Despite the fact that Zack and I have been pitching and developing our transmedia project Third Rail for over a year, it was a mad rush to pull together a trailer and rehearse our presentation for yesterday's first annual Pixel Pitch here in London. During this process, which we had to conduct virtually -- with him in New York, and myself temporarily in North Carolina -- we considered a few different approaches to our verbal sell, some more theatrical and some more straightforward. Ultimately we went with the straightforward approach, and, in retrospect, that was probably a mistake.
Heart of the City won the Pixel Pitch prize with a great presentation. A genre mashup reminiscent of our own erstwhile series The West Side, the project was pitched incredibly well by Raafi Rivero and Michael Hastings-Black, and for their energetic and prop-laden show they deserve the Babelgum-sponsored prize. Raafi and Michael were the living embodiment of something said to us at one of the Power to the Pixel parties, which is, when it comes to seeking film finance, "Europeans know how to fill out forms. Americans know how to sell."
For our own presentation, we went with a pitch focused on the story and interactivity of Third Rail, and, as we're allergic to PowerPoint, showed a trailer (Zack and I will post it to our just-launched company site, Exit Strategy, soon). Considering we filmed the trailer informally on a late-night train without lights or permits, it was nice to hear members of the roundtable -- who often see content produced for millions of dollars/pounds/euros -- comment on it being well-shot, stylish, and well-edited. The footage was shot on my newly acquired DSLR, which cost less than the camcorder I won as a student in a contest eight years ago, and I edited it on a laptop that I purchased with grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts four years ago. From a technology standpoint this is invigorating; to be able to produce something of quality with little to no outlay may be as large a development in filmmaking as are the new cross-platform distribution possibilities.
But in the brave new world of transmedia, being proficient at the craft of filmmaking is sometimes treated as a footnote. Time and again when we've pitched Third Rail to the digital divisions of major American studios, we've received comments along the lines of, "you guys can obviously shoot and edit, BUT..." and then the rest of the sentence is about demographics and brand-integration opportunities (or lack thereof). I wouldn't have guessed several years ago that my success as a filmmaker would be predicated more on marketing savvy, business acumen, and social networking than it would be on actual storytelling ability. The rules are changing rapidly and the role I thought I was preparing myself for is no longer extant.
The question is, from the standpoint of telling meaningful stories, do we like where all this is going? As filmmakers we have a lot more control over our own distribution, and this is wonderful and a long time coming. But on the other hand these new distribution models make a project subject to a barrage of questions about brand-friendliness and viable cross-platform business strategies, instead of strength of story or meaningful character development. My impression is that these latter issues used to be given more weight from a financier's perspective; when the distribution model was known, the questions a project were beholden to were more about, say, the quality of writing rather than the social networking hooks. When we produced The West Side, we just treated it as if it were a film in parts, and focused on quality; at the time, many people thought webisodes were foward-looking, but the online ad-supported model was quickly outed as unsustainable without additional revenue streams or end-games. We didn't know what we were getting ourselves into.
The challenge going forward will be to maintain standards of narrative quality while simultaneously adapting to new finance and distribution models, and my impressions -- based on a year of pitching a transmedia project to major studios, as well as attending and sitting on panels at several film and television conferences -- is that we're undergoing a transition where the craft and quality of storytelling can easily become a peripheral issue. Heart of the City's strengths are as a brand-friendly, demo-targeted, cross-platform marketing vehicle, and that is not to say that the project itself doesn't have a strong story; the lesson learned for us, however, is that a transmedia pitch should focus on the potential for product giveaways and twitter updates more than script or tone. The well-qualified jury has spoken, and it is clear that the future of filmmaking is not limited to filmmaking.
I hope this does not come off as complaint -- this is just me learning as I go. Zack and I were the youngest of the seven project teams accepted out of 120 applicants, so it's not as if our hopes are dashed -- if anything, the feedback we received from the roundtable was incredibly valuable and will ultimately help make Third Rail a stronger project with a better chance of finding an audience. We also had the opportunity to meet with several well-respected producers and executives, and the knowledge they freely donated to us in these meetings will prove invaluable both for Third Rail and for future projects. Finally, Liz, Tishna, Mel, and all the PTTP organizers did a great job of putting together a terrific event.
I've done much of what I set out to do when I started this blog in 2005, and that is get myself to New York City, work hard on do-it-yourself projects, and turn the resulting abilities as a writer, director, shooter, and editor into a something resembling a career. But I haven't been very prolific as a filmmaker, I haven't been very aggressive as a networker or marketer, and I haven't really put this blog to work as an effective social tool. My tasks in the immediate future are to address these issues from a focal standpoint, and retool this site as a useful place for anyone who pursues an independent, creative career. In helping me understand where film is going and where I need to be, Power to the Pixel and the associated Pixel Pitch have been invaluable, and that is the prize I'll take away from the conference.
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Congrats on being a finalist in the Babelgum Pixel Pitch Award! Having only read the loglines of the finalists' projects, it seems that another one of the reasons Heart of The City appealed to the panel was because its pitch was framed to capitalize on the current comic book grab going on in Hollywood. All of a sudden comic books seem to be on the top of everyone's get rich quick lists, with floundering Disney's $4 billion acquisition of Marvel representing the extreme of this trend.
Regardless, Third Rail sounds like a really interesting project, and it's refreshing to hear that you're placing such a premium on creating fully-realized(both visually and narratively) content. I feel like so much of what I've been seeing and hearing about in the digital realm are rush jobs. I'm glad to know there is a future of high production value DIY media. Hope to run into you and Zach again soon.
October 18, 2009 at 10:48AM, Edited September 4, 7:22AM
Hello Ryan and Zach,
Great to see these reflections out there. I love your thoughts about projects being considered on their storytelling (and participatory) elements. But I also wonder about your criticism on transmedia. Specifically, I query the inference that transmedia is the only area that considers such business factors. The film industry is very much about these issues as well. Filmmaking is a business. And if the film won't make money, then the money for the project will have to come from other sources -- brands, audiences...Someone always has to pay. But perhaps it is also more of a factor -- for some, I hope you note, not all -- in the transmedia area because it is not an established area. There aren't established finance models for these projects -- they're not entirely films, not entirely games, not entirely social media...etc...but all, and so they're looking to alternative business models. But you also have to note (generally speaking) that in many cases the majority of decision-makers do not know how to identify a quality transmedia project. Difficult but valuable times. Keep going! And I hope you find a good balance between providing what is required from pitches (business model etc) as well as highlighting the story design.
October 18, 2009 at 6:42PM, Edited September 4, 7:22AM