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Don't Be a Dead Rhino - Two Reasons Screenwriters Need Transmedia - Part 1 by Houston Howard
At the Great American Pitchfest, I had the opportunity to represent Createsphere and the Transmedia Coalition and introduce a group of budding screenwriters to the friendly world of transmedia. After a season of being embedded in high-level transmedia strategy with my own creative team and speaking on best practice strategies with other transmedia professionals, it was a needed change of gears to speak about transmedia to industry creatives who had, for the most part, never heard of the discipline before. Or, even worse, had been lugging around damaging misconceptions that had unfairly soured their view of transmedia. This forced me to once again examine the fundamental value proposition of transmedia for filmmakers, particularly screenwriters trying to launch their careers.
So, here’s the crux of the wisdom I bestowed on them: “Don’t be a bunch of dead rhinos.”
I heard one time that after being shot in the head, a charging (now dead) rhino will run up to two miles before finally collapsing. As an aside (in the spirit of full disclosure) I honestly can’t remember where I heard that and I’ve spent all of five minutes googling “dead rhino running” trying to verify its truth without luck. Regardless, for the purposes of my analogy, this possibly made up / possibly entirely true assertion works quite swimmingly, which means I’m going to stick with the whole dead rhino bit for the time being.
THE INDUSTRY HAS CHANGED AND CONTINUES TO CHANGE
The rhino image immediately caused me to draw parallels to the entertainment industry. How long did the music industry establishment keep running after the entire paradigm of how people engaged with, consumed, purchased and demanded music changed? How long did it refuse to believe the entrenched way of top-down music consumerism was dead and how bitterly did it cling to the model that admittedly worked so well for so long? The music industry was, in essence, a dead rhino - forcing itself to proceed along the status quo and not realizing it was, in fact, dead. Eventually it collapsed in a heap because it stood defiant to the fact that people were beginning to purchase singles instead of full length albums, migrate to digital downloads instead of physical discs and take advantage of subscription-based streaming services rather than building their own personal libraries. There were a handful of pioneers and visionaries who were early adopters to the change, but had the industry as a whole embraced the transition early rather than fighting it, the transition would have been infinitely less painful.
In the same way, the film industry is transitioning and far too many studios, production houses, screenwriters and filmmakers are becoming dead rhinos by refusing to adapt to the change. This is an industry that continues to build business plans based on models that are pre-2008, pre-Lehman Brothers collapse. Buyers and audiences are radically different than they were five years ago. Products are valued differently. Big stars are no longer “guarantees” of securing film investments. Technology has democratized opportunity and forced the traditional top-down entertainment paradigm to shift to a “kid in a candy store” marketplace where audiences have no less than a zillion entertainment options at their fingertips.
Don’t just take my word for it. Even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are predicting the implosion of the film industry as we know it.
A transmedia approach to the film industry, however, helps navigate this ever-changing landscape. For example, the film industry largely remains a single product industry. The product may be available on different platforms, but it is still the same thing because the product is, in fact, the story itself. For such a large capital intensive enterprise to only sell a single product is, honestly, extremely risky and is quickly proving itself an ineffective business model. A transmedia approach to the industry can help launch the IP into many different products and enterprises, enhance audience and fan experiences and build robust communities. This, then, becomes a much better business model for filmmakers to leverage.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SCREENWRITER?
Ah, yes, the screenwriter - the creative folks who are focused more on character development and second act plot reversals than innovating business models.
Let me be the first to say that in this day and age, a screenwriter who tries to hide behind a computer, slap on some Beats by Dre, and believe their product (their script) can remain insulated from the industry transitions should go hang out with the guy who bitterly clung to his typewriter repair business because a writer worth his salt would always choose typewriters over computers. All products and businesses have to adapt to market shifts and consumers. The same is true with screenwriters. Sure, a script is art, but the business reality is that scripts are also the blueprint of a very real, very expensive product. Bottomline - screenwriters who don’t adapt their work to industry transitions will quickly become - say it with me - dead rhinos. They may continue to run for a while, but eventually they’ll drop.
Screenwriters can be generally lumped into two categories: the writers who write for studios (by way of spec or assignment) and writers who write for independent projects (either as a producer of the project themselves or for an independent producer). If you find yourself in one or both of these groups, here are two reasons why transmedia will help you ride the wave of change.
REASON 1: INDEPENDENT FILM MATH IS FUZZY.
And by “fuzzy” I mean “ridiculously nonsensical and devoid of any business sense.”
In a recent article, Steven Soderbergh, a guy who knows a thing or two about making indy movies, broke down the major problems he sees with Hollywood. One thing he points out is that the investment pool for the independent film industry is drying up because the numbers (especially in a recessive economy) simply don’t make sense. What’s throwing off the equation? Insane marketing costs.
Here’s the basic breakdown:
Let’s say you have secured a production budget to shoot a solid, indy film. No matter if the budget is $100,000 or $10 million, the most basic way to enter into the mainstream, wide-release market is by spending at least $30 million in traditional domestic marketing. Then, you’ll need at least another $30 million for international marketing. So, let’s do the math using a $5 million production budget.
$5 million (production) + $30 million (domestic marketing) + $30 million (international marketing) = $125 million break even point.
Remember that the exhibitors pay half of the gross and the distributors only make back their money at a 50% rate, which means the film will have to make $120 million just to cover the marketing expenses and another $5 million to make the production budget back. So, before the film is even out, you’re staring at a $125 million break even point for a $5 million investment. Non “passion project” investors look at that breakdown, consider just how many $5 million investments yield a 250,000% ROI and promptly run for the hills.
The reality is that if there are no investors, then the wonderful screenplay you wrote simply becomes something your mom shows her friends when they visit her house for Sunday brunch.
Am I saying that independent film is dead? Of course not. We, as professionals, simply need to diagnose the problem and fix it. The problem, in this instance, squarely lies in the marketing, publicity and advertising of the film. Soderbergh agrees, however, he doesn’t think anyone has figured out a more effective way. Obviously, Steve should buy my upcoming book Make Your Story Really Stinkin’ Big (on shelves in October via MWP), because transmedia is the perfect way.
Traditional film marketing tactics have been increasingly ineffective. In an age of saturated advertising, where we’re barraged by advertisements on our televisions, phones, computers, radios, and even while we drive (billboards, bus ads, etc.), people are quickly becoming desensitized to any and all marketing and advertising. However, instead of saying, “You know, maybe we should change our marketing tactics?”, studios and distributors default to the carpet bombing, over-saturation strategy.
“We’re not getting as much conversion from our bus ads? I know what to do - triple the bus ads!” Thus the huge increase in P&A budgets.
At some point, creators, distributors and marketers have willingly accepted there should be an arbitrary dividing line between content and marketing. However, with a transmedia approach to storytelling, screenwriters can intrinsically optimize their story’s marketing potential and set the stage for narrative techniques to be used in the marketing extensions. This then increases the discovery and promotional potential of each film.
AMC Independent, in fact, will consider exhibiting your film directly and for very low cost as long as you can show a commitment and a plan to raise visibility around your film. What a great opportunity to show off a cohesive and comprehensive transmedia plan that will help the film find audiences earlier, lead them to the storyworld in engaging, narrative-driven ways, bridge the audience to subsequent experiences and transform the audience into a community of narrative evangelists! Further, by expanding the definition of both film and marketing and using a very strategic, coordinated narrative approach (**cough** transmedia **cough**) in the design of your project, you can not only begin to re-engineer P&A costs and position yourself with better leverage against subsequent distribution deals, but also begin to redefine the cost equation of independent film.
However, this simply won’t be possible if screenwriters don’t get on board. Because story is so fundamental to a great film, if the story isn’t designed and crafted in a way that is primed for transmedia expansion, it will crumble under its own weight when extended into multiple mediums. It doesn’t matter how nice of a NASCAR body you build around a Pinto engine or how great of a driver you are, you simply aren’t going to win a race any time soon. The engine itself has to be designed in a very specific way in order to achieve the desired result.
So, bottom line for the screenwriter on the independent scene: If you learn how to craft your story in a way that’s optimized for transmedia expansion, you will not only make sure that your product (the script) is primed to ride the wave of industry change, but you will actually be doing your part to help innovate the independent film industry as a whole.
And that, in my opinion, is a great way for independent screenwriters to position themselves for professional and creative success, and that is so much better than being a dead rhino.
Part 2 of this article will deal with the second reason screenwriters benefit from transmedia with a focus on screenwriters within the studio system.