Disruption

Anyone else confused by the article on disruption in the recent New Yorker? It seemed to claim that disruption is a fallacy, all the while showing how disruptive technologies revolutionized different industries. I think the point it was trying to make was that disruption could come from established companies rather than newcomers, but even then it kept citing established companies that failed by trying to become disruptors. My feeling is disruption can come from anywhere, and it’s your choice to embrace the disruption, innovate on it, or resist it. 

The TV show I run does a lot of coverage on disruptive technology. Over the past five seasons, we’ve documented the disruption of our own industry, as it shifts from the traditional over-the-air or cable delivery mechanisms to the now popular formats of video on demand and streaming. We’ve been at TechCrunch Disrupt and we’ve visited the headquarters of Netflix. We’re intrigued by the technologies and the companies driving the disruption in our own industry.

We don’t just preach disruption; we also put it into practice. Although we’re still broadcast on many over-the-air channels, as well as national cable networks, we’ve made a point to embrace the changes in our industry. We’ve been streamed on Hulu for years and recently became the first television series streamed on Twitch. As a brand and as a series, we aren’t going to fade away like many in our industry seem determined to do, unless they accept change.

What’s beautiful about television, or at least the thing that used to be called “television,” is that we’re collectively excited about change. We saw what happened to our friends in the music industry and decided we don’t want to be left behind, so we went ahead and jumped on board whatever kind of change was offered to us. Many of the big networks are invested in web casters like Hulu and Crackle, while individual production companies have struck output deals with various streaming companies. Audiences love watching shows on demand, when they want to watch them, and not when programmers chose to air them. As an audience member, I have to concur that it is a far better way to watch dramas and comedies… but the catch is that that’s not the only thing I like to watch.

I still love the feeling of experiencing something live, and some television and radio can still offer that feeling of “as it happens” broadcasting. The smart traditional broadcaster knows that this is their salvation. Rogers Media here in Canada was savvy to realize that live hockey telecasts would keep City television alive, so their billion dollar investment in NHL telecasting was a good call. Hockey games are an “as it happens” kind of broadcast, as is live news, which is still very popular. There’s a connectedness inherent to that live feed. Someone is on the other end, producing this right now, at this very moment. 

On demand access is great, but it doesn’t satiate every need. Let’s shift to music for a moment. As a Canadian, I don’t have access to Spotify, but I can use Songza. I listen to it sometimes, just as I listen to my own music collection on iTunes, or put on a vinyl record. But sometimes, I like to be surprised. Sometimes, I want to hear what someone else is selecting. Note, I didn’t say “Someone else has selected” because I want to hear what someone else is playing right now. So I put on a stream for KEXP in Seattle or a brilliantly crazy free-form Paris station like FIP or Radio Nova, or maybe the BBC. Sure, these are traditional over-the-air broadcasters, but they aren’t my own home over-the-air broadcasters. They are being created on the fly by someone hundreds or thousands of miles away, and I can connect to them and share what they are selecting Live at This. Exact. Moment. And it’s glorious. 

There are two needs inherent to experiencing music: listening to what you know and discovery. These same two needs are also part of television, and if anything, they are amplified by the whole notion of interactivity: chatting with the people who are broadcasting. Giving them feedback, talking to them, guiding them; participating in a way that was never dreamt of in the live broadcasting days of yore, during the early days of television.

As a storyteller, I love video on demand. I love the idea of someone deep diving into a story, experiencing it as a whole, when they feel like experiencing it. As a broadcaster, I love the idea of live streamcasting, and interacting with my audience, shaping my show to their tastes and needs. Both of these opportunities are available through disruptive technologies, but the latter concept is still available through traditional broadcasting. If that technology hopes to survive, it will embrace the opportunities before it. It will offer interactivity and audience participation, or else it will be disrupted for good.

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The Value Of Storytelling

I was sad to hear about the impending closure of the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters. The 26-year-old institution is shutting down due to lack of funding and support. While it’s a small program at Simon Fraser University, it has had a huge impact on Canadian filmmaking and storytelling. Over thirty films have been produced from screenplays developed at Praxis, and certainly well over a hundred other successful writers have had career boosts from going through development and mentorship at Praxis. 

Praxis changed my life in profound ways. I went through development on two screenplays there, working with amazing story editors like Michael Miner (the screenwriter of Robocop), Peter Behrens (the Governor General Award winning author of Law of Dreams) and Guy Bennett (director of the film Punch), and through the development process, I forged a successful writing partnership with bestselling novelist Todd Babiak.  I also went through Praxis’ story editor internship program, a wonderful experience in itself, but made better by being placed to intern at Screen Siren Pictures. That placement lead to story consulting work on several amazing projects and the co-creation of a television series, as well as many long-lasting friendships.

Most importantly, Praxis was where I met my wife. When I said “profound ways,” I wasn’t kidding.

Seeing Praxis flounder, amidst the current climate of shuttered cinemas, theatres and gathering places, gives me concern about how little we currently value storytelling in our society. We are destroying the institutions that help us tell stories. This is on top of the way we have corroded stories. It seems that the Internet has wreaked havoc on our attention spans, seeking out shorter form entertainment, or entertainment that lacks story entirely. Storytelling is getting the short shrift; it’s just not as valued as construction or Bitcoins or new televisions.

Storytelling is the thing that truly differentiates humans. We now know that plenty of our fellow animals make tools, create music, develop culture and communicate to each other in their own language – all traits we once believed were exclusively human – but as far as we know, we’re the only creature that tells each other stories.

We ask each other “So what’s your story?” Stories define us as individuals and as nations. They unite us through use in religious ceremonies, television shows, books and movies. We share the legendary stories of our great political leaders and our sports heroes. Branding is actually a form of storytelling, turning corporations into friendly neighborhood community members. Even our food and drink often offers a story about how it was made.

Stories tell us where we came from, who we are now, and where we may be going.

I admit my doom and gloom is exaggerated. I know plenty of people adore storytelling, but we simply don’t acknowledge its importance in our society. After water, food, and air, it is the thing that sustains us.

There is hope. My wife and I attended the Moth Story Slam in Brooklyn on our first wedding anniversary. For those who aren’t familiar with the Moth, it’s a live storytelling event in which participants have a limited time to tell a story from their own lives. The event is a tribute to people’s ability to turn personal anecdotes into entertaining and enlightening stories. The line up to get into the slam was down the street and around the corner, and it was standing room only once we got in. We celebrated our anniversary by hearing ten wonderful stories, including one shared by my best friend. The communal feeling of enjoying storytelling with hundreds of other people was unifying and we enjoyed our kinship and conversations with our fellow audience members. It was the perfect expression of our love and our love of stories.

On Collaboration

2013 hasn’t been a great summer for movies. At least not so far.

I finally have some time to make it to the cinema, so I go with my hopes up, and invariably leave disappointed. For the most part, the plots are too convoluted, the characters are too undeveloped, and super powered or not, no one on screen behaves in any manner that resembles reality.

While a handful of films certainly had some enjoyable moments (stand up, Iron Man 3), the best that can be said for most is the occasional inspired performance or a nicely choreographed fight scene. I guess I shouldn’t expect so much during the summer movie season, but we did get The Avengers just last year, and it was good enough to keep me inspired through the dreck.

A recent article on NPR cited the dearth of female characters on screen. While the article predates the wide releases of both The Bling Ring and the breakout hit The Heat, it does highlight the vapid sameness of the films released up to that point. It also praises Frances Ha, which happens to be the one film I truly, deeply enjoyed this summer.  Frances Ha is the kind of inspiring film that makes you remember why you love cinema.  And it is also a true collaboration between female and male creators, namely Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig.  The Heat and the acclaimed Before Midnight (also mentioned in the article) are similar collaborations, as were the hits Mama, The Call and Zero Dark Thirty from earlier this year.

These films appeal to everyone, not just women and not just men.  The balance both in front of and behind the camera creates movies that can reflect human nature to all audiences, regardless of gender. While I’m not advocating creating homogenized movies that don’t have any specific audience in mind, limiting your audience to one gender can be a liability. The Heat director Paul Feig and The Avengers director Joss Whedon have publicly stated their agendas to include amazing female characters in their films and TV shows, and to collaborate with female creators. Hopefully the success of their massive hits, and the smaller successes of films like The Call, Frances Ha and Before Midnight, will give us much better films in the summer of 2014.

The Death and Life of Cinema (As We Know It)

ImageOn December 28, 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière held the world’s first public film screening at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. The brothers charged admission to present ten short films including Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, simultaneously inspiring an industry and an art form by proving that audiences will happily pay to communally experience motion pictures.

I just so happened upon this spot on the 115th anniversary of that momentous event and discovered that Salon Indien du Grand Café no longer exists. It is now an outlet for Gap Kids. You can see for yourself.

My own city has lost an average of one cinema screen a month over the past year. The loss includes beloved rep theatres, neighborhood single screens, and shopping mall cineplexes, leaving us less than 34 screens, of which only 30 are active movie houses. No matter how you look at it, we’ve lost over one third of our public cinema screens in the span of twelve months. Given this kind of attrition, it doesn’t surprise me that the world’s first motion picture venue is long gone.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. People just aren’t going out to movies as much as they did in the good old days. There’s been a lot of finger pointing at the movies themselves, citing a profusion of uninspired remakes and sequels and sadly cynical storytelling, but it’s hard to say whether modern movies are really any better or worse than their predecessors. People aren’t complaining too much when these same films are available to watch via video on demand or Blu-ray. In fact, there are so many films available that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of choice.

Perhaps movies are suffering from the same kind of audience segregation that the music industry went through a while back. The era of mass appeal radio stations and record labels ended as soon as people realized they could empower their own musical journey and discover the kinds of music that appealed to them. In other words, the Internet killed both video and radio stars.  But it didn’t kill off live music. This has been a boon to audiences as it lead to a huge improvement in the quality of concerts and gigs:  since concert tours now earn more than recordings, musicians that want to remain gratefully fed learn the importance of developing a strong live connection with their fans.

Cinemas are also succeeding by rediscovering the power of the event. Film festivals have an amazing ability to sell out screenings for films that return mere weeks later to empty houses. Our few remaining rep cinemas are doing their best to emulate the festival experience by turning every screening into a special occasion, creating events for different audiences, such as gore-filled midnight screenings for horror buffs or double bills of classics for cinemaphiles. The First Weekend Club does this on a national level, transforming the premieres of small Canadian films into celebrations. Even the theatre chain Cineplex Entertainment is hopping onto the event bandwagon, with special one-off screenings of everything from art documentaries to art house horror films.

I know these tactics work, because they’re enough to get me to go out on weeknights, when I’m exhausted after working all day. They’re enough to get me to overlook having to wolf down a quick dinner, the hassle of driving across town in the pouring rain and the inconvenience of fighting for a hard-to-find parking place. Because once I’m tucked into that cinema, I’m part of the audience. I’m sharing a communal event. And I’m having a great time.

ImageLet’s return to France for a second. I recently visited the Roman Theatre in Arles. It is over 2000 years old and still plays host to live shows. Imagine that: watching a theatrical performance in the exact same venue as people did in Biblical times. Admittedly, there was a millennium in there when the space was buried under housing and religious buildings, but it doesn’t diminish from the realization that live theatre as an art form and a communal experience has been around for thousands of years. I don’t think I’ll be able to say the same thing about cinema. A series of one off screenings will not pay the costs of creating a film, even with all the recent technological advancements that have made filmmaking more affordable. Eventually, something will give and the current experience of cinema as we know it will end.

Okay, I’m not entirely pessimistic. I have some exciting thoughts on long-term future of cinema, which I will write about in the short-term future. I don’t think cinema will die, but it is going to change.

The Terroir of Creativity

TerroirWinemakers talk of three important elements that go into creating great wine: the talent and experience of the winemaker, the quality of the fruit, and the terroir of where the fruit is grown. The terroir considers the climate, the geography, and the soil that holds the roots of the plant. Is it on a hill or in a valley? Is it sunny or shady? Is it gravel or clay?

Terroir is something different from the impact of nature or nurture. The winemaker is responsible for nurturing the wine, and the plant itself accounts for the influence of nature. Terroir can be masked or blended out of the final product, but no matter what, it is still present in some capacity. The notion of terroir has become so prevalent in the wine world that other agricultural products have also adopted the exploration of terroir; it’s not uncommon to hear it in reference to coffee, tea, chocolate or heirloom fruits.

It’s these background elements – the terroir – that I find fascinating. I think we should also start considering the terroir of creativity.

Globalization has created many amazing opportunities, including entirely new forms of art. It’s changed the way creators collaborate and the way people discover new works. But it also feels like we’ve stopped reflecting on the place where a creative work took root and how that influenced its creation. This is particularly prevalent in film and television.

When we do have a discussion about location, it’s only when a story’s setting drives the plot, such as the Louisiana bayou of Beasts of the Southern Wild or the City of Light in Midnight In Paris. These days, it’s common to encounter a film like Hanna, with a Canadian writer, American producers, British director and Australian and Irish performers, not to mention production locations in Germany, Finland and Morocco. What I’m curious about is how much of its seed, planted in Canada, remains in the final product?

It used to be common to link artists via geographically connected movements. Great artistic movements have always blossomed in uniquely fertile ground. The Italian Renaissance sprouted in Florence thanks to technological changes and a ruling elite that valued art. The Dutch Golden Age was fertilized by seafaring wealth from Amsterdam and Bruges. Impressionism flowered in Paris as a reaction to the new technology of photography and the growing influence of academics on art, while the Nouvelle Vague later disrupted the cinema world when French intellectuals were able to get their hands on newly created lightweight motion picture cameras and sound recorders. The grunge scene from Seattle fermented in its own regional isolation and affected music, film, fashion and food.

If you scratch under the surface, you can still see how modern creative works can reflect the city of their origin. The Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, full of old world charm and state of the art technology, very much seems a product of Montreal, despite not being set there. I live in a city undergoing growing pains and neighborhood gentrification, which seems manifest through stories about urban isolation and a burgeoning horror film movement. My own television series is a collaboration between people living in four different cities, spread out across an entire continent, but I love seeing how we can all draw upon influences from our local communities and incorporate them into the show.

From now on, I challenge you to consider where a creative work was initiated and developed, and observe how that influenced it. I think it will make for a more engaging appreciation of the work. More importantly, I challenge you to take inspiration from your own community in your creative efforts.

What are some creative works you have seen or heard that show the influence of their terroir?

Blast From The Past

I just discovered that The Jim Henson Company posted some clips from a series I edited for them when I was but a lad.  It’s funny to see these scenes so many years later and realize how the long-forgotten dialogue actually wormed its way into hidden depths of my brain.

This makes sense because editing is such an intimate experience: you spend a lot of time meticulously working over the recorded sights and sounds, shaping their rhythms to match the intended plot, altering their meaning along the way. I recommended that all aspiring screenwriters try editing, or at least spend some time sitting in on an edit session, to appreciate that part of the storytelling process.

I hardly spent any time on set during production, but over the years, I became friends with many actors who appeared in the show. Now that I think about it, maybe our relationships actually began when I was editing the footage of them.