Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why you're going to fail at Internet video

The above is Gary Vaynerchuk's keynote speech from the New Media Expo, wherein he lays out how his Wine Library TV online video show became perhaps the most successful and well known Web show going.

Here's Gary's recipe for success:
  • Production values don't matter, just the content.
  • Do a show about your biggest passion, and nothing else.
  • Promote your show 6-10 hours per day, 6 days per week, for at least 18 months and you MIGHT get popular.
  • Promote your show on every platform, every service, every network.
  • Hypersyndicate - Don't upload to one video site, upload to every site.
  • Answer EVERY e-mail.
  • Expose every avenue of contact. Publish your IM handles, your Twitter name, and your Skype number, etc..
  • Court every single fan, personally, for as long as you can.
  • Build your brand, not someone else's.
Having helped build a (very minor) Web franchise from the ground up, I agree with every single one of these tenets. And it just shows how few people will succeed in Web video (or Web content in general). Vaynerchuck basically worked a 50 hour uncompensated workweek for a year and half to get to decent traffic, and another two and a half years at the same pace to get where he is now. He could get away with that because he was using video as a loss leader for his multimillion-dollar liquor sales business, from which he could draw income. Vaynerchuk had a unique monetization model, which the only way you can remotely make the argument that he got a return on his time investment.

Now, there are ways to hedge out some of what Vaynerchuk did with some rather pricey outsourcing services, but that still does not fundamentally change the math that Web video will almost never be a serious fiscal endeavor for anyone. The return on your time is hideously low. It's is the ultimate low margin business and--what's worse--it pays out slow. The question for most of us is earn a little money fast or a lot of money slowly. Video is the worst of both, offering very little money over a very long time. Standard ad models just make it not worthwhile.

And all that is assuming you've got your hands on a passionate subject matter expert who can convey attractive Web video content covering a subject that people care about in sufficient numbers that you can profitably monetize it. Trust me, those people don't grow on trees, and those subject areas are already being hotly contested in text, and video is coming up on it fast. I'm still writing Geek Trivia after leaving CNet because they despaired of finding someone who could write what I write the way I write it. It's not high art, but my fans like it and there's sponsorship behind it, so they made an exception and pay me to keep doing it. And believe me, back when I was on the CNet payroll, I looked for people who could blog the way I do (so I could take a break after almost seven years writing the column) and couldn't find them. Talent is scarce, and it doesn't scale. Blogging already has this problem, and video is going to have it worse.

But Web video is getting bigger every year, right? Experts are projecting 25 percent year over year growth in online video advertising over the next five years. Video consumption online may increase by 5 percent a month, according to some numbers I've seen, for the same period. What's going to give?

The ad numbers, probably. By this point, everyone was supposed to be dumping billions into social network advertising, and it just never materialized to the degree everyone expected at the height of the 2006 MySpace/Facebook boom. (Insider hint: Media companies are really good at publicizing all the predictions that benefit them, and few to none of those that don't. Never believe the self-referencing "people are going to give us money" hype.) Online video will likely have the same scaled-down reality come this time next year.

So where does that leave the content producers? Mostly, you better love what you do, because the odds of you getting paid anything approaching a fair wage for your work are pretty astronomical. It's becoming more obvious on the blogging front that your blog better be a labor of love, because even professional bloggers don't make much money at actual blogging and the odds of you outplaying a pro are pretty unlikely. Video will follow the same track.

More to the point, once the big boys from old media figure out exactly how the monetization model is going to work, they'll flood the available market with known brands and suck up the few available dollars for themselves. We all fondly revere the guy at the indie magazine who refuses to join the corporate machine, but he gets paid like a guy who refuses to join the corporate machine. Indie blogs and indie video shows will always exist, but the democritization of opportunity--the big guys no longer own the means of distribution, unlike the printing press and broadcast tower days--mean the artificially high margins that media used to enjoy are over, and the value associated with producing these media have declined.

Put simply, there ain't much money in online content. Plan your career accordingly.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

How I'd pitch the Dark Knight sequel

Batman Begins was about fear. The Dark Knight was about corruption. The third Chris Nolan Batfilm should be about truth. I'll lay out me reasons in a moment but first know that this whole pitch is filled with DK spoilers. You've been warned.

Let me preface by saying I greatly admire the moral complexity and gritty realism of Nolan's Batfilms, especially Dark Knight. I feel the most important tenet of DK was its concession that district attorney Harvey Dent was a more vital, inspirational, effective and -- above all -- pure hero than Batman could ever be. Vigilantes are by definition criminals, and asking a criminal to save us from crime is itself a form of corruption. Batman is a necessary evil.

The Dark Knight ends unsatisfactorily for many people because Batman sabotages his own symbolism in the end. He takes the fall for Two Face's crimes, to preserve the image of Harvey Dent. According to Batman, the symbol of Dent is more important than the truth of Dent. Thus, it is Batman who takes the fall as a savage, murderous vigilante who killed the corrupt cops that betrayed Dent. He's now an even more terrifying bogeyman for the criminals of the city, but also a less potent symbol for its innocent citizens. His guilt is also untrue, and protecting Gothamites from the truth is a patronizing, pandering form of salvation. They deserve better, and so does Batman. That's why Batfilm 3 should be about truth.

It's also why the signature villain of Batfilm 3 should be the Riddler.

Setting: Gotham, brighter than before, with a glitz and glamor creeping back, but it's a false sheen. The Batman is a murderer, and it has made the people distrusting of symbols, yet still in love with them. Case in point, the new celebrity gangster, Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot -- yes, I said The Penguin -- an eccentric, glamorous, dapper "Teflon Don"-style mafioso who has taken majority control of Gotham City's underworld and taunted Commissioner Gordon for being unable to stop him. A Harvard-educated trust fund baby, he bridges the worlds of every elite: criminal, businessman, entertainer and politician. He is glorified corruption lovingly re-embraced by Gotham. The opening of his new Iceberg nightclub is the social event of the season.

Batman, naturally, crashes the party. Batman's intent is to reinstill fear in The Penguin, to let him know that his money and his fame can't protect him. It backfires. Cobblepot is the legitimate businessman -- so far as anyone can prove -- and Batman is the outlaw. Gordon and his men are forced to protect the Penguin and pursue the Dark Knight.

Batman's very public reappearance -- and his impotence in the face of the Penguin -- is the news event of the year in Gotham...until the first riddle arrives at the every newspaper and TV station in town. It's from a blogger known only as The Riddler, and within the cute mindteaser is evidence of The Penguin's guilt. The Riddler, presumably a hacker, has pierced Cobblepot's vaunted security and business acumen and nailed him. Gordon gladly brings The Penguin down -- he puts up a token fight, including taking a potshot at Gordon with a ridiculous umbrella gun from a collection of KGB artifacts that is laughably ineffective -- and the city has a new hero. Welcome the Riddler.

(For what it's worth, RiddleMeThis.Net will be a TMZ-style Gotham gossip and inside info blog, complete with all the over-the-top campy question mark motifs and green-and-purple color scheme. It sidesteps the need for a stupid Riddler costume and lends itself to a great alternate reality game for promotional purposes. Also, I'd go out of my way NOT to reveal who had been cast to play the Riddler, hinting at several Hollywood heavyweights but doing my best to set up the big reveal onscreen. That's promotional gold.)

The mayor is the next to fall, undone by The Riddler's exposes. The town is desperate to know his real identity, as is Batman. As Batman attempts to hack into his blog, the Riddler hacks back -- and let's Bruce know he's aware of the double identity. Not to worry, The Riddler is a fan. He believes in truth, in exposing secrets, in solving riddles. Everyone has secrets and masks, and uses them to hide their real darkness, but Batman is different. Batman uses untruth for good. Bruce Wayne pretends to be less than he is -- an idiot, rather than a savior. Batman does too: a murderer, rather than a protector. Batman has nothing to fear from the Riddler, who wants to see justice done as well.

The Riddler himself is a riddle. He is the symbol Batman wanted to be, but one of intellect instead of brawn. Until now, Nolan has displayed Batman as an urban commando rather than a vigilante detective. Perhaps the Riddler is a better hero than Batman, untouchable and incorruptible, and not vulnerable to the same frailties as himself...or Harvey Dent.

Then the Penguin turns up dead. Then the mayor. And the Riddler confides in Batman that he is responsible. Now Batman has to find a defeat an enemy that he can't beat into submission. One that is beloved by Gotham while he is feared and distrusted. Who has the technology to do what the Riddler does - -see into every space and know every secret? Why, Bruce Wayne, as we saw in Dark Knight. Who could possibly know that Bruce Wayne is Batman? Lucius Fox? Alfred? Ra's Al Ghul, Two Face, or even Rachel Dawes, back from the dead? Batman is truly alone, unable to trust anyone, and his past actions have made sure no one will trust him.

Batman will have no choice but to defeat the Riddler by facing his own mistakes and his own failures -- eliminating everyone he's ever known as a suspect. He'll have to win back the hearts and minds of Gotham in order to flush the Riddler out, to make the city see that this unknown character can't be trusted, and force the narcissist Riddler into the open to re-earn their love.

Imagine that, a mystery movie involving Batman. In fact, I'd probably call it that: Batman: Detective. I'd pay to see that.


Side notes:

The current comic book incarnations of the Riddler are about as far from the Frank Gorshin/Jim Carrey goofball image as you can get. In the (overrated) Hush storyline, the Riddler famously deduced that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and tormented the Caped Crusader with that knowledge. He then disavowed his villainous ways and became a detective for hire. In both cases he is a measured, controlled individual. The new film Riddler should combine these factors to terrifying symbolic effect.

Also, if the studio is making you ramp up the villain count but you don't want to revisit any of the bad guys you've already shown, I could work in a spot for Catwoman. Play her as a Robin Hood-esque celebrity cat burglar who robs from the rich and gives to the poor...mistreated animals, children, and such. She's Batman but skewed, a vigilante who preys on the wealthy to "right society's wrongs" rather than fighting the violently criminal. Her definition of evil is different. The city will love her too, but Batman will take her into confidence, trying to fill the void left by Rachel. They're both outlaws, and she can tempt him into being happy with that. Then, when the Riddler makes known that he knows who Batman is, he'll assume it's Catwoman that sold him out. Loyalties will shift. Women will be scorned. Drama will be amped. Also, the new Catwoman suit will be completely obscuring with a gas-mask, and she'll openly remind Bruce of Rachel, to the point he suspects her of being Rachel. Use Maggie Gyllenhal in flashbacks if you want. It would be a total mindjob. It also amps up the reveal of who Selena Kyle really is.

You could drop in enough winks and nods to the comics that even the fanboys would love this story line. Chris Nolan, David Goyer, I await your phone call.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

The ultimate meta comics/movie geek joke

If I wore this shirt... the premiere of this movie... many of you would get the joke? You'd have to be really versed in both the Watchmen graphic novel and the works of a certain Romantic poet to earn the chuckle, but I have to believe there's somebody out there who meets the criteria. I can't really be that alone, can I?