Since launching New York-based Atlas Media Corp. nearly 20 years ago, the prodco’s president and executive producer, Bruce David Klein (pictured), has had lots of time to ruminate on the challenges in reaching audiences. Here, in his own words, he shares three that have been on his mind recently.
I’ve seen the future of media and it is, well… complicated. It’s about catching lightning in a bottle, harnessing the power of randomness, and finding your core audience amidst the chaos. I’m sure there are dozens of challenges we should all be thinking about, but here are three that have been on my mind:
Challenge #1: Catching lightning in a bottle
These days on the TV front, the constant refrain I hear from non-fiction producers and network execs is that ‘the business has changed,’ ‘the bar has been raised’ and ‘the same old things don’t really work anymore.’ The ‘meat and potatoes’ shows that once propelled the cable industry (simple – but tasty – shows with just enough entertainment and just enough information) are no longer enough. To maintain growth, lower age demos and break out of the pack, cable nets need thick, juicy ‘filet mignons’ – big, in-your-face shows with jaw-dropping characters, intense conflict and extraordinarily high stakes. In other words, more than ever, they need to catch lightning in a bottle. This puts increasing pressure on producers to deliver better hooks, better talent, etc. With each hit, the bar is raised even higher, and the challenge becomes even greater. There’s no let-up – especially in a tightening economy – so lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Challenge #2: Harnessing the randomness of the Internet
In addition to creating original webisodes for a range of clients including Comcast, Discovery.com, History.com, Westin Hotels, Disney’s Family Fun, Lifetime.com and others, our Digital & Emerging Media Division has also been experimenting with launching our own websites and YouTube channels. One of our successful channels is called Stounder (featuring offbeat clips that ‘stound your senses’). Basically, we combed our library, pulled out some cool clips and threw them up to see what would happen. What happened was … well, I’m not sure. Some of the clips got no attention, some of the clips got a little attention, and a few of the clips hit it out of the ballpark, becoming viral and getting upwards of a million hits in a week.
Why did one clip hit and another fail? We have no idea. The very smart people at Google have no idea.
One of the clips that was a huge hit was called ‘Can Man’ and featured a performance artist who made a suit out of a few hundred empty soda cans. Why did this get a zillion hits and why did hundreds of other clips that you’d think are more interesting get a few thousand? What – if any – insights can we take away? This is the basic challenge of the Internet, and it has great implications for the future of our industry. At some point, we’re going to have to (a) understand why some things hit and others don’t, or (b) ‘go’ with the chaos and learn how to harness it (if possible).
Challenge #3: Nurturing a core audience
While the Internet has earned every bit of its Wild West reputation, the theatrical documentary front has proven to be the opposite. This year, our film division will have released two films: Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise (a first-ever, warts-and-all portrait of the legendary rocker) and Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead (a film that explores an unusual relationship between a controversial death penalty advocate and a man who murdered his four children). In both of these cases, we learned that – surprise! – loyal, devoted audiences still exist, even in this era of Internet fractionalization. The challenge is finding them. In the case of the Meat Loaf film, we spent months working with record labels, industry websites, fan sites, indie film organizations and film festivals to built a targeted word-of-mouth campaign that allowed the film to open in 100-plus theaters in North America, followed by a successful TV run, and a Universal DVD release. The key was painstakingly targeting and then nurturing core and casual fans of the performer – and it paid off.
So, too, with Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. The film will open in theaters this coming February and we are already deep into the grassroots marketing of the film to law students, advocacy groups, debate societies, and so on. Our experience with these films is a useful reminder that forward-thinking producers may need to get savvy in areas that they have traditionally left to their network clients: marketing, advertising and building word-of-mouth. Yes, we’re producers, but these are clearly skill sets that we’ll need down the pike.
So, I say, go do that voodoo that you do so well – but keep an eye on the future. It’s here.