Friday, September 14, 2007

Having Cake And Eating It

Ahhhh, Venice.

Truly one of the most staggeringly beautiful cities on earth. And Venezia Digitale, truly one of the jammiest invitations of my recent career. Right up there with watching England twice throw away the lead against Sweden last summer in Cologne as the guest of WDR.

To recap - I was invited to sit on a panel at Venezia Digitale, to discuss how the ‘new’ markets for content (mobile, internet etc) impact on the development and production process. At least I think that’s what the session was supposed to be about. Of course it ended up being about how the hell do you make money from these new digital channels - a subject upon which I happen to be reasonably informed.

The panel was on the morning of Monday 3rd September. My wife’s birthday was on 31st August so we decided to make a weekend of it and take in the Biennale, both of us being modern art fans. More on the Biennale later.

First the work bit.

The event was held in one of the most unusual and atmospheric conference locations that I have ever been to - a renovated boatyard in the Arsenale. The Arsenale of course was the home of the Venetian mercantile and military fleets which dominated the region for centuries until the overthrow of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon in 1797.

First teething problem of the conference was that the vastness of the Arsenale made finding the particular venue for the conference extremely challenging indeed. I had the good fortune to be escorted there by one of the organisers. Had I not been I am sure I would have missed my panel and arrived at lunch time like several other of the delegates.

The panel itself was Qi (quite interesting).

It started with a presentation from a pleasant but humourless German producer about interactive storytelling - he was basically plugging a couple of projects that his company had made in which the user's input can affect the outcome of the story. Murder mystery type things or strange, Mayan adventures.

I’m not encouraging my team to think of ideas like this. The computer games industry does it very well and the equivalent experience on mobile phones or on the web can only ever be very limited. It all feels a bit web 1.0. It’s like the idea that people would use interactive TV to direct their own coverage of football matches. No, we want experienced directors to do that for us.

Likewise, when we take a moment to get involved in a story we want a master story-teller to take us on a journey that we might never have been able to imagine for ourselves. These so called ‘interactive stories’ get completely bogged down in plot and structural gymnastics. Great characters are at the centre of great stories and they rarely feature in interactive stories with multiple possible outcomes.

Next up was a French Canadian ‘writer and philosopher‘. To this day, even though he spoke outstanding English, I have no idea what he was talking about. At the end of the session no-one asked him any questions so I am assuming that I wasn’t the only one.

Another German, this time from a major advertising agency, was very interesting on advertising models on digital platforms. He confidently pronounced the 30 second TV linear TV ad to be dying (if not already dead) and said that advertising agencies had to look for new ways of telling their stories - which are all about products and brands. He was talking about product placement, branded content and the like all of which we are all trying to get our heads round to see if we can finance our work that way.

A games producer was very interesting on how advertising was working in video games (NOT is the answer unless you can seamlessly integrate a brand into the fabric of a game) and I banged my usual drum - it's not the medium that matters it’s the story. Don’t think we have to re-invent storytelling for digital media, we don’t. We just have to make the stories compact enough to work on the over-hyped ‘new’ technology of the present.

I talked a little about Angry Kid and how, for a while a least, we seemed to have found the golden ticket to digital media profitability with the 'Ginger Terror'.

The panel was over, I hung around for the next one and for lunch then scuttled off to meet my wife and spend another few hours pounding the Venetian pavements.

Over the weekend we had walked for miles and miles, looking at the modern art on display and at the stunning Venetian architecture. The Biennale has spread across all of Venice but the main concentration of exhibitions is in the Biennale Gardens. Here we saw Tracey Emin’s visceral and emotionally messy collection of work - in stark contrast to much of the other work we saw which tended towards the intellectual, formal and the symmetrical.

Best pavilion though was the Romanian - an arresting installation exploring the renovation, destruction and reconstruction of Romania - mainly through a display of punctured cement bags hanging on the walls surrounding video installation showing a surveyor marking out the perimeter of a new building on a frozen but ancient site.

We saw a few churches but I am afraid to say that we found them oppressive and uninspiring. Far more uplifting were some of the palaces and secular buildings that we visited. In particular the The Ukrainian Pavilion at the Palazo Papadopoli (which for some reason was showing works by Sam Taylor-Wood) was very imposing with the added benefit of looking out over the Grand Canal on regatta day - a explosion of colour, noise and Venetian boating.

Final treat, highly recommended, was a trip to the Palazzo Fortuny - which houses a mad and eclectic collection of modern art in a beautiful palace in the centre of the city.

A great weekend - in my wife’s eyes I was temporarily husband of the year - I seemed to know what I was talking about on my panel - if only all digital conferences could be like this one.

Next trip - the European Cartoon Forum in Girona followed by a speaking engagement in Stuttgart and then 5 days in Cannes for MIPCOM … it’s a hard life.

Perhaps though my next blog should cover the Licensing Awards held last night at the Royal Lancaster Hotel - an altogether much more British affair.