Ad models are changing. Distribution models are changing. Viewing habits are changing. Is anything a sure thing in the entertainment business these days?

Three industry bigwigs sat down at SXSW to share some wisdom with a packed house of filmmakers eager to learn how to take advantage of shifting audience and distribution paradigms. Their revelations may surprise you.

Natalie Jarvey, who moderated the panel, is a staff writer at The Hollywood Reporter; panelist Lisa Hsia is Executive Vice-President of Digital Media at Bravo & Oxygen; panelist Erik Flannigan is Executive Vice-President of Music & Multi-Platform Strategy at Viacom; and panelist Sam Toles is the Head Of Global Content & Distribution at Vimeo.

"You are competing with the entire weight of TV and film history that’s at everyone’s fingertips. There are 4,000 films being produced in the US every year. So you need to create something special."

Jarvey: How are borders dropping between traditional television and online video?

Hsia: Originally, in the digital department we just created digital extras. As the line between linear and digital is becoming increasingly blurred because of digital TVs and phones, people just want to see their content when they want to see it, so we are making short form content that stands on its own. One thing we have to think more about is how people find and discover content now. We have to make discovery super easy.

Potter_valley_uprisingCredit: "Valley Uprising," Discovery via Vimeo

Flanningan: What’s really changed is the point of entry. For many fans, it’s the digital platform, not TV. Our audiences consider the first season a preview. That means they will probably start watching it on demand. If we decided to make a second season, then they will check out the first season on demand because it might be worth their time. When there was nothing to watch on TV 10 years ago, you’d rent a movie. Now we are competing with everything ever made.

Toles: At Vimeo, we see ourselves as a place to empower creators. High Maintenance is a show that started on our online platform and then got bought by HBO, a traditional broadcast network. They made a first episode and built audience, and then kept making episodes and building audiences until we noticed. Our curation team is constantly monitoring for what’s popping. That’s where we look first. If you want to get a program funded on Vimeo, be successful on Vimeo.

Jarvey: So with all that’s out there, how do creators cut through the noise?

Toles: You are competing with the entire weight of TV and film history that’s at everyone’s fingertips.  And, by the way, there are 4,000 films being produced in the US every year. So you need to create something special that can attract an audience, and then build on that audience.

"You just can’t make passive TV anymore."

Flannigan: You have to be as good, as original, as committed as the best stuff out there. We’ve stuck with Nathan For Youfor 4 seasons even though its audience was slow to build because there is no other show like it out there, and it grew [out of] word-of-mouth. You can do all the social media to promote a show, but at the end of the day, that original content has to be able to carry the water. You just can’t make passive TV anymore.

Hsia: Bravo super-fans will watch everything we do. But how do we reach broader audiences? That’s where digital comes in. We just announced that we are co-creating 4 digital series with Mashable so we can reach each other’s audiences.

High-maintenance1Credit: "High Maintenance," HBO via Vimeo

"Creators, audience, and platforms are living synergistically and I think that’s the future. It’s not broadcasting; it’s narrowcasting."

Jarvey: How should creators be thinking about their content differently, when even social media platforms are becoming places where original content is being made?

Flannigan: Certain things pop on certain platforms and certain [things] on others. Ratings are not the same on digital as on TV. For example, sketch comedy shows are better for digital, because people just want to watch lots of funny sketches in a row. They don’t have to come in 22-minute chunks like on TV.

Toles: I don’t think we need to make the big show that everyone will watch. I think that’s a mistake. The difference between digital and traditional is that in traditional, linear TV, you have the creator making something for the platform over here and the audience is over there. The platform is the middle-man. In digital, you can talk directly to your fans, and they can even contribute to the show. Creators, audience, and platforms are living synergistically and I think that’s the future. It’s not broadcasting, it’s narrowcasting.

Flannigan: MTV and Comedy Central are up and running on Snapchat with short form original series and they are doing really well. But you can’t just re-appropriate stuff you’ve made elsewhere. You have to deeply understand how the platform works and how the audience uses it. It turns out things like The Daily Show don’t work on Snapchat, we are finding.

Hsia: Instagram has been a better fit for Bravo because it’s a little bit of an older audience.

"Millennials and younger can sniff out non-authentic content."

Toles: Documentary is a genre that’s very successful on Vimeo because you can pick a specific topic that engages a very specific audience. Vimeo is the premium first window where you get a 90/10 revenue share. Valley Uprising started on our platform first. They charged $25 per download and it was successful. Then it went to Discovery. Discovery was willing to take it even though it had already run online because the price point was high and they felt that the audience hadn’t been eaten up. So Discovery could still make an event of it, but the filmmaker had already extracted real value from an online audience.

26-nathan-for-youCredit: "Nathan for You," Comedy Central/Viacom

Jarvey: What can we learn from how YouTube creators market themselves and build audiences?

Toles: It’s not necessarily about scale. It’s about engagement. Millennials and younger can sniff out non-authentic content. People like PJ [of Vimeo series Oscar's Hotel] and Aidy Bryant [of Saturday Night Live and Vimeo series Darby Forever] who are super passionate about their shows — we buy the passion. It never fails that if you see the passion when the project is being made; that passion will come through when it comes time to promote it.

"We are interested in working with people who want to have a relationship with their audience." 

Hsia: We are interested in working with people who want to have a relationship with their audience. But sometimes it doesn’t work when we bring actual YouTube creators over to the network. Sometimes things aren’t a 22-minute, TV-length idea. Sometimes the further down you go to people who are really early in their careers and [when we] bring them into TV, they get lost because they don’t know the tropes and they can’t or don’t want to handle it. They don’t know writer’s rooms, they don’t know notes.

Toles: In all the originals we’ve made, we haven’t given any notes. High Maintenance was talking to FX, and FX wanted them to change the main character from a weed dealer to a pizza delivery guy because weed was weird for advertisers.

Flannigan: I started at Viacom 10 years ago, and advertisers’ line has not moved an inch. In a world when you’re looking to have sponsors behind digital stuff that might be a lot more edgy, it’s a big challenge. The whole marketplace is a shitshow. It’s easy to do a transaction to put an ad on TV. You buy the time and boom. There are a lot of hurdles for digital, extra contracts and legal stuff, ad blockers etc.


While you leave industry execs to wrestle with advertisers over how to make everybody rich, you can (and should!) go ahead with making your movies and stories. But in this brave new world, there are a few considerations that might help you along the way: What’s the best platform for your work? Who is your audience and how do you connect to them? And what makes your projects unique? Good luck!

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our podcasts from SXSW (or subscribe in iTunes):

No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.

Main article photo credit: Jason Bolonski, Flickr Creative Commons