Burn Your Own Damned DVD's, or Building the Fan Community

If I started a publishing house that focused on digital distribution, that phrase would be right at the top of the front page. It's not just a matter of economics - manufacturing animation DVD's is just throwing money into the fire - it's also a way of building community loyalty. This trait, I believe, is absolutely crucial when dealing with long tails and the internet.

The internet's great trait is that it shatters boundaries. It empowers literally everyone. The line between provider and consumer blurrs and erases. Blogging, YouTube, Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Lulu, iTunes, MySpace, Facebook - these are all the new tools for enabling us to create our own art. It's enabling far, far more people to participate, by creating videos or music or books, and it demands the building of communities to survive.

How else can you survive in this environment. The traditional business model is somewhat stereotypically Darwinian. Survival of the fittest, all tooth and claw. But I think the real story of the internet is one of cooperation. The name of the game is cutting deals, making friends. Trading text links on your blog, or writing user comments on Amazon, or sending viral videos back and forth on YouTube. These are all good examples.

The key of future media lies in empowering the consumer. There are no rules that govern which formats you can use, or which brand-name products, or whether you can make copies or downloads. These are all irrelevent, if not dead and buried entirely.

Here's what I want when I'm thinking of media in 2008. I want a movie that I can download from the net, then copy and play anywhere I want. Cell phone, iPod, videogame console, television, whatever. Why should I bother with a movie on iTunes that's a cheap knockoff of the DVD? What's the point in that? I want the digital download to replace the DVD.

I want the download to look the same as the commercial DVD, not fuzzier and at lower resolution. This is currently an issue, though it has no reason to be. The bandwidth is there, the technology is there. Online content should be at DVD-quality, at least. Not "near-DVD quality," an odious phrase I found bounded around the Apple realms. I suspect this reflects the great fear of the movie industry, that what happened to the music business will happen to them. But, as I've repeatedly said, this is already happening. It cannot be avoided.

It's bad enough the music industry tried to resist the change. They completely destroyed themselves in the process; now, the major labels are about as popular as Bush and Cheney, and I for one can't wait to see all of 'em leave. Please, sue your customers. Please, put DRM onto your discs. You'll just go bankrupt faster. And when that happens, I'll find some investors, pick up the remains, and all will be happy.

It would be sad to see this happen to Hollywood, and I'm still pretty doubtful it will go down like that, but, still. Resistence to technological and cultural upheavals won't work.

Anyway, I'm ranting and losing the topic. What I want in my movie downloads is the ability to play on any media format available, freely and without any hassle. And that means burning my own DVD's. Which brings us back to the motto on my proposed homepage - "Burn Your Own Damn DVD's!"

I have no interest in making and selling the damned discs. When it comes to animation, especially Japanese anime, there ain't no money in it. Not unless you're a fairly large corporation with many different revenue streams and deep pockets. This doesn't seem to be doing them much good, anyway. Hopefully Geneon will not prove to be a future trend for the licensed publishers.

No, this is an idea that I've come to accept with greater fervor over time. The future is digital distribution. That's how you do it. Inventory, infrastructure, manufacturing, packaging - that's all brick-and-mortal thinking. Going entirely digital dodges this entirely. We are only talking about digital files, which can be stored and moved around without batting an eye. All that's needed now are a few clicks on the mouse, and a decent broadband connection.

Question, then: if we can provide online content that's equal to a commercial DVD, what to do with the box, and the label on the disc? Well, the internet let's you get creative with everything else, why not this? Create your own DVD package. Come up with whatever crazy designs you can scheme up. Anything at all, or nothing at all. And then you get to show 'em off and share.

See, this is where my head is at. I'm an artist. I've been doing this sort of thing for years. I've been pushing the idea of artist-created gallery CD's since the start of the decade. It's a perfect way to help build a community online and build that loyalty. In this environment, loyalty is the name of the game. It's the thing that can make or break you.

I'm thinking of offering tutorials, showing examples, and helping to empower the user as much as possible. Send your photos and .jpegs of your designs. Add them to the downloads section.

Another idea, one that keeps in tune with the theme of cooperation. Create business partnerships with related companies. DVD label-makers, burners, yadda yadda. Find those who stand to benefit by the market we're creating, and bring them into the fold. Advertising, discounts, yadda yadda.

Building the fan community is absolutely crucial. Online message boards? Hmm. I've been tossing that one around back and forth. User comments, rankings and recommendations? This would work best if each feature has its own page, with the direct links to the download sites - iTunes, Google, and all the rest. These pages need to be informative and comprehensive about the works, since they are pretty obscure. You need to be given a reason why this show or that movie is worth the cash.

Still another method for building community is through podcasts. It's perfect advertising since it goes to iTunes, and it's another great way to bring the world of film to the public. Think of a Conversations on Ghibli podcast, writ large. Be very aggressive about this; bring in guest stars, roundtable discussions, and fellow podcasters.

The biggest mistake I've seen other merchants make is that they don't hustle. This is the hardest part of the job. You've got to build a brand; and yet, what seems to happen is that your new startup just drops the anime movies onto store shelves, with nothing more than a few complimentary review copies to a handful of websites. No, friends, we need to work much harder on this. I believe this is a question of exposure. You're spreading a gospel or sorts.

But a gospel of what? Ah, that leads me to the big idea. It's either the smartest of the stupidest idea I've had on the whole matter. But I'm roundly convinced that the times and the circumstances call for it. I'll deal with that on the next post, since time's running down and I've got to get back to that book.

Keep circulating the tapes!


benjamin said...

Very interesting! Though I'm not so sure about the packages. It would be great to have that as an option, but it should certainly always have an official one too. All this custom stuff, whether on youtube, myspace or anywhere else, usually tends to be of the more popular kind of entertainment. But when publishing obscure japanese animated features, you're catering to people who are always on the lookout for quality, and at least in my case that includes packaging. I don't want to have to spend time making a package (I don't mind burning the disc and printing it, of course), I don't want a bland near-empty package on my shelf, and I certainly don't want to have to look at an ugly, amateurish, patched-togetether-by-a-twelve-year-old package. I mean, look at myspace... it threw webdesign 10 years back in time. Homepages back in 1997 might've been bland, but they weren't so hideous and unreadable and painful to the eyes as most myspace pages. If you were publishing children's movies, or the next Pirates-like franchise, I'm sure it'd be great, but I'm not so sure it'd appeal to an audience like, well, me. People like me would prefer to have, for example, reading material around the films. Have animation historians, or film critics and academics, or animation/film professionals comment on the film, write reviews, etc, and then allow for discussion. Allow for people to edit the video and create their compilations or things like that, or show their favorite scenes,... Visit Jim Emerson's "scanners blog"... he's recently started to edit film material in really interesting ways, as a sort of visual criticism. Just look at how he presented his 2007 top 10. That's the kind of things I would like to see. Allow for and push towards creative possibilities for the user to EXPAND on the product, rather than to simply create some popular soulless fluff.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Those are all excellent ideas. My thinking is very similar to yours.

The ability to mix and remix digital material is one of its strengths, and this should apply to movies and tv just as it has for music. I would certainly push for fan edits and remixes openly and freely.

The podcasting idea also fits in with your idea of bringing in experts and scholars. This is necessary when dealing with obscure niches, especially foreign and independent animation. This is a long tail within a long tail.

I'm one who believes that the people will come if they are given enough information. If they know about the art, and they're joining in as equal partners, then they'll be won over as fans. Remember, all of this had to start someplace. Someone had to be the first to introduce their friends to My Neighbor Totoro. Remember how difficult that was?

Things are much easier now, thanks to the internet, and the broadening of media. Look at the attention paid to the movie Persepolis. There's a real hunger for this sort of thing. No, it will never rival the likes of Pixar or (sigh) Shrek, but that's not necessary in the Long Tail economy.

Finally, I'd love to have fancy DVD packaging as much as the next fan. But that costs a truckload of money. I don't have that kind of money. The whole point of my crazy scheme (which I think is all but inevitable) is that the internet and digital technology can bring our production costs to near zero. I can start up a new business for next to nothing, and start making money on day one, or I can struggle to scrape together a couple million dollars that will never be seen again.

If anime had a future under the traditional brick-and-mortar model, we wouldn't be having these talks. We'd be watching Heidi on DVD.

I'll write a new post about DVD's, because I still think it has a future, much in the same way vinyl lp's still have a future.

Excellent insights, again. Everybody chime in with their thoughts, no matter how small. Every bit helps.

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