Friday, December 12, 2014

Ship of Eagles on Wildseed Comedy

We launched a new project on Wildseed Comedy today. By Joel Veitch of rathergood.com, it's 'Ship of Eagles' - a bonkers animated comedy set on a theocratic lunar dictatorship sometime in the future  - hope you enjoy (and 'like' and 'subscribe')  - thanks!


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Disruption: Free vs Paid at the Edinburgh Fringe

Tim Harford - Adapt
Tim Harford’s book ‘Adapt’ is interesting in many ways, particularly on the subject of technological disruption:

'Disruptive innovations are disruptive precisely because the new technology doesn’t appeal to the traditional customers: it is different and for their purposes, it’s inferior'

In this way Kodak looked at early iterations of digital cameras and pronounced the technology (correctly) inferior to film without understanding why digital cameras would appeal so strongly to consumers for their immediacy, convenience and cheapness.

For ‘technology’ you can also read ‘creative products’

Nica Burns (Head of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards) interviewed in the Scotsman in 2013, while being generally supportive of the free fringe, worried (also correctly) that

‘on the downside, a lot of performers come to the Fringe when they are simply not ready. They’ve not done the work, they’re not good enough and the public go along and have an absolutely terrible experience’

without necessarily taking into account the huge benefit that the free fringe brings to performers, who can put on shows without loosing thousands of pounds, and to festival goers who can sample new and upcoming acts without risking a small fortune on tickets.

One of the first symptoms of a market being disrupted is the voice of the incumbent market leaders worrying about the poor quality of a cheaper and popular new product entering that market.



The free fringe, with minor variations between operators, works by not charging performers anything for hiring of venues or punters anything for tickets. Venues and promoters make their money from food and beverage sales and from sponsorship. Some free festival promoters charge a small administration fee to the acts appearing under their banner. Crucially it has now become completely acceptable for performers to ask for donations at the end of their shows.

By way of contrast, performers appearing as part of the regular fringe pay to hire a venue, pay for equipment, for technical support and can easily rack up costs (including food and accommodation which apply to the free fringe too) of £10,000 for a full month run at the festival. Ticket sales do little to take the sting out of the costs – after deductions, splits etc. a performer would need to sell something like 100 tickets per performance to break even.

This year I have been mainly to shows at the paid fringe from new and up-and-coming acts and have rarely been sitting with more than 25 people. That model is broken, especially when the free model is available as an alternative. This is the age of Kickstarter and crowd funding after all. Consumers have very quickly become used to and enamoured of the model of donating to creative endeavours that they are interested in. Why should the fringe not be the same?

Anecdotally, attendances at the paid fringe are significantly down this year, many performers are struggling to get audiences to come to their shows and are fed up. They go to a free show (to save money) and are envious of the happy crowds for shows which may not be achieving the quality that their own show or other paid shows achieve but which are playing to full houses and for which people seem to be willing to donate an average of about £2 each.

My prediction, not particularly controversial, is that the free fringe will decimate the paid fringe next year unless the big operators act quickly and decisively to fully embrace it. Performers will simply not turn up at expensive venues to play to empty houses when their friends are playing for free to packed houses just around the corner … and making money.

Not all of the big promoters in Edinburgh will be able to adapt quickly. They will have long terms leases on venues and multi-year deals with suppliers. If other industries are anything to go by there will be consolidation, casualties and desperate defensive ploys, some of which will make things worse.

There are solutions of course. People will still pay to see artists that they can be reasonably sure will deliver for them; people they know, who have been on TV or whose show has been on tour and done some business elsewhere, performers who are in some way 'validated'.

One group I saw (Casual Violence) had 2 shows in Edinburgh – a sketch show in the free fringe, regularly full and turning people away, and a paid show – doing well because of the number of people unable to get into the free show and willing to part with money to go and see the paid one. Also, they were very good at plugging the paid show at the end of the free one (and visa versa) – and asking for donations.

But it feels like the paid fringe is going to be under siege in the same way that record companies have been – the artists don’t like the terms any more and the punters are reluctant to pay unless it’s a choice rather than an obligation. Some new models need to be tried – festival passes for example – the closest the festival will get to a subscription model.

The free festivals will have to sort our their terms too, already you can see the signs of battles ahead (see PBH’s Free Festival Performer’s Terms). The more popular the free fringe becomes the harder it will be for performers to get good slots and to get noticed and the more they will have to spend on marketing themselves. There are three main free festival promoters at the moment, PBH's Free Festival, Laughing Horse and Freestival. There will be more next year is my guess.

But it’s so interesting to see disruption at work in this way. We look at disruption a lot at our Compnay Wildseed Studios. Often we are working with new and up and coming talent in a new way and working on early stage projects at a cost base that big media companies can never really hope to get close to. We have, for example,  made a feature film, Hungerford, for less than £25k that has been premiered at the NFT and which we will sell to new platforms that need great product at a very different price point and that appeals to the 13 to 24 year old generation that TV finds so hard to engage.

Of course our products are technically less sophisticated than those of our longer-established peers with their huge budgets. But when we get the spirit of the films and shows that we are creating right, they are in no way inferior and therein lies opportunity.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

New Company, New Job, say hi to Wildseed Studios

Wildseed Studios
In the whirlwind of activity since my business partner and I announced our new Company with this feature in WIRED Magazine I have been criminally negligent of my blog.

This comes from being the webmaster for our temporary website, managing director of the company, accountant, para-legal, head of production and operations ....

It's been non-stop since we announced. This week we are in the middle of a 9 day shoot for our first live action sci-fi/horror project. It will start off as web series and we'll see where it goes. It is directed by the outrageously talented Drew Casson who has been making YouTube Videos since he was in his early teens. Here's the vid that caught our eye and made us get in touch with him.

We are also in the last week of production of our first animated project, making the wickedly funny comic strips of Ralph Kidson walk and talk ....

There will be a proper blog post in a week or two when we the dust has settled on the shoot and I am not out of the office for 14 hours a day making lunch and booking extras and filling in health and safety forms and talking to investors ...

Suffice to say that, aside from Jesse (co-founder and creative director of Wildseed Studios and myself) the average age of the people we are working with this week is 19 and the amount of energy they have, the stuff they know, their willingness to do things so very differently is utterly inspiring and I am already proud and very happy to be in business with them.

What this also means is that I am no longer really available as a consultant. Just in case you were wondering.

And here is a link to a great piece in Forbes about what we are doing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Freemium, Pay Walls and Albi Cathedral's near-perfect marketingexecution

I'm in Toulouse for the Cartoon Forum. I've been to the Forum before as my regular readers will know.

Today we were treated to a tour of Albi and it's frankly hideous but nevertheless imposing brick-built Cathedral.

Of interest to those of trying to figure out how to monetise content was a brave and near-perfect attempt at monetisation through the Freemium business model ...

First off it should be said that His Eminence the Archbishop of Albi has found a very strong promotional hook for his Cathedral: Albi is the largest brick-built building in the world, constructed using some 8.5 million bricks at the end of the 13th Century. A strong enough pitch to get me on a one hour coach trip to see what it was all about.

Once in Albi, you enter the cathedral and marvel at the Nave (if you like that sort of thing).

You wander round and, after just the right amount of time, come up against this, the Albi cathedral pay wall. They want to charge you to see The Choir and The Crypt.



Immediately you think 'I wonder what's behind there, it must be interesting if they are charging for it' and sure enough I paid to see the exclusive, pay-users-only content that was 'The Choir'. So far, so good.

However, I say near-perfect execution because I think they could have taken more money off me and off other cathedral architecture fans. Here's what would have made the execution flawless:

It cost €2 to see The Choir (not a significant barrier to purchase) and €3 to see The Choir and The Crypt.

I only spent the €2. Because they undersold The Crypt.

The offer should have been €2 to see The Choir €5 to see The Crypt, or €4 to see the Crypt if you had a Choir Ticket.

This pricing would have made me believe that The Crypt was valuable content worth paying the extra to see. As it was, at €1 extra, I figured it was probably a little bit 'meh'. Plus, if they had set the price for the Crypt at €4 with a Choir ticket I would have felt that I was getting a bargain because of the €1 price reduction.

To mitigate any risk of shoppers remorse the Archbishop would need to make sure that the the crypt was loaded with valuable content .. a sarcophagus or two or other artefacts from the store and perhaps some well presented additional information about the history of the building and certainly a congratulatory message printed on a souvenir ticket reassuring the holder that they had made a great decision to visit The Crypt, a sort of ecclesiastical auto-reposponder.

Of course the really bold play would have been to invite a more substantial contribution to the cathedrals coffers, perhaps offering a 'friend of the cathedral' status with an undertaking by the His Eminence to have a word with his and our ultimate boss on your behalf so that, come judgement day, your passage through the ultimate pay wall could be more positively ensured.

Not sure, that might require some user testing and feedback analysis. To keep the Cathedral even maintained the Archbishop has to maximise revenues but he does have a brand to think about which over-zealous monetisation could damage.

It just goes to show that constructing your freemium proposition is an art as much as a science.

Back on the bus to Toulouse I reflected that in cathedral architecture terms, I am nearly a whale but his Eminence failed to exploit my love of gothic architecture or to play on my fears around eternal damnation.

However, we shouldn't overlook his success in relieving me of €2 and he could have a future in devising monetisation strategies for mobile games.

Back to the Cartoons tomorrow.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Crowd-Funding Films – Fad or the Future?


As promised, a summary of the short talk I gave at the marvellous Galway Film Fleadh on Friday July 13th


Crowd Funding is in the news at the moment – especially the tech/geek news. As of 18:17 Sunday July 15th (UK time) Ouya, an Android-powered, open-source games console, has used the internet based crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to raise an eye watering $4.8m against a target of $950k in less than a week. Other stories, especially around Kickstarter, are popping up all over the place.

It’s an alluring model for financing movies – if you can finance the film from the crowd you get to own the negative and you get to make the film you want to make without financier ‘notes’.  But is it really that easy, can you just post your project on Kickstarter and watch the money roll in? Of course not. But while researching the subject I came across a few tips and case studies that I found interesting and I watched some really fresh and interesting movies too.

My interest in the subject started when another Aardman alumnus, the talented Sara Barbas, used crowd-funding platform Rocket Hub   to try and finance her latest short film, Final Call . I had the honour of being her first donor ($50 since you ask).

I followed her campaign with interest and at first sight it could be said to have been a disappointment, raising only $8,878 out of a target of $41,000 but, as we shall see, her story did have a happy ending.

There are two basic crowd-funding models: the ‘all-or-nothing’ or ‘keep-it-all’ models.

In the all-or-nothing scenario you set a financial target and specify the amount of time your campaign will last. If you hit your target within your timeframe then your funders’ credit cards are charged and you get the money. If you don’t hit the target you don’t get anything and funders don’t get charged.

In the keep-it-all model you get to keep the money raised whether you hit the target or not, funders’ credit cards are charged at the point of pledging.

Of the three Internet crowd-funding platforms that I have looked at RocketHub uses the keep-it-all model, Kickstarter the all-or-nothing and Indiegogo gives you the choice of either. Other platforms are available.

The fees for each are pretty similar – 4% to 5% of the money raised goes to the platform, plus 3% to 4% credit card processing fees. For the ‘Keep-It-All’ model you get charged an extra 4% fee if you don’t hit your target. This apparently is to encourage you to set realistic targets for your projects.

On Kickstarter Film and Video has been the dominant category accounting for some $75m of the $275m pledged to date. (I suspect these numbers are changing fast and that Games are catching up quickly). Nevertheless the numbers for individual films are not huge. The average donation on Kickstarter is about $75, the median donation around $25.

The most funded film on the platform is called Blue Like Jazz.  In common with many of the film projects on Kickstarter it has some crucial characteristics:
  • it is a feature documentary

  • it speaks to a very engaged and motivated audience, in this case fans of the eponymous book on which it is based and Christians .. the log-line for film and book is ‘Non-religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality’

  • there is a ‘this belongs to us’ (‘us’ being ‘the crowd’) feel to the campaign to get the movie funded. The Kickstarter campaign plays on the last minute failure of the film to get financed through conventional means as a motivator for people to donate, even calling the campaign ‘Save Blue Like Jazz The Movie’

The current poster child for Kickstarter crowd-funded movies though is Indie Game – The Movie  – a brilliant, feature-documentary about the indie game scene tracking three indie games creators as they battle time and their own obsessive-compulsive perfectionism to get their games to market.

The directors did two Kickstarter campaigns to get funds for their film – one at the beginning to get the film off the ground ($23,000) and one towards the end of the project to get it finished and to raise funds for marketing and distribution ($71,000). Here's the movie trailer.



The distribution model for the film is also very interesting. Festivals and other theatrical screenings are part of the plan but at the moment the main effort seems to be going into digital distribution though iTunes, Steam and DRM free through the movie website.

The big win may well be the spin-off opportunity that the documentary has generated though – Producer Scott Rudin picking up the idea to create a comedy series for HBO.

One more example before trying to figure out where crowd funding is heading.

Spanner Films The Age of Stupid was an early example of a crowd-funded film and was made before crowd-funding became fashionable.

The producers raised an impressive £450,000 to produce an environmental polemic, set in 2055, where Pete Postlethwaite looks back at the time between 2010 and 2015 as the era in which, had we taken action, we could have spared the planet the environmental disaster that later destroyed almost everything.

On the Age of Stupid website is a very useful guide to crowd funding your movie including legal documentation that you can download and adapt for your own campaign if you are thinking of doing it without a Kickstarter or RocketHub.

The story of the funding process for Age of Stupid also contains a cautionary tale. They were very close to launching their fundraising campaign but thought they’d just check in with their lawyer who advised them that, brilliant though their scheme was, it was also totally illegal as they were offering financial products to the public but without going through the necessary regulatory frameworks. Hence one of their pieces of advice, hire a good lawyer.

Uniquely among the films mentioned here Age of Stupid offered a profit share to its larger funders. They did underestimate the amount of work involved in paying that profit share out every year – they had 250+ profit sharing donors in the end, that’s a lot of royalty statements to calculate and cheques to write.

So, reading the material and talking to people who have crowd funded their films, there are some definite trends, tips and tricks to think about if you are going to go down the crowd-funding route.

  • under-promise and over-deliver: everyone advises setting a realistic funding target. It needs to look like a target that will deliver tangible results, so maybe part of the film rather than the whole thing, but it’s a much better story if you can overshoot a modest target rather than under-perform against an over ambitious one.

  • The sales video for your campaign is crucial. Make it personal and speak directly to your audience. If your trailer is too slick or too much like a short film then people will be asking themselves why you need the money and if you do not appear in your sales film people will not know who they are investing in and whether they can trust you.

  • The projects that succeed are the ones that engage a motivated community. Christians, gamers and environmentalists are the communities that the films above tapped into. My friend Sara makes lovely films but they appeal to a general audience that is not motivated to fund her activities to the extent that she hoped. However Sara though did raise enough money to develop her film sufficiently to get other producers and funders interested and it now seems very likely that Final Call will get made as a co-production with a Polish Studio  and her crowd funded script and animatic are what created that opportunity for her.

  • In the funding cycle the most donations will come at the beginning and end of your chosen funding timeframe. In the middle, activity will be flat. This is when you need to work hardest and communicate most with ‘the crowd’. Communication is key at all times but most of all when people’s motivation to donate is at its lowest ebb.

  • The rewards that you offer to funders are crucial and you need to think about them carefully. Both the value of them and the practicality of delivering them.  According to Kickstarter, campaigns that do not have low value rewards ($20 or less) are 20% less likely to reach their targets than campaigns that do. Study the reward offerings of successful and comparable projects and learn from them.

  • Remember to factor in the cost of buying or creating your rewards and the cost of delivering them to your funders. Some Kickstarters recommend allowing 10% to 20% of the funds that you raise for rewards.

There were people in the session at the Film Fleadh who had tried crowd-funding projects, only two of them confessed to succeeding. One was Joseph Campo who raised enough to enable him (with some match funding from Northern Irish Screen) to make two pilot episodes of a web series called The Clandestine. It’s a funny idea and I wish him well with the project.

One of the really interesting questions that got asked after I shut up was whether I thought this was a fad. Stories abound of people’s Facebook timelines being bombarded with crowd-funding requests. This will piss people off very quickly. Also, sooner or later there will be a fraudulent scheme that will cause a scandal and damage the movement.

But I think it will settle down and persist. It won’t always be as hot as it is now as more and more commercial rather than personal projects seek to fund themselves in this way.

The freshness, the honesty and the passion evident in films like ’Indie Game’ and ‘Stupid’ bear out the advantages of the true independence that crowd-funding and direct to consumer digital distribution give to filmmakers and for that reason I think the funding model will survive, even if not at the level that it will probably reach over the next year or so. We shall see.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

On Brothels vs The Childrens Media Conference






This is a weird way to start a post about a Children's Media Conference and I am fully aware of how implausible it sounds but I have a good friend who has a business associate who is addicted to using prostitutes.

No, it's not me nor is it the good friend. It really is a business associate of a good friend of mine. Really, it is.

On one particular occasion my friend accompanied his business associate to a brothel to see what all the fuss was about. He sat at the bar while his business associate did what he had to do and the thing that struck my friend most forcefully was how much the girls laughed at his business associate's terrible, terrible jokes.

The business associate failed to appreciate the significance of his role as a buyer in the situation. The (much smarter) girls ended up taking him for over £1,000 for drinks and a hand job (my friend said he would have done it for £400) but he was happy and, to this day, the business associate probably thinks that he is *this close* to having a career as a stand up comedian.

My point is this.  When you leave a big job at a prestigious company like an Aardman or a BBC or a Disney to go independent, you do immediately ask yourself, 'am I actually funny and interesting and likeable or did everyone just laugh at my jokes because of where I worked and what I might be able to do for them?'

And so, with a little trepidation, 3 days after leaving my job at Aardman, I headed up to Sheffield for the Children's Media Conference to hang out with an awful lot of the people I have come into contact with over the last nine years of my employment at Aardman.

I think I did OK. To be fair to me, I have always practised what I preach to anyone who'll listen: 'be nice to the runner or receptionist or secretary because if they are any good, one day you will be working for them'. My first job in the media was as a runner on a feature film. One of the members of the production team treated me very badly. It was only some 10 years later that he, still working in the same role, applied for a job at the Company that I was then running. There is a time for forgiveness, that wasn't one of them.

People were incredibly supportive and positive about my plans and I don't think I'm going to starve in my new life as a freelancer. Result.

Back to the Childrens' Media Conference which, as usual, was fascinating and fun and sociable and inspiring. It's two and a half days of talks and workshops and panels on a huge variety of subjects which, if you have anything to do with Children's Media, you should attend. Acclaimed author Patrick Ness was a brilliant keynote interviewee (Mark Lawson presided) but here are 5 random things that I took away from the sessions that I attended, some of which made me punch the air so strongly did they chime with my sometimes partially formed thoughts:

1) There is a lot of noise at the moment about the 'second screen' experience, i.e. watching TV and playing with or using some sort of app on your mobile/tablet/laptop which is in sync with the TV show. When you hear about these things you invariably think 'oh shit, another thing I'm not taking seriously enough - this could be the next big thing'.

My view: it won't be. A perfectly good presentation by 2nd screen evangelists convinced me that while the second screen will be great for playing along with game and quiz shows they are going to be about as game-changing as the red button on your remote, i.e. not at all.

One of the most successful red-button applications ever was the one that showed lyrics to songs playing on Top Of The Pops. This tells me that the second-screen, simultaneous experience will have a very few, very simple, successful applications. As more people watch video on their computers or mobile devices (the subject of another good session) the second screen becomes the first screen and TV's are too dumb to become a second screen. Which leads me neatly on to;

2)  Smart TV's are irrelevant and need to get dumber not smarter. This was an incidental takeaway from a brilliant session on monetising apps. People upgrade their TV's much less frequently than they do their mobiles, laptops or tablets. The 'smartness' will always reside on the mobile device and the best that smart TV's can hope for is to be the big screen on which we view the content that we select and manipulate through our much smarter mobile device. Forget Smart TV's, concentrate on the device in your hand or on your lap. This is different to the simultaneous, second-screen experience. It's the mobile device as the super-smart storage device and TV remote, not as a second screen.

3) A thrilling viewpoint on the role of narrative in games also came out of the monetising apps session. Good games create narrative but they don't respond well to having narrative thrust upon them.  Games are about users manipulating characters in worlds to create narrative. Films (in their broadest sense) are about using narrative to drive characters through worlds to a pre-determined outcome. The two are different, we need to stop saying they are the same.

4)  The funding model for children's TV in the UK is in big trouble. The UK tax credit for animation can't come soon enough. As I contemplate setting up a business I can't even imagine going to investors and plausibly convincing them that kids TV would be a good bet in the UK at the current time. I am fearful for the business, it badly needs re-capitalising, companies that only do kids TV are going to find the next 12 to 24 months very hard indeed in the UK.

5)  The people who work in kids media are the best. It's an amazing community of caring, passionate and committed people who want to do the best for their audience and, probably because the amounts of money that they are dealing with aren't that huge, it is a w@*nker free zone.

Unlike the brothel that my good friend's business associate chose to visit.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Moving on and Starting-Up


'Do one thing every day that scares you'
Eleanor Roosevelt
US diplomat & reformer (1884 - 1962)


to cheer my dad up, I thought I’d wear a tie on my first day
in my new job, working for myself
Can I ask, Eleanor, if you do something that really, really scares you one day, can you have a few days off being scared afterwards?

I ask because after nine years at Aardman I have decided that it’s time for a new challenge and so today is the first day of the next chapter in my professional career.

I left the Company at the end of June and as of today I work for myself.

I am fortunate to still be working with Aardman as a consultant in a freelance capacity but no longer exclusively.

It was a hard decision to make. Aardman is an amazing Company which has given me extraordinary opportunities to work on world-class projects, meet exceptionally talented people and get involved with huge campaigns.

But, I’m not getting any younger and I still have the energy, time and the hunger for another professional adventure.

For now I am out there as an ‘Independent Media Consultant’. I will be consulting, teaching (which I love) – anything that takes my fancy where I can add value.

At the same time, I’m writing a business plan for my own project. I say ‘project’ to be cryptic for now, partly because I am still figuring out exactly what it is.
It will almost certainly be something that brings together my passions and experience – chief among them digital media, comedy and animation.

It’s an odd time to be getting back into the labour market and looking to raise finance for a new venture. The UK is in a double-dip recession, the Eurozone is flirting with meltdown, banks aren’t lending etc. etc.

But, once the urge gets hold of you to get out there and start something new, there’s no stopping it. It’s like falling in love, it can happen at the most absurd and inconvenient moments.

On the bright side there are plusses to starting a new business venture in a recession, so I’m going to be thinking mostly about these:

  • Everything is cheaper in a recession: office space, people, second hand equipment, interest rates
  • It’s a great PR story – ‘bucking the trend’, ‘taking matters into your own hands’, ‘beating the odds’
  • If you can survive and prosper during the lean times you can flourish as the good times return
  • Investors still want to invest, they are still looking for growth stories and solid propositions to get involved with.

Something like half of all start-ups fail within three years. Bizarrely this needn’t be a problem. Apparently your chances of succeeding are significantly increased if you have previously failed as an entrepreneur. I wonder if I should open with that in my investor pitches …

So Eleanor, I’m definitely shit-scared but in the good way that you were talking about. I’m also unfeasibly excited. And you can’t be excited without just a little bit of fear.

To be continued ….