Looking Back to Look Ahead


MUSING: LOOKING BACK TO LOOK AHEAD

NOTE: I first wrote about this in my blog, but got so many favorable comments, I want to share this with you here. Also see my blog for more comments about this.

In wrapping up the year, I was going to talk about technology, but there are a wide variety of other sites that are busily engaged in dissecting the latest technology, so I’ll leave them to play in their sandbox.

Um… well, OK. Here are three quick observations on technology for the coming year:

1. For 2011, camera technology will continue to change EXTREMELY quickly. This means that any camera you buy today will be out-of-date in less than 2 years. If you can’t make it pay off in that short a period of time, you are better off renting. I don’t see any incentive for camera technology to stabilize for another couple of years.

2. Apple will update Final Cut Studio in 2011 — probably early in 2011. Apple is not abandoning the platform. This is not the apocalypse. The world will not end. I’ll have more news on this when I’m allowed to talk about it.

3. The capabilities of your storage will become more important than the capabilities of your computer. And, as a corollary, tapeless media means that media asset management will become mission-critical for even small shops. Whichever company solves the puzzle of how to make asset management informationally-rich, while at the same time easy to access, will make a fortune. You can’t edit what you can’t find.

What I want to focus on, instead, are eleven trends for 2011 that showed up in 2010. These are:

  1. Budgets will never go back to where they were.
  2. The increasing expectation that one person should "do it all."
  3. Media technology is ubiquitous.
  4. There is a total disconnect between production and distribution, and neither side respects the other.
  5. Tapeless media is a fact of life.
  6. "The Cloud" is absolutely a two-edged sword.
  7. Our audience is impatient.
  8. It’s become a "download world."
  9. Audiences expect everything to be free, or, at least, really, REALLY cheap.
  10. The demise of traditional media means that marketing is more diversified, more complex, and more critical than ever before.
  11. "Good enough" is good enough.

1. BUDGETS WILL NEVER GO BACK TO WHAT THEY WERE

The recession has made everyone much more sensitive about price. Clients have many faults, but they can watch a bottom line with the best of them.

As long as these economic doldrums continue, expect continued pressure to do more for less. Don’t buy gear because you can use it, buy it because you can’t keep a client without it.

Never sell yourself as "having the lowest price." You’ll always lose. There’s always a college (or high school) kid more than happy to do it for free. You can’t pay the rent with "free." (I talk more about this in my Grow Your Business webinar.)

2. THE INCREASING EXPECTATION THAT ONE PERSON SHOULD "DO IT ALL"

Remember the phrase: "Jack of all trades, and master of none"? Technology is making media easier to use every day. But my email in-box is testament to the fact that "easier" is NOT the same as "easy."

Very, very few of us are gifted composers, musicians, writers, directors, editors, and designers. Not to mention all the other crafts that go into telling stories visually. Yet clients expect each of us to do everything.

I don’t see this trend abating. Which means we have two options: crawl back into bed and hide for a couple of years or reach out and build a team of free-lancers to serve as a mutual aid society.

I got caught in this trap for a while. I figured I needed to know everything about everything. As I discovered, this is an unattainable – and VERY frustrating – goal. What I REALLY needed was to know people who knew stuff I didn’t. Then, when I got stuck, I had someone to call.

So, start building your personal network, to supplement where you are weak. Since doing favors for someone, no matter how desperate they make it seem, wears really thin, really quickly, figure out how to pay them for their time. Payment means they will be willing to help you the next time you need it.

Then, when a client says: "Can you do this?" the answer is yes. From the client’s point of view, you are doing it all. From your point of view, you’re farming it out to someone in your network.

This means that you can accept jobs that you would not normally be able to take, thanks to your network. And the folks in your network are happy because they don’t need to worry about managing the client or looking for the gig.

Everyone wins.

3. MEDIA TECHNOLOGY IS UBIQUITOUS.

We need to compete based on our skills, talent, and contacts.

It is no longer sufficient for us to "have the best gear," nor the most creative skills. That will help you land a client, but not keep them.

When high school kids have the same gear you do (in fact, this last year, I’ve trained two sixth-graders that have gear a pro would be proud to own) gear is no longer what sets you apart in the market.

I have a friend that started in this business because he liked buying gear with his profits at the end of the year. Now, he’s got a bunch of out-of-date hardware, outstanding leases, and clients that aren’t interested.

We all know people who are far less qualified than ourselves, yet seem to get work.

First, keep your technical skills sharp – training is always a good thing (yes, I grant this is a bit self-serving, but it is still true).

But, second and even more important, sharpen your people and communication skills. Clients work with people they know and like more often than people they hate.

People and communication skills don’t require investment in technology, they require an investment in yourself. An investment that will pay dividends big time in our budget-challenged future.

4. THERE IS A TOTAL DISCONNECT BETWEEN PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION;
AND NEITHER SIDE RESPECTS THE OTHER.

Most of us are making money creating projects for the Web (even broadcast projects have a web component today). Yet Web distribution doesn’t care about the quality, cost, or content of your project. From Bit Torrent to YouTube, and the full spectrum in-between, they are just moving bits. A project that cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce is reduced to digital 1’s and 0’s and transits virtually free across the web.

Distribution websites have no vested interest in providing quality, or content. They are not regulated by anyone. They just move bits to the largest number of eyeballs.

Which means they don’t value the projects you worked so hard on. Certainly, they don’t value them the same way you do. Which means they want to charge as little for them as possible in order to maximize viewers. Free is not a successful business model.

This also makes it hard on the other side of the equation: the folks that invest money in production have a very limited role in distribution. Which means it is harder to show how someone can make money by investing money in your production, when distribution is so disconnected. Production is really expensive. Distribution is really cheap. They have two different and incompatible pricing models.

However, if we can’t attract production dollars, we’ll have nothing to distribute.

The pirate sites have totally figured this out. They steal the content they distribute in order to sell advertising to the visitors they attract. They completely devalue production costs in order to build audience. Great for them, miserable for us. On the other hand, if they really cared, they wouldn’t have started a pirate site in the first place.

Which means, we need to figure out how we are going to make money on distributing our project BEFORE we start production.

5. TAPELESS MEDIA IS A FACT OF LIFE.

Tapeless media is the future. It is easy to use, flexible, reusable, and provides the capability of supporting every conceivable video format.

It also requires a complete shift in everything we know about media.

Tapeless media is so easy to use, we shoot too much of it, overwhelming our storage.

Tapeless media is so flexible, we tie ourselves in knots trying to untangle editing with incompatible media formats.

Tapeless media is so reusable, that we use the same card over and over, which means archiving our media is critical.

Tapeless media is so infinitely variable, that we need to invent entirely new systems to keep track of it.

Nothing beats good planning before starting production. However, now we need to add asset management and archiving to the list of critical decisions that need to be solved before we start production.

6. THE "CLOUD" IS ABSOLUTELY A TWO-EDGED SWORD.

The cloud is a great way to collaborate.

However, the cloud is a also great way to permanently lose all your data – if you aren’t careful. This week’s outage at Skype, and past data losses this year at Intuit, Twitter, Hosting.com and other vendors taught us that data on the cloud is no more, and no less, safe than data stored locally on our own gear that we back up.

So, if the cloud is in your future, be sure to make backups and store them locally. The Cloud is the future, but it’s reliability is still a question mark.

My favorite watch-phrase comes from Harry Potter: Never trust anything when you can’t see where it keeps its brain. My personal feeling is that business critical information should be stored locally, while information that you would not be upset if it were lost or hacked should be stored on the cloud.

7. THE AUDIENCE IS IMPATIENT

Consumers, and that includes clients, are conditioned to expect everything instantly. This also includes us. (Look at how incensed you get if your favorite application isn’t updated, say, weekly…)

Two examples from this year illustrate this point. The first is the brouhaha over Apple’s "abandoning" Final Cut Studio. Why? Because Avid and Adobe updated their products, while Apple did not. Somehow, in the minds of these doom-sayers, the lack of an instant update to respond to the competition equates to a lack of interest in the program.

Sigh…

I read somewhere that Apple spent almost 10 YEARS working on the iPad before release. Software the size of Final Cut Studio has development cycles that run between two and four years.

The only thing instant in software development is the press release. Everything else takes time.

Another example is Hollywood film marketing. Hollywood makes it seem that the amount of time needed to go from an idea to a finished film is the length of a 20-frame dissolve. Effects shots that can take 48 hours just to render magically "pop" on the screen during the behind-the-scenes video.

We are all guilty of minimizing the amount of time it takes to do anything. Unfortunately, our clients believe the hype, not the reality.

This means that we need to work really, REALLY hard in setting expectations at the start of a project. Clients have no concept of render or compression times — which means we need to educate them on the process or they’ll leave us for someone else with a smooth patter that glosses over the reality.

8. ITS BECOMING A DOWNLOAD WORLD.

Blu-ray Disc is slowly getting pigeon-holed into a distribution mechanism for the big six studios. As a format, it will never have the dominance of DVDs. Its death will take a while, but Blu-ray is not long for our world.

For the rest of us, the world is moving to downloads only.

This means that we need to develop a distribution strategy that allows us to make money on downloads. Compression skills, knowledge of download vs. streaming technology, and pricing geared around downloads (instead of optical media) are the survival skills for the future.

9. AUDIENCES EXPECT EVERYTHING TO BE FREE, OR, AT LEAST, REALLY CHEAP

This has been a big eye-opener for me this year.

The success of the App Store, where everything sells for 99 cents or, at most, a couple of bucks, sets expectations that all downloads should be priced as cheaply.

Complicating this is that the audience disconnects production costs from distribution costs. "Sharing files on the Internet is free, therefore, your downloads should be free," is the general theme. The problem is that this totally overlooks what it cost to create the content in the first place.

Low-cost pricing works when you are selling to the mass market. However, this pricing model doesn’t work when you are selling into niche markets.

I don’t see this expectation for lower prices changing in the future. Which means the only way we are going to make money is to sell our projects in significant quantity to make up for the lower individual price, or sell them to an audience that needs the information so badly that price is not the primary condition to a sale.

10. THE DEMISE OF TRADITIONAL MEDIA MEANS THAT MARKETING IS MORE DIVERSIFIED, MORE COMPLEX, AND MORE CRITICAL THAN EVER BEFORE.

"Going viral" is a great concept – but, very, very hard to achieve. And, even if you DO go viral, that doesn’t mean there’s any money in it.

In the past, we’d take out an ad in an industry publication. But, if you thought our industry has problems, they pale to what traditional media channels are going thru. Across the board, print publications are hurting, and so is broadcast. The traditional audiences for these media are vaporizing.

This means that we need to take a much more active role in marketing our products than ever before. And the term "marketing" includes more than ever before: print in all its forms, email, websites, and today’s newest buzz-word: "social media."

Social media – Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, and the rest – have grown to such influence that I hired a marketing person just to focus on this new technology. There is no doubt that this media drives visibility and opinions. What I am not yet convinced of is whether they drive sales as well.

There is no question that Internet marketing and promotion is a moving target. What worked last year doesn’t necessarily work this year, or next. Analytics are critical and so is someone to sweat the details on your marketing.

The burden of marketing has fallen to our shoulders and needs to be part of the planning process for any new project. Even projects destined for "free" distribution need to think through how they are going to tell the world that they exist.

11. "GOOD ENOUGH" IS GOOD ENOUGH.

I grew up with the mantra: "The better the quality, the better the project." Or "better is better."

This is no longer the case — videos that are egregiously awful are getting millions of hits on YouTube. Clearly, quality is not a determining factor for many videos today.

Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Which means that if it is good enough for the client its good enough for me.

If budgets are falling – and they are – and deadlines are getting shorter – and they are, as well – then it is foolish for us to invest our time creating silk purses when the client is happy with a sow’s ear.

(Translation for those under the age of 50… "The client determines what is good enough.")

There is a time and place to pursue great quality. And, I suspect, each of us knows exactly when that is.

However, don’t pursue perfection when the client isn’t interested. We should ALWAYS meet and, preferably, exceed what the client expects. But what the client expects – and is paying for – isn’t perfection – it’s for it to be good enough.


Those are my thoughts. I look forward to your comments.

Larry


13 Responses to Looking Back to Look Ahead

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  1. gary says:

    thanks for this larry! again you continue to hit the nail on the head.
    thanks again for all the work you put out there.

  2. These are some great points Larry, and I am particularly moved by “Good enough is good enough.” I always hate to lower the bar but if the other factors in your post are reflective of the current market, perhaps it’s important to start looking from that perspective. Thanks for taking the time to create this list.

  3. Gus says:

    Hey man. Great post! I love everything you said, except the FCP things.

    The FCP crowd is really getting defensive about those sparse updates! The blogs that usually sing the praises of FCP are freaking out.

    I understand that revamping a program (apparently from scratch) takes a lot of effort and time. But you must admit, it’s been a really, really long time.

    Avid had time to complete 2 major upgrades. Full versions, if my memory serves. Same with Adobe. And this is for good reason. If technology is going to advance as quickly as you’ve mentioned, the software needs to catch up.

    FCP isn’t too far off from your comment about Jack-Of-All-Trades comment. FCP tries to do everything, but just can’t do it alone. It has become clunky and disorganized. Their media management is still in shambles as compared to Avid.

    I was a huge advocate of FCP in the past. Used it for years. But in the time since it’s last significant upgrade, I’ve had enough time to learn (and technically master) Avid. I’ve embraced it’s system for organizing. Also, I’ve noticed more and more bugs with FCP while jumping back and forth (I work about 50/50 at this point).

    I know Apple hasn’t dropped FCP, but they need to desperately step their game up. One big update won’t do it. They need to keep at it. An editor shouldn’t have enough time to entirely switch teams between releases.

    In this case, editors are like girlfriends. One big gift a year ain’t gonna cut it. You need to sprinkle smaller ones out all year long.

  4. Jim says:

    Hi Larry

    As always the voice of reason.

    As someone who works in the Broadcast industry I think you’ve hit it on the head about standards. Look at news footage where stuff that started off on Digibeta ends up going out looking like something shot on a Fish**-P**** toy! Or worthy documentary strands where interviews are shot and graded in gorgeous HD then cut to the most appalling archive, some of it recent, ’cause it’s easier and cheaper to hijack it off of uTube!! Also, Mr Producer, film transferred to standard def in 19 canteen doesn’t do well when blown up to HD.

    Rant over.

    Like you to stop that vein pulsing I too have learned to smile and go OK! Having said that we still have to be careful, even though a lot of stuff is ultimately going to be aimed at the 3″ screen crowd, now and again people do want quality they can have a good critical eye and see the joins so it means you have to be up to the mark. Never thought tightrope walking was a necessary skill but there you go.

    Have a great year, and keep the faith!

  5. Charlie J says:

    Some great insights here. But it seems to me that you jump back and forth between talking about projects done for clients, and projects someone does in order to sell them through some distribution channel.

    To me, these are two very different things, or even two different worlds: being a contractor who does contract work, or, being a producer of new content. For the former, it’s simply about finding clients and implementing well whatever the client wants. For the latter, it’s all about raising the funds to produce the project and then somehow getting a return on that money.

    Thanks for your great newsletter.

    • Larry says:

      Charlie:

      You’re right, I do jump back and forth. That’s because many of us live with feet in both camps.

      On the other hand, it could also mean I should have organized this better.

      Either way, thanks for your comment.

      Larry

  6. RussS says:

    Great stuff as always Larry….I picked this up in your Newsletter and I note that you were looking for topics for your webinars — I think they’re right under your nose with what you’ve just written. Yes we are undergoing a revolution in the way clients perceive what we do, how we do it – and most importantly from their point of view, how much they (don’t) want to pay for it. I worry that we ‘traditional’ producers, using ‘traditional’ business models are going down the same slippery slope to extinction as ‘traditional’ media. As you say and as we have all seen, primary school kids with passable gear are doing great stuff that’s taken us all years to learn. A couple of points to consider: You talk about gear and how it’s out-of-date in a relatively short space of time. I agree – but I deliberately don’t get on that carousel. I was the first in my town with a Media 100 – cost me a fortune – editing with an Apple 8100/80. When Apple abandoned NuBus (only a few short months after I brought my Media 100), I asked about an upgrade — I was staggered that M100 wanted an extra $9k!!! I determined there and then to run the NuBus system into the ground — I worked with it for over 10 years and did some great docco’s and corporates (some of which took me around the world a few times). I did the same with my Betacam camera and grip gear. I am now doing the same with a G5 PowerPC based MAC, and FCP v 5.1, with a Canon XHA1. For me to upgrade to a new Apple with new software – and tapeless acquisition would cost me thousands! Will I get that back? Probably not, at least not in the short term. Can I still make very good video with the gear I’ve got?? You betcha! To that end, the trend to UTube et al (where my cleints want to hang their promotional videos etc) mean the gear I’ve got is probably overkill – and will remain more than sufficient for the immediate future. You also go into a sweat over tapeless archiving later in your newsletter — By remaining firmly tape based, I’ve got tapes that I can refer to and use stretching back some 30 years. In fact, I had a client only recently contact me about a video I shot 25 years ago — they wanted to use it for a promotion. I went back through my archives and found it on C-Format 1″ – I transferred it to DVD, messed with it a bit in FCP (colour correction/audio correction and so on) – and presented it to the client! He couldn’t believe (a) I still had it, and (b) that it looked so good!

    So let’s not sweat too much about tape or tapeless – or new gear or old. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that’s important – and guess what? I’ll still make money because I’m not up to my neck in new leases.

    The conundrum is how to maximise payment for product made for the new media. The facts are that the old business model where clients just threw money at projects is as dead as the dodo. What we need to do is look at business models which do work in other parts of new media and modify them for our businesses. I am fast coming to the conclusion that we must now consider ourselves as ‘communicators’, not video makers. We must develop businesses where we can communicate for clients across the entire spectrum of the web (of which video is only a part). THAT’S how we will make money in the future. I’m exploring that as we speak and I think it’s got legs….

  7. Alan says:

    Great post. I have definitely felt the impact of shrinking budgets and growing expectations and I’m glad I’m not the only one. It reminds me of the zoom-in and enhance cliche from csi Miami. When we field truly unrealistic expectations, it’s our job to educate our clients on what’s realistic. If we fail, we only have ourselves to blame. (ok some clients refuse to listen, but not all). The ability to identify an unrealistic expectation early in the project is a great skill to have, and leads to better relationships and happier clients.

  8. Jon says:

    Hiya! Thanks for this! I agree with everything and have experienced it directly, as I’m sure a lot of people reading this have. Everything you wrote seems to boil down to three ideas that my peers and I have been discussing:

    1) you need help to create the appearance of a one-stop shop, and you should pay the people who help you

    2) budgets are less than they have been and trending downward

    3) consumer expectations for the price of the finished product is that it should be cheap, or getting cheaper, and if not they’ll find it somewhere for free.

    So how do you make a living in the near future? Where is the money to pay a technically skilled team going to come from? Is it going to be the big studios, the big ad agencies, and then a bunch of indie companies that farm work out to teenagers?

    Another trend that you didn’t mention, but is implicit in the comments about the prevalence of talented teens with sweet gear, is that the number of companies that can pay a skilled professional adult what a skilled professional adult needs to be paid to live in a city is decreasing. Meanwhile, the number of young, skilled artists who are competent with apps like FCP, the Adobe Suite, Cinema 4D, etc. is increasing daily. Demand is going down, supply is going up. Where are the jobs going to come from?

    Very interested to hear your thoughts on this. Best of luck and Happy New Year!

  9. bugzilla says:

    Great post Larry

    I love your post and look forward to reading the wit and wisdom in your post. I especially agree with number 9. This is so true, nobody wants to pay for nothing. They think that the computer makes everything possible but the skilled professionals are the ones doing the heavy lifting. I find it funny though, these are the same people the clamor about jobs being outsourced to countries with cheaper labor. The corporations are doing to them what these people are doing to content. And yet they fail to understand that.

    I also think the days of owning a movie, song, etc. will soon go the way of the doodoo bird. You will rent everything or subscribe to a could service.

    Thanks

  10. Thomas says:

    Apple is too smart and professionally blinkered.
    They should hire an idiot or two and kick out their “brilliant video engineer” (put name here) who is also responsible for turning iMovie into utter crap while it actually was a usable editing application years ago.
    Expect the Final Cut Studio update being a hyper killer-crap-app as long this guy has its hands on it.

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