Jason Mirch is a feature film, television, branded entertainment, and digital content producer and executive with over 15 years of experience. Mirch was the Head of feature and television development at Image Nation, a finance and production company based in Abu Dhabi, UAE. There, he supervised the Image Nation contributions in the development of Flight, The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Contagion, Careful What You Wish For, Ghost Rider 2, Midnight Sun, and 100 Foot Journey.
Prior to his work at Image Nation, Mirch was Co-Head of Development at Zadan/Meron Productions (Chicago, Footloose, The Bucket List) where he was actively involved in developing a slate of feature film projects for New Line, Paramount, Summit Ent., and CBS/Paramount. He also developed and sold television projects and mini-series to CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and Lifetime.
He tells Creative Screenwriting Magazine how screenwriters can plan for an ever-changing entertainment industry.
Based on an industry panel discussion of the big events that impacted the entertainment industry in 2018 and predictions for 2019 he had some takeaways. Of course, many of the topics centered on issues like the #metoo movement, diversity, and major deals that had been closed in 2018, and what it meant for the future. While it is easy to look backward and pick out major trends, it is much more difficult to gaze into a crystal ball and predict the future.
Birth Of A New Film Studio
In 1994, no one in the industry could have predicted the sudden and tragic death of Frank Wells, who at the time was the President of The Walt Disney Company. During Easter Weekend, while heli-skiing in Nevada with a group of friends that included Clint Eastwood, the helicopter carrying Wells crashed, killing the much-admired 62-year-old executive.
Certainly, no one could have predicted how Wells’ death would set off a catastrophic chain of events that would change the entire landscape of the industry, leading to the formation of Dreamworks SKG – and Dreamworks Animation – which, 10 years later, would have the highest grossing film of the year – Shrek 2 in 2004 (beating, among others Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles.)
It was also in 2004 that Mirch entered the film industry. At that time, the Hollywood landscape looked vastly different. Consider that in 2004, YouTube, Facebook, Hulu, and Instagram had not yet been conceived. Collectively today, these companies are worth over $500 billion and each has distribution platforms for licensed, original, or user-generated content.
Social Media Meets The Streamers
Studios who look for ‘stars’ to drive projects are increasingly looking to ‘social media influencers’ to star in – and promote – projects. Several YouTube channels have more regular subscribers than major cable networks have regular viewers.
In 2004, Amazon was an online bookstore competing primarily with Barnes & Noble. Today, Amazon is an online streaming distributor of feature and television content, including its original series, the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Recently, Amazon’s value is believed to have reached over $1 trillion, making it the first company in the world to crack that threshold. Apple isn’t far behind.
In 2004, Netflix was exclusively a mail-order operation, shipping rental DVDs to customers through the US Postal Service. Today, Netflix is available in 190 countries worldwide, offering a combination of licensed and original content. Last week, Netflix projects earned 15 Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nomination for the Alfonso Cuarón film, Roma. To date, its original series has garnered 37 Emmy Awards and 4 Golden Globe Awards.
While the landscape in Hollywood is constantly shifting, there are still constants that have remained true. One of these is the fact that all of the platforms and companies referenced here are in constant need of content to fill pipelines. A second truth is that as the delivery mechanisms and distribution entities change, content must evolve in order to find its widest audience.
Short Form Content
With that in mind, it is a good bet to consider that the content audiences will be consuming in 2019 and beyond will be far more “bite-size” than it has been in the past. We will begin to measure runtimes in terms of seconds, rather than minutes. There will no doubt still be feature films and television series produced and exhibited, but much of the content viewed on a daily basis will be under 3 minutes – and in some cases, about the length of an advertisement.
Jeffrey Katzenberg – the “K” in “SKG” is no stranger to disrupting the landscape of Hollywood. It was a direct result of Frank Wells’ death that Katzenberg partnered with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form Dreamworks. In 1994, it was the first new studio to be created in over 50 years. This allowed them to retain ownership of their content.
In 2018, Katzenberg partnered with former eBay and Hewlett Packard CEO, Meg Whitman, to disrupt the industry again, forming their latest entertainment venture, NewTV, a $1 billion studio dedicated to producing “bite-size” content for smartphones and other mobile devices. And they are brought their friends; Disney, 21st Century Fox, Sony, and many others who all jumped on board to back the venture. It is interesting that these companies, which are focused on leveraging their IP (intellectual property) across multiple platforms, are jumping on board. Clearly, they see how shorter content can help drive their other business units.
The concept is really a marriage of two ideas; one, if a 3-minute video of a cat playing a ukelele can go viral on YouTube, audiences would certainly want to spend the same amount of time watching videos featuring their favorite characters in existing franchises; and two, consumers have already proven they will pay for quality long-form content on smart devices through streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, why not give them quality content in mini-form?
While traditionalists will most likely still want to watch features and television shows on larger devices such as televisions, laptops, or even the cinema, consider how many commuters get stare into their phones and iPads while taking the train or an Uber. These shorter bites of content are perfect entertainment on the go.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently ran an article that explained how podcasts are going in a similar direction. There is a podcast for almost every hobby, interest, or casual curiosity imaginable. And many of the podcasts can last an hour or more. But how long is too long?
With so much content, audiences tend to get overwhelmed with choices. Consider how many of us sit in front of the Netflix homepage, gnawing our fingernails, endlessly scrolling through rows upon rows of thumbnails on screen. Netflix even developed an advanced algorithm to tell us what we want to watch, in the hopes we’ll stop the scrolling and just settle on something already. Still, there is so much anxiety about diving into a program and feeling as though we’ve wasted our precious time. The seemingly infinite choices also mean that if the content doesn’t capture us within the first minute or two, we bail. Netflix has wised up to the concept of too many choices. To this end, they have curtailed their viewing recommendations.
I tell screenwriters that producers and executives know after page 5 if they are going to continue reading a script, but really the answer is more like page 2. Consumers of produced content are no different. Audiences can reject content almost as quickly as it can load. I have a friend in the PGA who just received several “For Your Consideration” screeners on DVD. She popped in a screener for a film that has been receiving a lot of critical acclaim. Within two minutes, she said, “this is boring,” whipped out the DVD, and went onto the next. Her popcorn wasn’t even out of the microwave yet.
Too harsh? Well, let’s go back to how podcasters are attacking this epidemic of ADD in audiences. They are producing podcasts that last roughly one minute. As one senior producer quoted in the WSJ article states, “ You don’t have to make this big decision about ‘Can I commit to it?’ It just pops up.”
As with any evolution in entertainment, this shift to “bite size” content will pose a number of challenges for content creators. The first and most obvious question is, how can we possibly tell a complete story in a minute?
For that answer, we should look to two groups who are masters at telling complete stories in extremely short amounts of time. The first are stand-up comedians. Standing on stage with nothing but a microphone, a stool, and a restless audience, a comedian doesn’t have a lot of time for set up, backstory, or prologue. They get in with a setup, hit you with an expectation based on the setup, and then reverse the expectation to get the laugh. Bing, bang, boom. In fact, many of the best jokes could be turned into shorts that are one minute or less.
Advertisers are the second group of content creators who have also been telling stories in a minute or less for decades. Now, their goal is to sell a product to the audience at the end. But the formula is no different from traditional storytelling. Set up a scenario involving a character, identify a problem for that character, and then provide a solution to the problem. A good advertisement entertains as much it sells.
The term “branded content” also has roots in advertising, but has gone beyond the scope of marketing and blatant product placement and into more subtle forms of incorporation. Many times, brands and products want to connect with content creators who will produce projects that share similar core values or thematic elements as the brand.
For instance, while based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, I helped develop a television series which was primarily financed by the Judicial Department of the United Arab Emirates. Initially, the representatives from the Judicial Department wanted to create a series of short documentaries that highlighted how “user-friendly” their “e-services” had become. The creatives in the room stared blankly back at the representatives, before offering an idea of our own; perhaps it made more sense to create a fictionalized television series that focuses on a young Emirati attorney as she begins her career in the Abu Dhabi judicial system. The show was ultimately produced and is now streaming on Netflix globally. That is branded content, in which the brand achieved their goals of exposure for their product, and audiences do not feel as though they are watching an advertisement.
The second question we must ask ourselves is, how do creators of “bite-size” content break out in an overcrowded marketplace? Should “bite-size” become popular, more of it will inevitably be produced, which will again flood the market with infinite choices. The key for content creators will be to find their audience and supply content which is consistent in quality and delivery.
About ten years ago, as the modern “indie film” movement was gasping its last breaths, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were asked where they thought the film industry was going. Surely, with the advent of prosumer equipment and software, and with a number of new distribution entities being formed and theaters being constructed, and online platforms, it was becoming easier for anyone to produce and distribute films, right? To everyone’s shock and appall, they predicted that studios would begin making fewer films at larger budgets, and going to a cinema would be an event that rivaled going to the live theatre.
A decade later, their predictions have largely come true. Studios are making fewer films at larger budgets and aside from the occasional independent outlier, most audiences are skipping “smaller” theatrical films in favor of streaming services or home entertainment. This is evidenced by the fact that the box office total for all Best Picture Oscar nominees is over $1.2b – and $700m is from Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, which made more than all of the other nominated films combined.
With all of this in mind, screenwriters will need to consider how to adapt in a marketplace that is looking at content that can be viewed across multiple platforms and in different regions, rather than purely theatrically or on traditional television. This is not to say writers should abandon theatrical or television as distribution platforms, but they must recognize that far more power is in their hands, and the hands of their partners in content creation if they adapt their work to suit distribution platforms that are readily available to them.
We must also understand that any of the projects that are being created are based on pre-existing IP. With that in mind, it is a good idea for writers to option and acquire pre-existing material that has a built-in audience or some name recognition. The process by which one can option a piece of intellectual property is not difficult and requires entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to recognize quality material, and the ability to make a deal. This does not mean a writer should attempt to option the latest Dan Brown novel, but instead set their sights on an overlooked gem of a project.
When considering what material to option, consider what sorts of thematic elements to explore and find writers and content creators who have existing material. In 2015, I optioned the memoir, Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy, which was on the New York Time best seller list a few years prior. The book was well written and had a built-in audience. I connected with a very solid writer and director team and worked with them to develop the project. While not free, the option was shockingly less than what one would expect to pay for a New York Times bestseller.
And that is the key to succeeding in the changing landscape of Hollywood. All of the companies, executives, and content creators mentioned here all share the same entrepreneurial gene that a writer must start to develop if he or she is to break out in an overcrowded marketplace. Because there is no way of knowing exactly how the industry will evolve, or what events will shape audiences’ appetites in the future, writers must simultaneously change with the landscape while changing the landscape, so that we are forward thinking rather than simply reactionary.