The only way to embrace new media is to drop the outdated definition of what a filmmaker is and does.
text by Ádám Dobay
There’s this guy on Vine called Arthur. Arthur lives in London, drives a truck, and has an awfully cute baby. His six-second videos are sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek portrayals of his self-stereotyped persona as the Angry White British Working Class Dad.
But I’m already overanalyzing. Arthur is not a filmmaker – not in any traditional sense, anyway. He has no formal training in writing, directing, cinematography, comedy or acting. He has no defined agenda, no overarching artistic plan for his video series. He is not a piece of branded content created by an outsourced agency hired by a corporate office, just a funny guy with a camera on his phone, which he uses to point at things, then edit in-phone for comedic effect.
But is he really not a filmmaker? Having been on the receiving end of people’s well-rehearsed introductions in various meet & greet parties for young people in the film industry, I’ve noticed the trend how as much as half of the time people start with one of these self-definition: I’m a writer-director. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a storyteller. These words become repetitive even if you just talk to people within that sort of event space, but as soon as you step out into the landscape of new media production, where over 300 hours of videos are uploaded to Youtube every minute (2014 data, has probably gone up), the question of who is a filmmaker and who is not should more accurately go something like “At this point, aren’t we all?”.
It is easy to dismiss new media content if we decide to draw the line at the walls of established industry and its distribution channels, but seeing the sheer size of audiences many new media content creators command, there remains very few arguments for brushing them off. With one million followers on Vine, Arthur’s videos have been looped 370 million times. Compare that with the fact that his total work is 260 videos, which at six seconds each comes up to 26 minutes – coming up to about one sitcom episode.
Which brings us to the next point of applying definitions. We could certainly call Arthur’s escapades a sitcom – it ticks all the boxes of the genre as far as setting, character portrayal, or tone is concerned. We could similarly call Zoella (10.4 million Youtube subscribers, individual videos between 1 and 17.5 million views each) chronicling her day out to the shopping mall in a 20-minute video akin to reality television. But is there any point in trying to fit new media phenomena with terminology that applies more to an industry of twenty to thirty years ago? Where do we put Night Vale, a narrative disguised as a radio show disguised as a podcast, with hundreds of thousands of listeners per episode mostly gathered through Tumblr?
Often, the first question after the production of any sort of visual work is “now where to promote it?” One, if the first time this question comes up is after the production has completed, it shows a potential red flag about whether the intended audience has been properly thought of doing development. Two, there is no general rule as whatever I say here now will be out of date in six to twelve months, if not sooner!
The rate at which new media platforms and content delivery mechanisms appear, grow and fade is inconceivable. This makes notions about how to approach media campaigns perpetually outdated. In TorinoFilmLab’s 2012 trans-media/cross-media/cross-platform workshop (pick whichever name you prefer) we were discussing Facebook and Twitter as viable ways to build audiences. It’s just four years later and I no longer recommend these platforms to anyone. Facebook has cut its reach for brands and businesses five times (and their pay-to-be-seen model is ridiculously expensive) and Twitter has become a convoluted mess with its indecipherable information streams and its top brass seemingly with little sense as to where to steer their ship.
Another effect of the abundance of media platforms is that there’s infinitely more competition in an vastly more fragmented media landscape. A couple decades ago the scare used to be that people would dump the movies for the shiny new thing called the television. In the 2000s, the original content of smaller cable channels started growing on mainstream TV networks. Now people are ditching their sets altogether for dedicated on-demand streaming providers or just plainly switching to Youtube for free viewing. And on the content creator side, it’s become everyone’s game, with video sharing site Vimeo, online retail giant Amazon and even gaming platform Steam launching its own original series. It’s all in flux and there’s ample opportunity for experimentation.
This continually accelerating fragmentation is actually a good thing as new platforms come with their very specific audiences. Spend enough time on Tumblr, Pinterest or Snapchat and you’ll be able to inherently differentiate the kinds of people that populate them and which subset of users can be reached with cleverly positioned free content that eventually leads people to discover your work. Extended audience design, optimizing content for specific audiences way before production even begins, is becoming the norm.
At the same time, when developing for the new media landscape, the frequent caveat that you need to stay low-budget comes parallel with the price of filmmaking technology and audience expectations of technological quality dropping. In a world where shaky vertical mobile phone footage is perfectly acceptable, an entry-level DSLR can take you a long way. Not being able to self-fund that feature film-level kit and staff does not immediately equal not being able to tell your story.
Coming from a traditional screenwriting background, the most useful method I’ve found to embrace the new formats of the digital age is to learn to unlearn. From traditional methods of thinking only in big-scale traditional productions, spending an inordinate time developing formats and scripts and then getting into the grant- and fund seeking game, the focus within new media has been shifting to bootstrapping; audience research; finding the right people and building for the platforms they frequent; low-budget testing and iterating. All of this requires a big step out of the film industry’s comfort zones, and letting go of the perfectionism involved in getting it perfect before getting it out there. The scare of the sprawling and ever-changing new media landscape thus becomes a liberation of opportunity, experimentation and innovation.
You can find this article in the latest World of Young Cinema Magazine – the Cannes 2016 issue, read it online here: