A new way forward for cinema
Fiona Milburn from Transmedia NZ interviews American indie producer Ted Hope, keynote at the recent Big Screen Symposium, about transmedia and the changing nature of filmmaking.
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This past weekend saw members of the local screen industry gather in Auckland for the Big Screen Symposium. It was two fabulous days spent “Exploring The New Way Forward” with illustrious speakers from both near and far. Amongst those speakers was New York based independent film producer, Ted Hope.
Over two decades he has produced close to seventy films. His films, including 21 Grams (2003). The Savages (2007), and American Splendor (2003), have earned numerous Academy Award nominations, as well as the most awards for any producer at the Sundance Film Festival.
After his keynote presentation, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with him for a conversation in which he shared his thoughts on transmedia and the changing nature of filmmaking. Here are my edited highlights …
On transmedia and the future of cinema …
The building of story worlds is generally what people mean when they talk about transmedia. Sometimes they just mean repurposing, or providing marketing extensions, on different platforms. To me transmedia is: “how do we build comprehensive story worlds that have room for the full definition of cinema?”
I believe it's absolutely necessary for all makers to think beyond the linear story structure. How do we become the architects of bigger worlds?
If you're making work today then you owe it to the audience, and the people involved in your community, to figure out where the extensions are; where the places that people can collaborate and participate are; and how is it more than just a single platform delivery vehicle? How does it become a much bigger event? How does it exist and evolve?
I find our transition, from an analogue culture to a digital culture, completely fascinating. In an analogue culture we worked to complete things, to deliver as close to perfection as we could. Now we're in a digital era where things consistently evolve, where we're looking to do things in a different way. But, how do you keep something evolving? Changing with the times? This is what the creative process is.
On the changing nature of collaboration …
The key to collaboration is: the acknowledgement of what you don't know; respect for the experience and contributions of others; and a general level of openness and discovery. I don't think that changes. It is still at the core of everything. However, what is exciting is the move away from geo-location based collaboration. You no longer need to gather in the same spot.
Traditional collaboration was certainly very fruitful, but we now have tools that allow for different ways of working. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the first time I worked in a decentralised manner. Due to differing time zones, we had teams of people working on VFX 24/7 around the globe. And, the visual effects coordination involved somebody working with these globally diverse, individual teams of contractors. Now this form of collaboration is accessible to all of us.
One of the difficulties with these new forms of creating and consuming is that, until they’ve seen it done, many people don't know how to do it. Thus, when somebody “gets it,” they feel like a pioneer. And, they’re easy to recognise. The history of pioneers tells us that they're the ones with arrows and swords in their back.
Currently, the folks who've done well in film are those who’ve lived through the period of capital intensive creation. It’s a different era now, but our experts, the people who have delivered the current proof of principle, are used to working in that format. It’s the new creators who will be the new leaders and thinkers. They are going to be pioneers and, unfortunately, some of them will be sacrificed.
On storytelling, community, and authorship …
If you look at storytelling as community building and organising, then your stories have to give people the chance to participate and collaborate. You have to give people elements and tools to do whatever it is they want. They might be building their own, local version of your story. They might be using your characters, your themes, or the tools that you've provided, but they’re making it theirs. What’s changing is the nature of authorship.
We used to look to the singular auteur as creator. [As an indie film producer] I always prided myself on making films that people would say: “only one person, that filmmaker, could've made this film”. They had a distinctive stand on it. Yet, when people look at all my movies, they see me in them. The themes, the types of things I like, they’ve carried over from one movie to another. I'm not the auteur, but you can see my elements. I was a collaborator.
As we democratise culture, and give people more room to participate, the nature of the auteur changes. Instead of the person that just designs a linear, one-off story, they become the story world architect. They define the relationship between the collaborators and participants, and the themes, characters, and values at the centre of the story world.
We will admire people for this, the same way that we admire some folks for their storytelling and other folks for their design. We will start to see all of that. When someone creates the first wonderful platform story “thing” … be it the equivalent of a Star Wars or The Bible or Grimm Brother’s Fairy Tales or Pokemon … my guess is that we won't say: “oh, that was written by William Shakespeare III”. We will see it as a collaborative work, created with a group of people. Then, over time, we will recognise the signature touches of those different collaborators.
On funding transmedia projects …
One of the barriers to funding transmedia projects, in the market driven entertainment economy, is that traditional funders are very hesitant. They don't want to repeat what happened with Star Wars … George Lucas built an empire on merchandise rights, he was allowed to keep, because funders thought there was no value in them.
Traditional funders look at how new creators are gathering and aggregating an audience and are trying to decide if they should be the ones to monetise that. But ultimately, they don't want to fund anything outside of their current model. They're hesitant because the film industry is really about people keeping their jobs. They are worried about making a bad choice as they explore a new medium so the answer is frequently “don't explore the new medium”.
Advice going forward …
As with any new venture, we have to recognise that we're going to go down some wrong paths. In an analogue world, we're only rewarded for producing success. In a digital world, we can be rewarded for producing things that will evolve and be built upon later by others. We have to recognise that there is benefit in being productive. In the tech world, people are proud of the fact that they have launched many things, some of them failures. They have a way of working that rewards rapid prototyping: getting things out; learning from it; moving on to the next thing. This is a time for building on our knowledge and wisdom. It is not a time for just maximising revenues. We can't be afraid to fail.
As well as his Keynote presentation, Ted Hope also gave a one day workshop prior to the start of the Big Screen Symposium. Local filmmaker, Amit Tripuraneni, attended and provided some amazing live twitter coverage which is storified below.
Amit’s key takeaways were:
- we’re all in the same boat
- we need to build communities, we need to grow together
- transmedia is an integral part of this. We’re not just storytellers, we’re story architects so we have to start broadening our horizons.