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BURSTING THE HOLLYWOOD BUBBLE

by Victoria Larimore

Offering big name-studded speakers, including the legendary Norman Lear, media mogul Russell Simmons, the irrepressible Jay Leno, actor/producer dynamo Eva Longoria and “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, NATPE 2015 Miami kicked off with a huge celebrity bang.

The conference theme of “content without borders” took on new meaning, as those “borders” now refer not only to national but technological ones as well. The Internet really has revolutionized the way we consume content, whether that be music or books or yes, even TV. And now it is revolutionizing the way we make and distribute it.

It’s all about coming to terms with the new dynamics. Or as NATPE President Rod Perth recounted, “Hollywood really lived in a bubble. It used to be that execs would say to me, ‘Rod, why should I travel to another city just to meet people that I can have lunch with around the corner?” Well, it just ain’t so anymore. At this year’s NATPE, 67 countries were officially represented as buyers, exhibitors, attendees and press; it really is a Global Village.

The traditional gatekeepers in the former power epicenters of LA and NYC are now put on notice – the marketplace has also decreed that it become more of a dialogue. Or as Perth quipped, “People are starting to realize that it’s not just about securing a deal anymore, it’s about having a conversation.” Perhaps Bonnie Pan of Maker Studios put it most clearly: “The future is that curation is in the audience’s hands.”

Her observation was echoed across panelsfrom Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos to “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan to Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development.

According to Ted, “42% of Americans have a subscription service like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu Plus. Netflix plans to launch 20 original scripted shows a year. We’re set up to make shows that people love around the world. The distribution of TV has never been better.”

Vince Gilligan underscored the power of the audience’s voice to be heard and Netflix’s part in helping his show keep and then expand its core audience: “I wouldn’t be sitting here today without Netflix and the streaming that allowed people to catch up on “Breaking Bad” by binge viewing.” When the show’s numbers dipped in the second season on AMC, it was touch-and-go. But the new “watch when you want” model kicked in, proving the show’s staying power.

Group M Entertainment’s Peter Tortorici reminded the audience that “We’re all watching on demand – this is not just about young people, it’s about changing technology. People want to watch what they want when they want it.”

Gilligan went on to add, “But storytelling is always going to be storytelling….write characters that are rich, conflicted. It’s a great time to be original.”

Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) concurredNetflix greenlights projects on a pass/fail basis – it’s my chance to say “here’s my vision” and they either like it or not.” In other words, there’s a lot more creative autonomy going on because there are more outlets to serve an increasingly diverse, global audience.

Indigenous Media’s Jon Avnet stated: “We’re filmmakers first.” They’re bringing their indy mentality into the digital space by Web series such as “Blue,” starring Julia Stiles. There is no traditional time-lag anymore. “We get immediate feedback from our audience.” Partner Jake Avnet concurs. “It’s a two-way street with audiences.”

All well and good. But content-creators – whether writers, directors, actors or producers – like to eat, so how does their work get monetized? Tortorici admitted that this feat is sometimes easier said than done. “We are committed to cracking the code of making it work economically.”

Sarah Harden reminded us that “YouTube gives more tangible metrics than conventional TV – it provides the actual number of views.” Ezra Cooperstein of Fullscreen countered, “Now, it’s about revenue per user rather than just the number of viewers. It is about making more money from those viewers.”

So, sponsors, anyone?

All true, but Tortorici admonished, “The quality of the experience is the most important thing to a sponsor. Brands are looking to stay engaged with their audience.”

However the audience watches, streaming or live or recorded, “First and foremost, the show is gotta be worth people’s time. Just make the best show you can,” said Gilligan. Who would argue with that (or him)? Whether content-creator, exec or viewer, everyone agrees: make sure that whatever you’re developing is authentic, not cynically just throwing money at influencers to attract a surge in numbers for a flash in time.

Truth is, “We’re living in a “yes and” world, where there is a place for both regular TV and digital,” the Netflix CEO admitted. There is innovation everywhere you look: Case in point, Chad Faltz of Cross MediaWorks led a session called Airtime Alternatives to Traditional Syndication that had attendees lined up for hours afterward, awaiting private consultations in the NATPE “Hub Room” next door.

Michael Wayne of Kin Community also spoke about the work he was spearheading at a session he gave called Women Content Creators. Now, everyone in traditional TV knows that women are often the targeted consumer of TV programming, its main demographic. Women control half the wealth in the United States and influence 64% of all purchases. Yet only 26% of creative jobs in TV are held by women. So, Kin Community is all about recognizing these changing dynamics, working in tandem with content-creators and “capturing” viewers. As Michael reminded listeners, “YouTube is a social network of more than 1 billion people. And some are making money.”

Jon Avnet, a veteran filmmaker, likens the current digital landscape to that of cable TV in 1985 – no one knew where it was headed. Yes, it is an exciting time to be making content!

As Maria Kyriacou of ITV Studios aptly put it: “At the end of the day, it’s just screens and it’s just great content! There’s a lot of shift going on – it’s all about being flexible.”

It’s the death toll of the entertainment business model as usual, and whether the power brokers like it or not, a relationship with the audience is now part of the creative – and economic – process. The Hollywood bubble has burst, and only the flexible will survive.

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Victoria Larimore is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and content-creator whose work has appeared in theatres, and on network and cable TV in the US and more than 20 countries. Her Web series KARMA premieres later this year.

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