"Film and the Audience of Tomorrow"
Cannes Film Festival Opening Forum: "Cinema: The Audiences of Tomorrow"
May 16, 2007
[This is a rough crib of the actual talk.]
Citation: boyd, danah. 2007. "Film and the Audience of Tomorrow." Cannes Film Festival Opening Forum: "Cinema: The Audiences of Tomorrow", Cannes, France, May 16.
Film has gone digital. The digitization of film takes place at multiple levels, but most noticeably: production, distribution and consumption.
- Production: What cameras you use, how you do lighting, special effects, storage of content, editing of content, etc.
- Distribution: Advertising your film, DVD culture, download culture
- Consumption: remix, sharing, clipping culture
At each of these three levels, there are stages to how technology affects practice.
The first stage is TRANSLATION. Old practices are kept intact and imported into the new medium. Many of you are familiar with this - your cameras went digital but they still looked and acted like cameras... for the most part. When advertisers began using the internet, they just translated the marketing content to the web, making the web look and feel exactly like an advertising bulletin board.
The second stage is LOCALIZATION. Folks realize that there are much more effective and efficient ways of utilizing the technology to reach a desired end goal. Practices are modified to take advantage of the technology, usually to make things more efficient. At the same time, these practices feel quite similar to the translated ones. Tickets for films can be bought online and printed. People can sign up to be notified by email when a film is released. Interpolated rotoscoping (Waking Life) is an example of a visual effect style that existed prior to localization, but localization made it much more doable.
The third stage is CO-OPTION. This is the stage when the pidgin of film becomes a creole and new practices emerge that are completely incomprehensible to those who were fluent in the previous culture of film. You can see this in visual effects where things like animated watercolor were impossible without digitization, but more radical practices have to do with how viewers consume, share, and mess with film. Think REMIX. It is easy to be terrified of co-option because much of what emerges seems to go against the grain of what was normative before.
Keeping this framework in mind, i want to talk about the AUDIENCES OF TOMORROW, namely teenagers. To begin, i want to give you a sense of the lives of today's teenagers and how technology plays into their lives. Most of what i talk about when it comes to teen lives will be American-centric, although some of it is playing out elsewhere around the world.
Most adults believe that the role of teenagedom is to get an education; they emphasize school, homework, and learning. Yet, for most teenagers, school is the place where they hang out with friends, homework is a chore that they're required to do, and they are far more interested in learning about the social world around them then learning calculus. This is not new.
Teens try to spend as much time with their friends as possible. In school, this means passing notes, finding friends between classes, gathering with friends for lunch, and hanging out after school for as long as possible. Even structured activities like sports are often more about friends than the activity itself. Media plays a heavy role in teens' lives. Their primary gathering space is friends' houses where movies and video games are popular things to do with friends. In the US, the mall and movie theater still dominate as desirable places to go on weekends.
Of course, you're probably aware that teens are seeing fewer movies in theaters now than in the past. You may be interested to know that this has little to do with desire. Teens *want* to go to the movie theater but there are structural limitations to their access.
First, there's money. Seeing movies is increasingly expensive and fewer teens have the money to afford a night out to the movies. In the US, there are fewer opportunities for teens to work and middle/working class parents have less discretionary income now than they did 25 years ago, making allowances harder to come by. Second, there's a lack of discretionary time. Middle and upper class teens spend a lot of their waking hours over-scheduled, running from activity to activity with little downtime. Third, there's a mobility issue. In the US, having a car is equivalent to freedom... without it, it's hard to get to the movie theater and this is even more true now because the huge movieplexes tend to be on the outskirts of towns, rather than easily accessible by bike or walking. Fourth, there are structural limitations to teens ability to leave their homes. Curfew and trespassing laws were relatively rare 30 years ago, but are in almost every US town now. Yet, more importantly, parents are afraid of all of the terrible things that might happen to teens if they are allowed out of the house. These forces affect many things, movie theater attendance being one of them. Going to the movies for teens is primarily seen as a treat and something that they beg to do when a big movie is coming out; when i was growing up, going to the movies was the default activity for the weekend. Again, this isn't about a lack of desire, but the lack of access will increasingly affect the film industry.
The primary reason that teens use social technologies is to socialize with their friends. Sites like MySpace serve as "networked publics," where teens can gather with their peers, hang out, shoot the shit, and jockey for social status. Although adults emphasize "networking," most teens are simply communicating with the people that they know from school, church, and extracurrics. What they are doing on MySpace parallels what most of us did when we gathered in parks, malls, parking lots, cafes, and other public places.
MySpace profiles are a way for teens to represent who they are to their larger peer group. Their choice in what to put up there is a form of digital fashion. While we are accustomed to accessorizing our bodies when we go out in public, there are no bodies online. Teens have to write themselves into being and they use various techniques for expressing themselves. To understand a MySpace profile, think clothing meets bedroom wall. Having a "cool" layout can be just as important as wearing the right fashion label. Profiles are meant to show one's tastes, values, and identity.
Identity is not constructed in a void. Much of how teens view themselves is connected to the media around them. Furthermore, the structure of MySpace encourages them to express themselves in connection with said media. Upon creating a profile, they are asked to list their favorite books, movies, and music.
Photos play a critical role in decking out both the bedroom wall and the MySpace profile. Just as teens cut out photos of their favorite celebs from magazines to plaster their wall, they snag photos from around the web of celebs to highlight under the headings "heroes" or "who I want to meet." Yet, unlike the bedroom wall, MySpace also allows multimedia to be displayed.
Shortly after figuring out how, teens started adding all sorts of multimedia to their pages - songs, videos, animations, etc. MySpace allowed them to continue, provided that what they copied was not pornographic or code meant to cripple MySpace. In late 2005, MySpace blocked links to YouTube because they thought it was a site dedicated to video porn - most of what MySpace users were putting up from YouTube was indeed porn. After some negotiations, Tom Anderson announced that YouTube would no longer be blocked; he made this announcement on the front page of MySpace, creating a small spike that set in motion the rise of YouTube.
Teens have been watching video online for as long as it's been possible. I should emphasize here that they are primarily watching VIDEO not FILM. Most of what they watch would horrify any filmmaker. They love stupid videos of all sorts - dog tricks, car crashes, and anything featuring people who are destined to win the Darwin award for utter stupidity. Internet video has completely replaced the TV show "America's Funniest Home Videos." The next most popular genre of video that they consume online is music videos. With MTV focusing on content-filled programming, teens are turning to sites like Launch to get access to the latest music videos. These videos combine their love of music with an images of what's cool.
Some of what teens are grabbing is copyrighted TV or film content and my understanding is that this is happening more outside of the US than in the US. The most common scenario involves a teen who regularly watches a favorite show. Due to a school requirement or parental restrictions, the teen misses her/his favorite show and turns to the Internet to find it. Likewise, movies are downloaded when teens have no other way of getting access to it. In the US, teens are often unable to rent movies because they don't have credit cards and relying on parents is problematic at best. Outside of the US, they're restricted from getting a new TV show or movie by the distribution companies who want later international releases. Thus, they download. The more controls are put in place to restrict who from watching what when, the more people will circumnavigate these restrictions and find alternate paths to access.
Teens are also creating their own video. It shouldn't come as a shock that the two most popular genres of video creation are stupid videos and faux music videos. By and large, these videos are created to be shared with friends. It is assumed that these videos will not be viewed by millions, not because they can't, but because they wouldn't find it interesting. Much of what is created contains in-jokes and is presumed to only be funny if you know the characters in the video. Of course, this logic is problematic given how often they watch videos of others doing stupid things and making mock music videos.
Some of the video that they're creating is highly problematic. For example, there are numerous sites dedicated to hosting videos of fights. When two teens are to brawl, people will videotape the encounter as proof of the winner's success. Some of these videos are staged for the video camera but others are actual battles in ongoing gang wars. While this example is horrific, most of the video that they are creating is much more mundane. Teens are messing with camera settings, trying out filters, and learning editing software.
The faux music video is a great example of learning-in-motion. No teen thinks that they are competing with the "real" music video. They are creating these videos because it's a fun thing to do with friends and sharing it with school peers can give you street cred. All of the learning takes place as a side effect, but teens who do this type of activity are much more comfortable making video for school and doing other multimedia projects. Unfortunately, the RIAA is starting to sue these teens for using copyrighted music content in their videos, creating all sorts of ugly complications.
Faux music videos are the most mainstream of remix video activities. Music fandom is also the most mainstream of fandom. Fandom and remix go hand-in-hand. Amongst the most passionate teenage fans, there is an unbelievable amount of remix taking place. This fandom is not universal, but these passionate teens often rally their peers to consume the original content. Needless to say, fandom and remix pre-date the net.
Written fan fiction - where characters from a particular story are taken to tell a new story - has been around for ages. My hunch is that it actually predates written stories... i betcha there was a lot of remixing of oral stories in most cultures. Historically, remix was institutionalized as a good learning technique. Throughout the 20th century, a common assignment in a high school literature class involved imagining that you were in the story and telling part of it from your perspective. I remember loving writing about what I'd do if I was stuck in "The Lord of the Flies." It wasn't pretty.
For decades, people shared written fan fic and visual fan remix through zines. Not surprisingly, these practices gained a lot of momentum with the Internet because the Internet made the distribution process so much easier.
To the best that i can tell, video-based remix began in 1918 when Lev Kuleshov began splicing and assembling film fragments to tell new stories. He did this because there was no film available to make new films, but he set in motion a practice that goes beyond filmmakers today. What Kuleshov did was extremely difficult, but when VCRs became popular in the late 1970s, fan-driven video remix emerged. Using two VCRs, fans would spend hours mashing together clips from different TV shows or movies to tell a new story. Once again, technology has made all of this much accessible. While home video editing software like iMovie makes editing ten bazillion times easier, the Internet changed the rules for distribution.
I'm sure many of you are aware of the rise of remix. What you're seeing is a combination of desire, creativity, and easy-to-use technology. You're seeing fandom at its best. When people absolutely love content, they seek to engage with it at deeper and deeper levels, telling new stories, personalizing the content. When i interviewed the creator of Star Lords, i asked him how many times he had seen Star Wars and LOTR. His eyes grew wide and he told me he'd lost count. I asked how many hours the video took... he told me that i didn't want to know. He guessed that he'd spent well over 1000 hours pouring through and chopping up footage to make Star Lords. Think about that: 1000 hours of obsessively consuming his favorite content. Needless to say, he could quote the films forward and back and he'd made most of his friends watch the films over and over with him.
Many traditional artists are horrified by remix. It means that consumers are mucking with your content, re-ordering it, playing with it. This is one way of looking at remix. Another approach is to recognize that these fans are the beloved supporters of the artist. They want everyone to love the content as much as they do. They do not see themselves as a replacement of the artists' creation, but they worship the ground the artist walks on. Think of how many people are watching this festival around the world out of deep appreciation for the films you create.
Artists often complain that remixers are profiting off of artists' work. With a handful of exceptions, the only "profit" that remixers gain is street cred and kudos. An example of an exception is Robert Ryang's "The Shining, Redux." A few years ago, the Association of Independent Creative Editors ran a contest, challenging people to take a well-known film and recut a trailer telling a story of an entirely different genre. Ryang's winning submission was a sappy father/son story made by slicing up "The Shining," a well known horror film. Ryang was given numerous job offers following the viral spread of his video. Personally, i think that remix helps showcase talent and that they should be hired, not sued.
Most remix, video mashups, animated music videos, and machinema (film made by "shooting" a video in a virtual world) is made by the under-25 crowd and it's increasingly underground because of pressures by the content copyright owners. This creative outlet is the result of a new form of consumption, a very active form of consumption. People are consuming cultural artifacts like film and regurgitating identity expression. They are changing the rules of film consumption. But it is part of a larger cultural picture that has been on the rise for quite some time now. Again, the technology has made what was desirable to do easier.
MYSPACE AND COMMERCIALIZED FANDOM
Let's return to MySpace for a moment because fandom is also playing out there with very interesting commercial implications. Of their own accord, teens are taking images and video from their favorite films and TV shows to showcase on their MySpaces. This teen, for example, is providing free advertising for the Transformers Movie. He's using the content from a blockbuster film to define himself; in return, he's announcing the movie to all of his friends. Technically, what he's doing is illegal, but think about how many marketers would die to have people tattoo their brand into their physical or digital being.
All throughout MySpace, you'll find teens who have clips from their favorite movies. Not surprisingly, films like "The Big Lebowski" are favorites. These teens don't have the entire film there - they've just chopped out short clips that roll when their friends hit their MySpace pages. Again, identity through multimedia and free advertising.
Teens are also creating fan communities around their favorite movies. The Spiderman 3 production team did a dreadful job of making their MySpace page interactive, so the fans created a separate community to share their thoughts.
While most production teams treat MySpace like another place to do broadcast advertising, some are starting to engage fans through the site. Transformers The Movie doesn't come out for another two months, but they already have close to 300,000 Friends on MySpace. Why? Users are invited to sign up as either an Autobot or Decepticon as the was begins. This motivates each team to try to rally others to play along.
This, of course, is a paid-for advertisement that users are engaging with. While independent artists can leverage MySpace to reach out to their fans and try to acquire new ones, the blockbusters are able to engage fans at an entirely different level. For a tidy sum of money, they are able to work directly with MySpace to get funkified profiles, key placement on the site, and, for a few extra bucks, features developed in their name.
Consider, for example, what happened when X-Men 3 launched. At the time, the #1 requested feature was the ability to have more "friends" in one's Top Friends. You don't need to know what that means, except to know that teens were flooding the company with requests for this feature. When X-Men's profile launched, everyone was told that if they signed up to be "friends" with X-Men 3, they could get this desirable feature. X-Men 3 acquired over 2.5 MILLION "friends" on the site. Put another way, over 2.5 million users signed up to receive bulletin advertisements from a movie advert. When Transformers launched recently, they too funded a new feature begged for by users.
I'm not the biggest fan of hyper commercialization, but most teens don't mind. In fact, they figure that if advertising makes access free, they're AOK with advertising. Their only request is for companies to just make the advertising relevant. They don't like when companies operate as spammers, but they're so used to garish advertising all around them that they've come to expect it.
I wish that i could stand here and say that MySpace is working as well for independent filmmakers as it is for mega blockbusters, but so far that hasn't been true. MySpace provides a portal for filmmakers that primarily highlights indie film. Through this, independent filmmakers have been using the site to create a community of independent filmmakers but most haven't really leveraged their fans in an impressive way. This is sad, given the successes that independent musicians have had in creating symbiotic relations with their fans. Part of this has to do with audience. While teens are in love with indie rock, they are not that familiar with indie film. Most have little to no access to it since it doesn't play in the Megaplex in their town. Topically, there's often a disconnect because teens have little interest in documentaries or serious film. Art education has all but disappeared in the States as a result of the current standards curriculum, further limiting their exposure to different approaches to film. Given a complete lack of exposure to the artistic style of independent film, many teens have no mechanism for interpreting what is being shown. They are accustomed to two hours of heavy handed adrenaline or emotional rollercoasters. College students are a bit better because college is still serving as the primary training ground for independent film watchers in the US. But even there, film is on the decline because of the increased workload.
In talking with independent filmmakers in Los Angeles, i've been startled to learn that many are actively avoiding the digital world. Hollywood, on the other hand, is seeking to embrace the net and reshape it in their image. Most independent filmmakers fear the Internet, espousing concerns that if their material were to get online, they'd be unable to make a living. While there is certainly merit to this fear, avoidance is not a productive response. Through avoidance, you may be able to protect your film from being distributed beyond your control, but you are losing touch with your audience in the process. While indie theaters are thriving in college towns and big cities and the Independent Film Channel is chugging along on cable, the younger generation has no fluency with the kind of film you are making. They are not being socialized into an independent artistic culture; they are being socialized into mass market culture, packaged for an individualist society as "indie." Even online, where the playing field is more even, what they see is blockbuster, not artistic or independent.
Personally, i'd love to see independent artists innovate on top of the networked publics that we're seeing proliferate. There's no doubt that the current economic structure isn't sustainable, but what's on the horizon? What would it mean to rethink "trailer" in a digital era where you can leave teasers around the web as treasure hunt objects waiting to be found? How can you take advantage of what Henry Jenkins calls "convergence culture" to allow aspects of the story to take place across multiple media? For example, consider how the Matrix managed to leverage video games, film, and comic books to create a cult fandom. Most folks assume that all media should be used as advertising for the film, but what happens when you create stand-alone experiences that complement each other using different media? For those who are unfamiliar with this multi-media approaches to media consumption, i strongly recommend Henry's book.
Film is not disappearing, but the Internet is here to stay. It's easy to play ostrich and pretend like nothing is changing, but the fact is that the Internet is changing many things and, through your viewers, this will impact you. When i talk about how mediated publics differ from unmediated ones, i speak about four properties that are unique to mediated public life:
- Invisible audiences.
These change the way that people communicate with each other, but they also affect how they interact with cultural artifacts and you create cultural artifacts. Film can always be turned into video, regardless of what DRM you choose to use. Sure, DRM makes it harder, but when there's a will, there's always a way and you lose your viewers trust in the process if you choose to make their lives more difficult. As we saw a few weeks ago with the HD-DVD hack, once information is out there, there's no bringing it back. Once it's digital, it can be copied and reformatted to make searching difficult. It's much faster to copy than it is to clean up copies, for better and for worse. DRM will never protect film but it will alienate consumers. DRM does slow the flow of content, which can benefit big blockbusters but makes independent film even more obscure. For example, there's no point in crippling a trailer with flash DRM. Trailers are advertisements. Put it up on YouTube, Revver, MySpace, everywhere you can think of... provide the code for people to copy/paste your trailer into their blogs and MySpaces. If people like it and want to pass it on, encourage them! Copy/paste! The more people who hear about your film, the better.
I bring up DRM because as we think of the audiences of tomorrow, we need to think of ways to engage them, not alienate and control them. There's a lot of creativity in this room. Why put it into trying to maintain status quo rather than taking things to the next level?
By and large, we treat the Internet as another broadcast medium where you push content at people. In other words, we're still aiming to localize rather than to co-opt. A better way of conceiving it is as a public space where people want to pull content in to personalize it, identify with it, and share it. It is no secret that we're not yet sure how to monetize this practice, but efforts to stop it are like trying to build gigantic walls after planes were invented.
The audience of tomorrow is online. They're consuming video; they want to be consuming film. There's unbelievable room for innovation and creativity in this space. The technology is not stable and it never will be stable. Successful filmmakers will need to pay attention to the dynamics and optimize their strategies accordingly. We all know that agility in the presence of challenges results in good art.
So, in conclusion, here are four things to remember:
1) Youth are online to hang out with friends... they use media to jockey for status and socialize with their peers.
2) Youth do not and will not consume media whole in a passive way.. the more they are able, the deeper they were engage. This means remix, chopping it and sharing it.
3) Building walls to stop deep engagement scares off fans and never actually closes the loophole.
4) It is time for the film industry to innovate rather than trying to control. Many new opportunities lie ahead.