Monday, November 19, 2007

Digital Re-alignment 2.0

Kung Fu Monkey John Rogers follows up on my post below with a far more cogent and detailed analysis of the implications of Andreessen's Hollywood via Silicon Valley Business model.

I happen to agree that there is going to be some blow back from the traditional media systems that are in place - creatives, networks, employees and ancillary industries associated with "moviemaking." It probably will take longer than I think and shorter than John thinks to re-align the distribution system. I say re-align (John says bloodbath or rearranging the deck chairs) .

I say re-align because there are several facts in play --

a) Studios and networks distribute television and movies really well. They buy intellectual property and license it really well, but...
b) They don't produce said products very well (in the overall). A lot of money and time is wasted at the studio level. They need a wide margin of demographic groups (4 quadrants) for them to greenlight a film. This tends to take the spice out of the content, and make it palatable for a wide variety of folks.

(gross generalizations to be sure, but nonetheless supported by many examples.)

So the first steps in the re-alignment process would be:

1-- To have the creatives create the shows, build a a reputation and brand for the shows (as well as some revenue) through digital distribution. AFTERWARD have networks distribute the shows via traditional media - VOD, cable and DVD. Very similar to the idea of a comic publisher producing comics on a monthly basis, who then licenses rights to a book publisher (who has greater reach into mainstream stores) who releases a graphic novel.

(We'll come back to this analogy in a moment. Please stand by)

2-- The guilds and unions have "indie -experimental" contracts in place. They recognize the new media and the place for independent media production in relation to their membership. This needs to be utilized more and more, and in this new world agents and managers are going to have to realize this, and not prevent their clients (ha!) from examining offers to work in this new media.

3-- Take advantage of the technological tools at our disposal - in many cases for free - that allow talented individuals or groups to create material without having to mortgage the house. An excellent example is
this , which was created on a Mac computer at Darwyn Cooke's home. Broadcast quality at 1/100th the price and headaches.

4-- It's going to have to be a co-operative measure for awhile...creators will create and distribute via the web then license other rights out to traditional media. You can't just yank the cash carpet out from underneath the studios --too many people's jobs are at stake.

There will be bumps along the way...but make no mistake that the studio system, as it exists today, is realigning toward distribution. Production, as it exists today, is realigning toward creators. There will be more limited partnerships for new media along all points of the process. The people who make the shows will be the show's owners. The studios will be the salesmen.

(And to answer John's point about writers who are just damn good writers and don't necessarily want to be producers. Okay, fair enough. That's what partnerships are for. If I don't know something, I partner up or hire those who do specialize in the area where I'm weakest.)

This will be tough for some folks. It will be brutal in terms of convincing people to go ahead and take the gamble, but understand this sort of entertainment media re-alignment has happened before in the early 80's (and earlier) and parallels what is happening today with new media:

(By understanding the history of how distribution affects creation and vice versa we begin to understand the potential of the web, avoid some of the pitfalls, and reasonably predict where some of this is going)

For the longest time, 4-color comics were produced only by the big two- DC and Marvel. Now we have a much more diverse comics market. There are a dozen or so companies that make up a smaller percentage of the market that is still dominated by the Big Two. However, those alternative comics and their smaller niches are still lucrative for the individual creators and companies. I'm looking at guys like Mike Mignola (HELLBOY), Jeff Smith (BONE) Brian Bendis (JINX) and others...this is thanks to the alternate distribution system set up in the market known as the comic book shop direct distribution system.

While it had its fits and starts, the direct distribution system changed the way the market thought about comics. Suddenly, new voices, which were ignored by the Big Two had a way to get their material in front of their audience in a cost-effective manner. It's the system that allowed for the creation and licensing of the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. It gave us Image comics, DC's Vertigo Comics line, Boom Studios and CEREBUS THE AARDVARK.

Eventually the system evolved for both indie and corporate companies to co-exist and each grab their piece of the market. It also cross-pollinated the indie world creators with the corporate comics world. Now some creators work on "company material and characters" (the short burst paycheck of work for hire) while also working on their own "creator-owned" work (smaller income, but fueled by ownership and generally creative non-interference). This would never have happened if the creators hadn't taken the chance and self-published through this new distribution system - shown the larger companies that they had an audience and brand identity.

Now what's interesting is the fact that the two of the guys mentioned above - Mignola and Smith - are doing traditional 4-color comics, but with new subject matter. Mignola mines the pulpy horror of Lovecraft, et al with his HELLBOY, while Smith mixes sensitive drama with Pogo-like childish adventure in his comic BONE. Both are so much more than regular comics though they have many of the same trappings...and both have rabid followings of fans.

And I think that's what is going to get the audience to the new media of the internet in sufficent numbers:

New voices and perspectives wrapped up inside the familiar trappings of traditional media - production quality, familiar faces, known writers.

(I almost want to say that we've hit that with QUARTERLIFE, but not quite)

So, I predict, based on the evidence before us, that one day - sooner than John thinks and longer than I think - there will be an "Image Comics" who comes along and truly signals the re-alignment of this new media and distribution...a breakout performer that is financially sound and ongoing and touches a nerve in the audience.

When that happens - watch out.

(Apologies that this is a first draft and reads that way. I needed to get it out and on the boards...)

Edit to add: This is interesting and adds fuel to the discussion.

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