A Failure (or Opportunity) to Communicate

A still from Cool Hand Luke

Marc Ruxin

As chief innovation officer at Universal McCann, Marc Ruxin leads the agency’s global innovation practice across businesses and disciplines, working with traditional media companies on brand integrations, social media, and working with VCs and emerging media technology startups to create scalable digital marketing opportunities for clients. Ruxin writes about music and film at snooze button, and technology and media on HuffPo, among others.

“What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate…,” the warden in Cool Hand Luke said to the prisoner 45 years ago.

Hasn’t this always been the problem? Now, the role of the warden is mutating in the filmmaking world. In the past, the warden was the studio, which would express its confidence (or lack thereof) through marketing dollars. Today, however, independent film distribution has become increasingly entrepreneurial. The warden, in some respects, is now the filmmaker who reports directly to the consumer.

Back to Cool Hand Luke: had that film been produced today, it’s highly likely that the 50 eggs bit and the famous quote would have almost instantly made its way from the big screen to a PC, tablet or smartphone—a trip accelerated by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in a matter of seconds.

Assume for a moment that the era of the hitmaker-producer/studio in the arts is over. Long gone are the powers of a Louis B. Meyer or a Robert Evans, and for the most part much of the sway of a Harvey Weinstein. This is not unique to film; in music, long gone are the John Peels and Ahmet Erteguns. But Warhol’s fifteen minutes seems increasingly relevant.

Why, really, did this happen? Usually, when real art suffers, it is blamed on profit-driven corporate “tastelessness” or indifference to quality. But this time around much of the blame rests on the shoulders of the consumer. Audience attention now extends infinitely and across multiple devices in real time. And the definition of content has been wildly expanded in new directions. Movie theaters and television now compete fiercely with news feeds, texting, Zynga, Pandora, Groupon and LivingSocial, Instagram and other photo sharing apps, Hulu, Netflix and HBOGO on phones, pads and PCs.

What you as filmmakers are now witnessing is a quiet war for consumer attention. Proof: 200 million tweets a day, 32 minutes per visit and 750 billion minutes a month on Facebook, 40 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, 300 million global players of Zynga games, 200 million Daily Deal subscribers and XBOX Live and Netflix have as many subscribers as Comcast.

Great cinema is no less important today than it was in the past, but the time commitment necessary for actually going to the movies or even merely watching movies at home now faces massive competition. But this cloud does contain its own silver lining. Good art can still find an audience. Marketing can be free. Global distribution is both possible—and free.

This is not a story about how social media will save independent film, because in many ways social media and the Internet broadly have helped spur the attention shift away from it. That said, understanding how information flows across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic is essential.

Data drives trends, trends drive adoption and these loud digital signals help accelerate the good stuff across the web, which is increasingly connected to your television. Filmmakers are the new wardens and entrepreneurs of this space. Last week I saw a tweet that said, “Entrepreneurs are people who would rather work 80% harder for 20% of the wage just so they don’t have to work for someone else.”

Filmmakers of this generation can empower themselves by understanding the consumer behavior patterns illuminated by data flowing across the social graph, and then translate their insights into an actionable way to influence influencers. In simple English, this is the way it has always been with film: Word of mouth fills seats.

Today, however, you can actually see those words come right out of the mouths of your biggest fans by reading their tweets, the comments on their walls and their feeds. You can see how influential they are on Klout and you can market to them one fan at a time. In the end, this process is ominous but also possible, necessary and inevitable.

Looking back over the past fifteen years, the real standard bearers have combined both incredible creativity and brilliant marketing. BMW Films is probably still the best-branded web content series of all time, and it is now a dozen years old. The Blair Witch Project still might be the most creative piece of film web marketing in the history of the discipline. Both of these examples predate the social web, but just imagine if they could have leveraged peer marketing as well.

Film will always be one of the single most important contemporary art forms of our time. Great films can now be made for a fraction of what comparable films used to cost even just a decade ago. Actors and directors now have a chance to become their own brands in a way never before possible. The more this happens the more likely the creative people will be able to control the eventual destiny of their own work.

In the world of independent film, buzz matters, and for the first time it can and does exist outside the compact walls of festivals and trade magazines. Sure there is competition, but filmmakers are supposed to be among the most creative people on the planet. Marketing is rarely a science, especially when the tools are as ubiquitous and easy to use as those available throughout the social web.

As an independent film zealot who can now watch movies wherever and whenever I want to thanks Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, YouTube, Xbox, Roku, Apple, and ubiquitous broadband connections, my only hope is that a global and aggregated longtail audience can provide a way for filmmakers to make a decent living and continue to make art that matters.

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