Notes from SXSW: Day 3
Joshua Sikora | On Mar 15, 2016
Day three here at South by Southwest was marked by opportunity — a glimpse at many of the new developments that have the potential for great good, if used well. Here are the highlights:
Gamification 3.0: From Theory to Taking Action
There is a growing trend to use gamification to motivate and shape our behavior. Gamification is the process of using game theory mechanics in non-game situations to provide incentives or create penalties to drive people to a desired end. Businesses are using gamification to improve employee performance and drive customer loyalty. New products are also incorporating gamification to guide preferred usage, such as the Nissan Leaf, which use game-like rewards to promote for efficient driving patterns.
The panel of gamification experts explained that Gamification 3.0 is a moniker for the latest evolution of the theory, which is focused on giving meaningful choices and legitimate social rewards to provide stronger motivators. Monica Cornetti, founder of the Sententia Gamification Consortium, described how poorly implemented gamification can lead people to rebel against the concept. This happens when the system is designed with a focus on the organization rather than the individual. Gamification has to be focused around building meaningful value for people, supporting them first rather the institution.
Yu-kai Chou, one of the foremost experts on gamification and founder of the Octalysis Group, suggested that too often game mechanics were simply being pulled from other games, rather than understanding why those mechanics work and have a basic sense of how those mechanics are going to engage the brain and activate the right responses.
In Chou’s experience, organizations have adopted a very data-driven approach to decisions, without a fundamental understanding of the deeper emotional pulls that shape that data. He sees organizations shaping decisions around short-term metrics, often with disastrous results for long-term impact. Chou believes that in order to use data points effectively in improving an institution, that data must be understood within a larger framework of motivators and consequences.
New Dealmakers Talk New Distribution / Demystifying Digital Distribution
The next two panels focused on the changing landscape of distribution. After yesterday’s proclamation that theatrical distribution is dead, these panelists outlined the wide plethora of new options available to today’s filmmakers. Featuring sales agents and acquisition specialists from a variety of firms, the experts began by explaining how festivals are changing in relation to distribution. The time of the overnight sale at major festivals is basically over — today many films are coming in to festivals with some form of distribution already established and the festival is serving as a way of raising the profile on film to draw more viewers and secure better deals.
There are so many films being made now and so many films actually getting some form of distribution, that getting real eyeballs on content or making any reasonable money off of a project is becoming quite difficult and complicated. The agents agreed that most films should simply avoid theatrical distribution all together, at this point — but that filmmakers should take that into consideration before even starting on projects and they should design content that fits the smaller screen venues they have access to.
Regardless of the content though, the best leverage a filmmaker has is when and where you show your film. The potential buyers are talking to each other, so as soon as you expose your film to the marketplace, the genie is out of the bottle and the sales process takes on a life of its own. It’s important as this process begins that filmmakers carefully vet sales agents and distributors — many are “deal-hungry” because they have limited time to invest in any single project. If your sales agent isn’t passionate about your film, they’ll simply go towards the first, easiest, tried-and-true options, rather than looking for platforms and opportunities that will best serve the film.
After an independent film is finished, filmmakers can expect distribution to be another two years of full-time work. A well-coordinated distribution plan now involves many different partners and release windows, with the stages of release varying from project to project. Rather than the old theatrical to home video to television pattern, today’s independent films need unique ways of getting noticed. The sales agents offered examples of partnerships made with websites and companies not known for film distribution (such as Mashable, in one case) to try to get particular content in front of a particular set of viewers. This targeted strategy works especially well for issue-driven documentaries that can gain support from related causes and organizations. Starting with a dedicated audience on a limited platform can help raise the value and profile of the film before placing it on a more generalized service like Netflix or Amazon.
The agents left us with eight important considerations for filmmakers as they think about distribution:
- Who is your targeted audience?
- What is your ideal working relationship with a sales agent or distributors?
- Is theatrical distribution essential for this project?
- How might festivals play into your release strategy on this specific project?
- How compatible is the project with the style, tone, brand, and audience of various platforms?
- How well will this project play in international vs. domestic markets?
- Is there an opportunity for this film to get play on television?
- What groups can you reach out to build support and engagement in this project?
Cause and FX: The Good and the Bad of VR for Causes / 360° Video and VR: The Immersive Revolution
The last two panels of the day focused on virtual reality. There are a lot more VR sessions in the coming days, but these two offered a glimpse at some of the pioneering efforts in this young medium. VR is gaining significant traction as a journalistic tool and in support of various causes. Described by many as an “empathy machine,” VR producers are creating immersive experiences that are designed to connect viewers viscerally with places and situations that may otherwise be foreign or unrelatable.
There is a strong divide amongst VR practitioners about the two different primary uses for VR. There is the 360º video camp that sees VR as the next step of evolution in cinema. These are usually filmmakers who are drawn to the immersive wraparound video experience of VR video. These experiences tend to be live action, have a static point-of-view, and limited or no interactive components.
The second camp sees VR as a wholly unique platform, with the distinct quality being its ability to create a sense of “presence” in a place that is not real. Many of these VR developers are creating elaborate three-dimensional experiences that users can actually walk through and interact with — a bit like a video game, but with infinitely more uses. For example, one of the most popular VR applications is a simple drawing program called Tilt Brush, which allows you to paint in three-dimensional space. It’s not a complicated idea, but it’s deeply compelling, unique, and beautiful.
The tension between these two camps is interesting to witness as this nascent medium gets pulled in two different directions. While neither is mutually exclusive to the other, the theories and rules being developed for the VR medium depend greatly on which direction you lean towards.
I also had the pleasure of seeing an incredibly beautiful and powerful documentary called Boone, which is about a small local farm in rural Oregon. Focused on the three farmers who live on the land and work non-stop everyday to keep their business afloat, the film creates a truly intimate portrayal of a process that so many of us are totally removed from. While I know intellectually what happens on a farm, it was deeply affecting to see these three tireless individuals laboring day in and day out to provide food we all too often take for granted. The film was crafted by journalistic photographer Christopher LaMarca, who actually spent two years living and working alongside the farmers. The story he captures over this extended period of time is emotional, visceral, and poignant.