Will audiences actively choose how a film will conclude? Will films become more like games? Will storytelling radically change due to the impact of new technologies? What kind of entertainment content will be the wave of the future?
These issues were the focus of a panel discussion called Town Hall: The Future of Content—The View From the Top (moderated by Daniel Cross) at the Whistler Summit, the Whistler Film Festival’s industry forum, on Friday, December 3.
While the discussion covered a number of topics about content production, I'll focus here mostly on the main points made about film storytelling, gaming, and the audience experience.
One of the six panelists was Don Carmody, producer of films such as Quebec’s Polytechnique, Chicago, and Resident Evil: Afterlife. He thinks that the core basics of storytelling will remain unchanged. “Basically, the only good news going forward is that content is pretty much the same as it’s been for several million years,” Carmody said. “People literally sitting around the campfire entertaining each other with stories. And I think that through all the ages that has remained true.”
But he thinks that it is just the delivery system that keeps changing. He feels that listeners want to become more active in the process of storytelling, and cites the example of gaming, interactive TV, and alternate endings (such as director’s versions) on DVDs.
Yair Landau, Mass Animation founder and former Sony vice-chairman, disagreed with the predictions about interactivity.
“I’m not a big believer that we’re going to see any evolving art from what if we follow this other characters arc,” Landau said. “Well, what if these professional who wrote the story and really developed that arc had thought through all that and that’s why they made this movie? Whereas game play, good games are fundamentally developed with the idea that there’s an interactivity embedded in it. There isn’t one character arc that you’re following, that it’s a more open world, and that’s part of the issue of why it’s so hard to make a game into a movie, is because there isn’t usually an easy through-line and a character arc.”
He did note that it’s important to acknowledge the emergence of games as a dominant and influential art form that rivals longform storytelling.
“From a cross-platform standpoint, what we’ve really seen from a technology explosion and from a pure consumer-content explosion is that essentially every device you have has become not just a game platform but a good game platform,” Landau said. “The iPhone became a game platform, not because Steve Jobs wanted it to be, but because consumers made it that”¦. I think that gaming has led in terms of adoption on a cross-platform basis because it’s been easier for people to write it quickly and get it out there, and stories are still really hard to tell.”
Stephen Gaydos, executive editor of Variety magazine, pointed out that Variety started out in 1905 when vaudeville was all the rage. During the publication’s lifetime, it has endured 105 years of constant change and upheavals in the industry, with new forms arising (TV, movies, DVDs, Blu-ray) and other forms phasing out (vaudeville, vinyl records, VHS).
“If we took this room and we divided it with everybody under 35 and everybody over 35, I think there’s a different sense with what the role culture is,” Gaydos said. “The role of culture maybe is being changed by the technology we’re using”¦. If you’re watching movies on something this size, maybe the movies get small and you hold them and you control them and they don’t control you. I don’t want to control a movie; I want to be controlled by a movie. But I’m over 35.”
The subject of the popularity internet videos, such as those posted on YouTube, was raised by audience members, which traditional forms of entertainment also have to compete with.
Canada Media Fund CEO Valerie Creighton wondered if this phenomenon is temporary or not. “Do you think it’ll always be there? In five years after watching 25 million ”˜Double Rainbow’ type content, are people your age going to get tired of it or not? It’s had a huge impact but what’s the staying power over the long haul?”
This led the discussion into the topic of the solitary versus the communal audience experience.
Telus content director Prem Gill differentiated between the viewing nature of different devices. “On TV, I think is still somewhat of a shared entertainment experience. Your Web is kind of your work experience as well because you’re doing other things. You might be on Facebook, or actually e-mailing and watching something. And then your mobile device is truly your sort of solitary, individual downtime experience for video-type of content.”
Several panelists felt that people will always want to return to the communal audience experience. However, as suggested by Gill’s example of how people are can watch the same hockey game and simultaneously share their reactions via social media and Skype, I think that the concept of the communal audience in a “darkened room” has shifted to the virtual level.
I personally think that while the audience may not be in the same physical place or time, technology has provided a virtual darkened room for audiences so that while something may be viewed individually alone, reactions can be shared via social media, e-mail, texting, and more. YouTube videos shared on Facebook or Twitter attempt to replicate the communal experience by sharing individual experiences and connecting individuals physically separated from one another.
In the end, it’s clearly a discussion that needs to continue since there are no definite answers, there’s still a great deal of speculation, and the process is still underway. As several panelists noted, the most we can observe at the moment is that there are certain technological developments creating social phenomenon that are making significant impacts that cannot be ignored. Whether or not they have a lasting effect remains to be seen.