Filmmakers are thirsty. Media making is one of the most expensive artistic passions to pursue. It lacks the theatrical tradition of people pitching in for the profession. I just directed a staged reading and met a colleague who was a television writer. The person, like many from the biz, was astounded that well known actors would work for free.
Independent filmmakers have tried many ways to feed the insatiable need for capital. Today, grants no longer exist in a meaningful way for narrative films. The novelty of crowdsourcing obscures the fact that capital is tight. The central issue is that films are always and inherently risky. The only way forward is to engage that risk intelligently. Old school producers understood this and created a system that allowed them to absorb risk without betting the family farm. There was a temporary respite from needing to find a replacement for that system in the 80s when there was a surplus of investment capital available and filmmakers could dial for dollars.
Now what? Transmedia.
The two essential stops along the road to transmedia were the Internet and product placement.
The Internet beckoned filmmakers with the possibility of reaching viable audiences at a substantially reduced cost. Finally (!), a way to distribute our film to underserved audiences. African American filmmakers thought that would bring artists like Cheryl Dunye and Charles Lane to the forefront. Turned out that underserved African American audiences prefer to be served by Bishop T.D. Jakes and Tyler Perry.
When independents first became aware of product placement, it must have seemed like manna. Finally (!), a way to finance our films. Problem? Sundance style, thought provoking, offbeat films don’t lend themselves easily to product placement. Movies like Transformers 3 do. And not just because these films deliver enormous audiences. Part of the pleasure of films like Ramona and Beezus, Fast and Furious 5 is the pleasure of being swept into a marketing juggernaut. Even while we mock Disney for its, ahem, synergistic use of Selena Gomez or we deride the Dodge Charger ads in 5, there is great pleasure there as well. The joke works even though it’s on us. But what is the nature of that pleasure?
The pleasure of transmedia seem to me more and more like a mirage. Fully integrated stories expanded across multiple platforms! The film! Multiple related web series! Complex universes! Collective storytelling!
There is something more troubling underneath all this: the degree to which we increasingly define ourselves consumers or brands. I find it disturbing that some people aggressively, almost gleefully assert that eventually all filmmakers will have to accept product placement and seamless brand integration. It scares me because they can’t conceive that alternatives might exist or emerge. It bothers me that they ignore or downplay the potential ethical issues and conflicts of interest.
The pleasures of marketing and commercials are in some but not all ways opposed to those of storytelling. Stories are immersive experiences. Advertising and marketing bits define the ADD momentum. Stories at their best are cathartic, fully engaging the mind, soul and spirit. Marketing has a single goal: to make us buy stuff, often stuff that we don’t need.
And there is this one stubborn, ignoble fact: Those who were once filmmakers in the transmedia space take on the mantle of content producers.