brand London

But, if London becomes seen as less a 'City of the World' – as it long has been – and more the 'Capital of Little England/Britain', then we're in trouble. It's an incredible place to visit, live and work, in spite of the costs – but we're next to a continent full of incredible cities, who can each claim, as EU members, to be more internationalist, more cooperative and less arrogant than the UK currently appears to the world. Farage's rant in the EU parliament may take a long time for the world to forget. So an urgent priority might be for the city - as with other pro-Remain cities and regions - to clearly and boldly declare to the world they are more committed to international solidarity and cooperation, and to rejecting all intolerance and hate crime, than ever. Leaders can acknowledge that much may change politically and in law, but that this idea, this thing we take so much pride in, isn't up for discussion.

I apologise for not talking about other regions and cities in the UK and their specific issues in writing this: especially after such a rejection of London-centric thinking in this referendum. However, it's where I live and work, it is battling with being 60% opposed to this Leave vote and it's the powerhouse of the country, contributing around a third of tax revenue from around 10% of the population.

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Why I hope Idris Elba is the next Bond

With Daniel Craig reportedly turning down around $100m to continue his role for two films, and bookies apparently no longer taking bets on Tom Hiddlestone for the next Bond, the 'undemocratic primaries' for who shall next pick up a tux and treat women badly, has hit full fever pitch.

I was fascinated to read recently about my grandmother's sister-in-law Una Trueblood, who was Ian Flemming's secretary, typing up all his hand-penned Bond books. Adam Thorpe, who wrote the piece, had gotten to know Una through his wife, my aunt Jo, her god-daughter. Una confided that they 'weren't my sort of book', being a faithful church-goer, but typed them up nevertheless and in his inscription on Goldfinger to her Flemming wrote 'to Una, who wrote all the books'. In Dr No, she was made an MI5 secretary and quickly killed off, and some ask if she was his Miss Moneypenny muse. The passage about her namesake's death makes quite unpleasant reading:

"“Mary Trueblood opened her mouth to scream. The man smiled broadly. Slowly, lovingly, he lifted the gun and shot her three times in and around the left breast. The girl slumped sideways off her chair. The earphones slipped off her golden hair on to the floor”."

Anyway I drop what looks like a humblebrag in here because in reading Adam's account I learnt that Fleming would spend three months a year in Jamaica, where he wrote the books; indeed it was apparently because he read such a bad airport novel on the plane there one time that he decided to write his own - Casino Royale. So he wrote Bond in a mostly black country, doubtless getting far more black cultural influences than most British writers at that time. I've not read any of his books – I've not even read all of Adam Thorpe's! – indeed I struggle with many of the cultural aspects of Bond, tho dearly loved Roger Moore's Bond as a kid. But I can't help wonder how much the setting must have influenced the ambiance or essence of the writing, not least Bond himself. Which is why Idris Elba seems an interesting Bond (I was previously hoping for Adrian Lester, after Tom interviewed him here in 2000).

There are many reasons why a Bond decried by Judi Dench's M back in Goldeneye as a 'sexist misogynist dinosaur', and who's barely changed since, could benefit from trying on a different tux to the white, public-schoolboy background, which Daniel Craig began to an extent, having proven his brilliance as Geordie in Our Friends in the North. Not least as contemporary mainstream cinema struggles to catch-up with over century of under-representation in both gender and race. 007 remains the leading 'spy sex symbol' in the media's eyes, the archetype against which Arnie in True Lies  or countless spy spoofs are measured against. Yet, to date, Bond seems to have an unspoken 'white-only' entry requirement. It would be great to see Idris break that, not least because he's a brilliant actor, but also as he may reacquaint the universe with some of the roots that must have influenced the books' creation.

 Idris Elba at the MET ball, source GQ/Getty
Getty/GQ

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Crowdfunding’s lack of sophistication around risk: is staged-finance the answer?

“Staged financing must become the film business’s immediate goal.”
– Ted Hope, Producer & Head of Production, Amazon Studios, September 2013

Crowdfunding’s lack of sophistication around risk

Much, if not most, of investment strategy is about dealing with risk. A backer of a project – be that an equity or debt investor who is hoping to see some kind of profit, or a crowdfunding supporter who wants to get their perks and see the finished film – has to predict risk. Normally, the closer a project goes from idea to release – from pitch to screen – the lower that risk gets; it's reducing all the time. To reflect this, in the majority of business investments, the first ‘angel' investors will normally put in the least and get the most equity, and as subsequent funding rounds continue, new investors put in greater amounts and get less relative share, but more value as the business is now worth more. As risk decreases, the cost of participation increases, just as there are far more ideas that get turned into scripts than scripts that get made into movies, or movies that get a theatrical release.

But crowdfunding, not technically an investment, is flat and treats all types of backer the same. At the start backers have to decide if a project looks viable and convincing, pay their money and hope for the best. It’s an investment of faith and confidence when 75% of all crowdfunded projects arrive late and a quarter over six months late (according to a July 2013 study). Some end up cancelled (examples here or here), which damages the whole space as they will doubtless put some people off backing a crowdfunding project again.

The problem is arguably even more of a challenge with flexible crowdfunding where projects can miss their target and end up raising far less than they need but still cash in. On Indiegogo, 80% of projects raise less than a quarter of their target, meaning often there isn't the money to deliver the project or to do it to the standard promised. This is a problem both for the creative, on whose shoulder the stress and reputation rests, and the backer, whose money is at stake. Meanwhile, the crowdfunding space depends on people having a good experience, backing a project and doing it again.

Yet the money is almost never all needed at the very start. For a lot of creative projects, some money is needed to pay some wages and overheads over the many months or years it will take on an ongoing basis – so it could trickle in. Indeed, the bigger costs might be towards the end during post-production or when 1,000 DVDs & DCPs are needed or the soundtrack has to be cleared. By that time the risk is considerably lower – if a book is ready to print or a film fit to screen, there's less risk about delivery, while it’s easier to assess the quality at that stage.

Rolling with it

Is there space for a rolling or staged crowdfunding that dripfeeds money into the project throughout its creation much as development, production, completion & marketing finance are already separated? It seems to resonate with how Ted Hope has been arguing the indie film world needs to adopt staged investor financing to get more people investing in film.

It would support the kind of structure where, say, of 1,000 scripts or ideas that got funding, 200 might be supported to to do pre-production & shoot a promo, 100 get shot, 50 get full post-production and packaging for delivery and 10 get extra marketing and distribution support. Investors at each stage would be taking a smaller risk and would be putting in larger sums of money – while the backer who’d taken a risk and made a good choice at the initial idea stage could stand to make a bigger share of any profits.

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Film's monopoly problem

Not before time, the new year started with some promising news about selling films online. For the first time, the annual decline in DVD and Blu-ray sales in the US has been outstripped by the growth in digital sales, rentals and subscriptions. Home entertainment rose 0.7% in 2013 (PDF source). $6.5bn – over a third of total consumer spending – came from digital rental, retail and subscriptions, with download-to-own rising a hefty 48% on 2012. The figures don’t even include subscriptions bundled with other services (like a cable company’s deal with Netflix) or advertising-supported VOD like Hulu or YouTube.

Of course, a chunk of this growth has been for television and traditional film, and the biggest beneficiaries continue to be the studios and large rights owners. For independents – as Scott Harris detailed in his frank description of the struggles self-distributing Being Ginger – digital distribution is typically a lot of work for limited gains. Why is this?

Indeed, why – unlike many other industries online – does the small, agile film producer not have a bigger advantage online over the studio giants? If film behaved like publishing, software development or countless other industries, then being a small, low-overhead, low-budget independent outfit would offer a significant upside over being a major film studio. Standard network effects online have consistently empowered the garage-based agile and innovative players, who not only compete with, but out-sell ‘legacy’ businesses in their industry. 

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Understanding DRM: back to the days of Edison & the Motion Picture Patent Company

The monopoly that created the independents that created the studios

Imagine having to pay a license fee every time you filmed something or screened your work. At the start of the 20th century, the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) in America controlled patents around cameras, film and projectors, and demanded fees for anyone screening or filming anything. The MPPC were able to dictate what could get filmed and screened, telling a young Alfred Zukor who had just bought the rights to a big French success: “The time is not ripe for features, if it ever will be” (as described in Timothy Wu’s excellent Master Switch).

Zukor, who would later head Paramount, became an early rebel who refused to play along, as was Carl Laemmle who declared himself ‘an independent’ – the first to use that name. Laemmle wasn’t independent for long, his company Universal became one of the biggest studios on the planet, as did those from other ‘rebels’ and ‘independents’ Willhelm Fuchs (20th Century Fox) and the Warner brothers Jack, Sam and Henry. When Laemmle started to make ‘independent films’ without paying a licence, he was sued 289 times in a three-year period by the Edison Trust, and eventually fled New York to the west coast with Fuchs, Zukor, the Warners and others, further from the MPPC ‘spies’ and lawyers, and closer to the Mexican border if a quick escape was needed.

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How 2014 might be the most hopeful year in 66 million years or so

Amidst gloom-laced end-of-year summaries, I’ve decided to make like a salmon and swim against the flow with ten reasons why 2014 might be the most promising year in about 66 million years. Well there's one main reason really, but on this date of Netribution’s 15th birthday I have a small desire to know I can still get ‘down with it’ and write a list of ten, with numbers and everything, given that’s how people read things now. 

light end tunnel

I had just begun a second day of seemingly unstoppable tears over over the death of Robin Williams when I turned to a friend and asked if there had ever been such a terrible flood of news. From Syria and Isis, full of western Rambo-wannabes, raping and terrorising a too-long-suffering people, to Russia/Ukraine seemingly hot for the start of a new cold war; from Israel and Hamas returning to a never-ending tragic game of Paper-Scissors-Aerial-Bomabrdment to North Korea treating international diplomacy like some kind of drunken PMQs; from planes vanishing from the sky to the rampant spread of ebola; from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Maya Angelou, Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Bob Hoskins; from the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of institutionalised child abuse and murder - to the failure of our establishment to investigate itself in any form; from Fergusson and #Icantbreath to the truth of the Bush-Blair-era torture programme finally (thankfully) materialising; from the schools full of children killed or kidnapped for daring to study, to Nigel Farage being crowned Brit of the year in the latest attempt by Uncle Rupert to write our political narrative in the face of his fear over what a Milliband government might do to his ambitions. Charlie Brooker summed it all up pretty well in August arguing the universe owed us all some kind of epic Unicorn Chaser to balance everything out.

Then the unicorn came, and we all went wow for a little bit at the technical achievement, but much of the media seemed to miss the core of its significance and as we headed further and further towards the Christmas hurricane, it was forgotten. Looking back over the year, there seem to be other rays of hope that slipped through, which leaves me wondering if one of the biggest losses of our digital disintermediated time is the eye of a newspaper editor who serves up the morning news with a balanced weighting of good and bad to ensure we don’t run through the day in a state of perpetual panic that everything is about to end, as the internet’s echo chamber can often leave us feeling, any more than a stoned Sillicon Valley-esque elation that everything is awesome, please leave me alone in my dotcom bubble of self-reinforcing sentiment.

So here goes, 10 reasons why 2014 might turn out to be the best, or at least most promising, year for 66 million years or so.

1. Rosetta calling

66 million years ago, the Chicxulub Asteroid hit earth and killed all non-avian dinosaurs and made extinct three-quarters or more of plant and animal life on our planet. Over 75% of all species became extinct with a single rock hitting us from space.

If the earth had a mind or a will, you might picture it going back to the drawing board after that event and trying to design a new, nimbler species than the ever-more fierce dinosaurs. One with a bigger brain and agile, crafty fingers, and the ability to look up at the stars and dream.

And on 12 November 2014, our planet’s phantom quest to make sure such a catastrophic event could not happen again took possibly its biggest leap forward yet as the Rosetta lander approached a speeding comet, and landed on it. It’s been described as the engineering equivalent of landing a butterfly on a speeding bullet.

We may have near destroyed the earth to get to this point, and near-wiped ourselves out industrialising and inventing the nuclear bombs that could divert such an asteroid, but if nature - mother earth - was in the business of long-term self-preservation, after 66 milion years, you could say we’ve just made a major leap closer to that.

2. Climate progress

Another thing happened on the 12 Novemeber 2014. After decades of delays and dodges, China and America agreed to a huge ‘turning point’ deal to reduce their carbon emissions and the impact of climate change; China for the first time in history giving a fixed date for its emissions to peak at. While the Rosetta landing was a triumph of European cooperation, this deal, crafted in secret over several years and announced on the same day, appears a significant trumpet of Sino-Americna diplomacy, and hopefully is the nudge needed to make 2015’s Paris Climate Change conference a success. 

Yarned tree, Berlin, CC NW

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