Marshall McLuhan's pronouncement that "the medium is the message" was revolutionary back in its day.
Nearly 50 years later, McLuhan's influence survives, with many of his ideas serving as memes for wave upon wave of new media. Not for nothing did WIRED Magazine anoint McLuhan as patron saint at the dawn of the Internet! Digital hipster Doug Coupland even published a McLuhan book subtitled "You Know Nothing of My Work” that riffed on the old gent’s ironic appearance in that Woody Allen flick.
McLuhan asserted that the container (the medium itself) mattered more than its actual content. Or something like that. Pissed a LOT of people off back then, especially people making the actual content.
McLuhan was at heart a sociologist of media, interested more in the way media technologies impact culture and and its populations, which includes, significantly, how each medium influences the others.
In today’s media-drenched ecosphere, we are accustomed to judging “new media” products almost solely in terms of how quickly they reach "scale," meaning a large audience — and definitely how much they disrupt their predecessors. Darwinian. And McLuhanesque, too, if you think about it. Even more so if you understand.
Like many a college student slogging through the inscrutable prose of McLuhan's seminal tome Understanding Media I thought: jeez, I'll never understand how to understand. In this, I was not alone.
Dallas Video Festival
Such thoughts bounced around my skull as I reflect upon my weekend at the Dallas Video Festival, where I conducted a workshop on Transmedia and joined a panel on The Changing Landscape of Independent Media.
Sure, there was plenty of talk about individual films and videos on the program, such as the fascinating Once I was a Champion, Gerard Roxburgh's film about mixed-martial arts fighter Evan Tanner, who died in the desert after a troubled life.
Or Tiffany Shlain's Connected, that interweaves her vision of how the Internet could save the planet with some major crises in her personal life.
Containerization of Media
For me, the juiciest conversations at the Dallas event (and most other gatherings of media makers and media lovers) focused on the container, just as McLuhan did. What is the state of distribution? How do I sell my film? How do I find an audience? How do I keep up with all this stuff?
People are struggling mightily to figure out what the hell is going on with their medium, now more than ever a prerequisite if you want to share your message. They are caught up in the containerization of media.
Welcome to the "psychic and social consequences" that McLuhan suggests will always accompany the introduction of a new medium as it brings about a "change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action."
In today’s technospeak, we call it disruption, as Jeff Jarvis enumerates industry-by-industry in his excellent 2009 book What Would Google Do?
Check out Scott Kirsner's 2008 book, Inventing the Movies: Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. Kirsner gives a detailed play-by-play of disruptive movie technologies, including sound, color, television, home video, visual effects, editing, digital projection, digital capture, and finally, the net.
The Perfect Storm for DIY
But filmmakers who pour their hearts and wallets into their films care little about history or trends. Most are simply trying to weather this perfect storm of our economic crisis, the collapsing market for indie distribution, and a bewildering proliferation of digital pathways to the consumer.
With vision, and probably a touch of desperation, many of them have joined the ranks of the so-called DIY distribution movement (do-it-yourself: duh) to reach audiences and seek greater return on their investments.
DIY distribution is, by definition, experimental, often the hybridization of traditional and internet-fueled distribution and marketing techniques. Put simply, filmmakers become their own distributors and marketers, building and monetizing a direct relationship with their core audience.
I learned a lot about what that really means from reading an excellent new ebook as I flew to Dallas: Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul. Definitive and current, the book offers a white-paper detailing many indie DIY case studies, chock-full of examples and numbers on an extremely granular level as only the authors — all active veterans of the indie disturb wars — could possibly know: they are Jeffrey Winter & Orly Ravid of the Film Collaborative, Jon Reiss and Sheri Candler.
For an equally deep dive into the world of YouTube, I strongly recommend Beyond Viral: Promoting Your Business With Online Video by YouTube comic (and day job marketing executive) Kevin Nalty.
Audiences Expect More
Why? YouTube and other social sites have created an expectation by the mass audience for engagement and creativity like never before in history.
This hunger for involvement fuels the so-called "transmedia" movement, which produces media containers that empower the audience to dive deeper into a story by means of multiple platforms.
Even though "transmedia" projects are immersed in technologies (film, video, television, online video, games, live events, mobile media, telephone calls… you name it), its leading practitioners (and theoreticians) often insist that "it's all about story."
To wit: Brian Hurst's web video interview series is called Story Centric. The upcoming "summit" of the movement is called Story World. Indeed, the default name of the transmedia auteur is usually "storyteller.”
And so it goes: What usually makes transmedia properties soar is the eagerness of hard-core fans who care deeply enough about their story to migrate from one platform to another in order to stay in that story world — to become immersed. All of which creates a new container, arguably a new medium. It's going to be fascinating to see how this unfurls.
Echoes of a Forgotten Movement
That the unfurling happens at an event like the Dallas Video Festival is ironic, given that the event and its founder Bart Weiss are, like me, products of an earlier and somewhat forgotten media movement — namely, the small-format video revolution.
In the early 70’s, Sony and other Japanese companies introduced the PortaPak, a relatively cheap system for producing TV content, and spawned a movement that went on to influence cable television, high brow art, music video, home-video, how-to-video, and many other forms of content.
The American Film Institute hooked up with Sony to launch a National Video Festival and Weiss followed suit 24 years ago with his event in Dallas.
Bart has built a showcase to connect creators with audiences at a time when it was difficult to see the work, and it has survived (on a shoestring) even as other regional media efforts died with the NEA cutbacks and the ubiquity of cheap consumer videocams and now camera phones.
Video may have killed the radio star, but the DV cam killed the video movement.
Today, fragmentation continues apace, so much so that many of the films (actually digital movies) programmed at Sundance, Tribeca and other bastions of indie cred will never find distribution, certainly not without the kind of intense DIY effort described in SYFWSYS.
Look to the form, said McLuhan, not the content. Look no further than YouTube. Even ABC did, in this lengthy 20/20 report on Generation YouTube.
What would the old man have thought?