By Jim Thacker
This October, eight of the thirty international production teams selected for the market presented their projects to a panel of decision-makers, financiers and executives, in front of a live audience at London’s National Film Theatre.
The work on show ranged from multi-million-dollar film franchises to kids’ TV series and teenage fiction; while the panellists included key players from companies such as the BBC, YouTube, VICE Media Group and Penguin Books.
So what did those partners want to ask the project creators? Over the course of an incisive one-day session, certain questions came up time and time again. Here are ten of the most frequent.
Your project’s emotional hook may not be the obvious one. Is the thrill of watching a supersonic parachute jump that of seeing a world record – or that the parachutist might die live on air?
1. Where’s the emotional core?
It seems obvious that the most compelling artistic experiences are the ones that get you in the gut. Yet as a cross-media project spreads out across multiple platforms, its impact can become diluted. Identify the emotional core of the experience, and replicate it across each medium.
This emotional core may not be the obvious subject of your work. As Michel Reilhac, Executive Director of ARTE France Cinėma points out, the thrill of watching Felix Baumgartner’s recent supersonic parachute jump was not simply that of seeing a world record being set.
“The dark side of me was activated by [watching the event online]. The guy had a high chance of dying live on camera. If he lived, it was not only he who succeeded in this incredible athletic feat: it was also me getting redemption from my dark side.”
2. It’s powerful – but is it unique?
It’s tempting to believe that because a subject arouses powerful emotions, people will be keen to share their experiences of it online – or rather, that they will be keen to share them on your website. This question is critical to documentary projects that rely on the web to gather personal testimonies that will be shaped into film or broadcast experiences.
As Daniel Glaser, Head of Special Projects at the Wellcome Trust puts it: “The real question is: why would I want to share my miserable story on your platform, rather than on YouTube or Facebook?”
Rather than creating your own online presence, it may be better to tap into social networks your potential contributors already know and trust. Ingrid Kopp, Director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute asks: “If this content is already all over the web, why create your own site?”
3. Is this transmedia – or marketing?
It’s tempting to believe that because your project has an online component, it must be trans/cross-media. But ask yourself: is the online content a compelling, artistically valid experience in its own right – or is it simply there to drive people to your movie or TV series? If so, be honest with your investors: it isn’t cross-media, it’s marketing.
Catalina Briceno, Director of Industry and Market Trends at the Canada Media Fund says: “[You have to think]: how can we go beyond a blooper website or a behind-the-scenes appearance?”
The Pixel Pitch award-winning Everyday Rebellion spans online documentaries, TV, film, an app and game, and live events. A project of this complexity requires a clear development timeline.
4. Are you spreading yourself too thinly?
The complexity of a transmedia project increases exponentially with each new platform it incorporates. Be realistic about what you can take on.
Thomas Benski, CEO, Pulse Films points out: “As producers, we often think we have to add [more platforms] to justify a project. We don’t.”
Remember: simply transposing content from one platform to another is not the solution. “People won’t pay movie prices for content they think is designed to sit on a smaller screen,” says John Woodward, MD of Arts Alliance.
5. How will you join all of the dots?
But if you do incorporate a new medium, think about how you make a clear connection with your existing products. Is the storyline of the web series continuous with that of the movie? Do they feature the same characters? Even more fundamentally, do they have the same title?
Consider whether the expected demographic of your work matches that of the new medium: the audience of your TV arts documentary may not be one that typically plays online games. And be wary of the way that tone can shift between platforms.
“It’s quite a jump from a thoughtful, meditative film to live events or a graphic novel,” says Ingrid Kopp. “[You need to think whether the experience] can ever feel cohesive.”
6. Are you trying to do too much at once?
Most creative teams don’t have the luxury of the manpower to develop content for every platform simultaneously. So focus on one at a time. Create a clear development chronology – and stick to it.
The situation to avoid, beActive CEO Nuno Bernardo believes, is that “in three years’ time, you’re winning more awards for your pitch, but never actually move ahead [on the project].”
Think about how strategic partnerships could help you focus on core tasks. Do you really need to develop that iOS app yourself? Is there a technology company who could provide the infrastructure for your website?
And don’t feel that you have to wait for each component of the project to reach its funding target before moving ahead: “If someone offers you [money to do one thing], grab it and own that space,” says Thomas Benski, CEO of Pulse Films.
7. How will you manage user-generated content?
Your online audience may be a valuable source of material for participatory storytelling projects, but it isn’t as large as it looks. Remember the 1:9:90 rule: for every 90 people who view your project online, only nine will post feedback – and only one will upload content of their own.
It pays to keep things simple and personal: a really great community manager will usually be more help in prompting people to share their stories than a slick graphic design. And remember that content doesn’t magically organise itself.
As Loc Dao of the National Film Board of Canada points out, if you don’t curate the user-generated material, what you end up with will not be a limitless artistic experience, but “a huge database”.
8. Have you taken advice on ethics?
Getting your audience to share personal material online isn’t the only challenge: as the instigator, you have a duty of care for any legal or emotional issues that result. This problem is particularly acute for documentary projects that focus on medical, political or human rights issues.
Broadcasters have to go through a formal compliance process, but even independently distributed projects should consider these issues. “You’re entering into a brave set of questions and [you have to fully] engage with them,” says Daniel Glaser.
9. How will this empower our brand?
If you’re aiming to get brand sponsorship for your project, focus on its core appeal, not the diversity of its components. “What’s the core idea here?” asks Wayne Fletcher, Innovation Partner at ad agency McCann Erickson. “A brand will not look for all of the applications. They will look for the core experience to get involved in.”
As Nick Cohen, head of MediaCom Beyond Advertising points out, big multinational brands look for a wide global reach. ″Don’t make [your idea] too small, or too complicated,″ he says.
10. What’s your exit strategy?
Finally, remember that the online components of a project can remain active long after the TV series has screened, or the game has gone off sale. Fans won’t thank you for closing a thriving community simply because the funding has run out, or you’ve moved on to other projects – but equally, your partners won’t be happy to see their brand associated with a derelict or poorly maintained site.
In your discussions, make it clear how long you envisage the site remaining live, and how the exit phase will be managed. As Loc Dao observes, for a development partner, ″a forever project documenting [one of the major themes] of humanity is a bit ambitious″.
Edited by Tishna Molla