Ten years ago I was still an impressionable teenager with creative aspirations beyond my means. I was raised on pulp Sci-Fi and creature features, hit puberty around the time of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and entered adolescence as I discovered the narrative genius of Tarantino. I wanted to do it all; I wanted a platform for my artistic angst and, like all sixteen year olds, I wanted it now. I could never have dreamt that the internet would one day make all of this possible the world over.
.Wind the clocks forward a couple of years and a friend drops in to my lap a DVD of an independent animated series called Broken Saints. I still thank him to this day, for here was something of an omen on the shape of things to come; how as an audience I could control the way I accessed film, and as a film maker, one disillusioned with the idea of big studios, I could make something good without compromising in the face of the hard buck. And more importantly, how the internet could be used as a creative tool to help all us big dreamers create our own opportunities. But this future is not one without questions; as the stage becomes larger, how does one define themselves in the face of an increasingly competitive market?
Broken Saints, for those of you not familiar with it, was written and directed by a Canadian called Brooke Burgess who wanted to pioneer a new medium of storytelling accessible to all. He aptly coins it an animated comic book epic; inspired by graphic novels such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, he transferred this medium to the screen to create an entirely immersive experience complete with speech bubbles, voice overs and a score that is as much a part of the series’ tone as is the writing. Following the paths of four protagonists from the distant corners of the globe, Broken Saints is a story that examines the spiritual and social vacuum of the world we live in through our heroes and their struggle against a faceless organization whose mission it is to initiate worldwide enlightenment through broadcasting pure, unfiltered fear. Ambitious in scope even by the standards of the animated genre, it resonated with me as writer and human being alike.
I was fortunate enough to have a Skype chat with Brooke Burgess about his trans-media model and how the internet has changed the landscape for both audiences and film makers. It was a pleasant two hours; Brooke, (finding time for me before jetting back out to Thailand the very next morning to begin work on his second book,) is enthusiastic to the point that it’s infectious; with the media savvy that he possesses and having built his success through his early recognition of the internet’s potential, there seemed no one more qualified to answer such a question.
But to properly understand this success, we have to first examine Saints’ origins, as a watered down (technically speaking) version of the idea created through Flash software and hosted on an entirely ad free site. That meant that the creators, all three of them, were paying for every single megabyte of data downloaded from their own pockets. When this started gathering momentum, they asked for donations to keep the series going and were receiving anything from up to $500 from people they hadn’t even met. Does this sound familiar to any of you? It should; this is crowd funding at its inception, a torch carried on by sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. From here, the series sky rocketed and they eventually received the funding to start it from scratch with updated production values and the addition of a voice cast.
‘In the digital era,’ Brooke explains, ‘Saints, in a niche focussed way, was less about creating something that was broad and wide to a mass platform. The successful creative works go narrow and deep. As we were wondering whether there was an audience out there in this great wild west of the early Flash era that would appreciate this kind of work, we learned that it was a two way medium and we were getting audience feedback immediately. If people like what you do they will want to propagate it, get involved and have a sense of ownership over it. And because there was a one to two month lag between chapters of Broken Saints I knew that there was potential to constantly stay in touch with the audience and get a sense of what they were feeling and of their collective pulse and to make them feel like they did have a sense of emotional ownership over the work. The website and the forums built the paradigm of a community for us, a place (for the audience) to ask political and philosophical questions and I definitely think that Saints pioneered this in a way.
As we’re fully in to the crowd funding age, the TV, films and games you’re seeing being predominantly funded through Kickstarter are less from the immediate emotional standpoint and more from the projects that are nostalgia based, because there’s a real power in looking back at eras during which we felt an emotional resonance. Maybe Saints planted some seeds for this early on, for what I wanted to do was tap in to the emotional vein that people felt with mature graphic novels such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Sandman and Invisibles. Back then all you could do was discuss it in comic book shops and share it in your small community of friends and I wanted to do that but with immediacy through Saints.
In short, Saints is a template as to how you can become successful through the Internet as an honest, grass roots artist and its influence can be felt throughout the modern digitisation of the media. Getting one’s voice heard has never been easier; video sites such as YouTube have essentially replaced Public-Access Television, blog sites such as WordPress allow you to make more money, (consistently speaking) as an independent journalist working from home than those attempting to climb the fraught rungs of the newspaper/magazine industry. And music? iTunes, Amazon and others are a digital distributor for musicians of every level of popularity. All of this and more allows you to not only be heard, but more importantly, make money. It won’t be long before the old channels of creative fame and fortune are obsolete, but this presents its own problems which Brooke aptly addresses;
‘I was working in the Napster era, and what you were seeing then was this generational thought of “well, music should be free,” which has changed a little bit with the ‘Apple-isation’ of things, but this thought was a product of the late 1990s as the web was crawling out of the mire, and what we’ve seen since is a huge change to the technology and delivery methods of art. People can watch anything they want for free online or binge-watch through Netflix and as a consequence, the old publishing and distribution systems are becoming dinosaurs. A good example of this is music; now there’s no longer any monetary reward, bands like Radiohead give music away as other huge acts like Madonna, Foo Fighters, Maroon 5 and Coldplay are receiving piddly annual royalty cheques even after achieving millions of listens on digital aggregator services such as Spotify and thus have to make their money from touring – but how do you do that with film, TV and literature? What has happened to the creative economy in this blob of content on demand is that it’s much harder to keep people engaged; where before they couldn’t wait to get the next instalment of something, now it’s like “Oh, I can come back later to that and instead look at these others that have popped up in the last five minutes.” The question now is a) how do creators get their message out there amongst the competition, and b) what’s the perceived value and how do we change that?’
Yes, we have become an audience spoilt by choice and made glutinous from consumerist convenience. Whenever, wherever and however we want it. This is the downside to empowering all us would-be artists. A good example of this is the e-book market; with the growing popularity of the self-publishing route, it means that the Kindle market is flooded by un-established authors, some with genuinely good ideas which unfortunately get lost amidst the unfiltered dross that finds its way there also. Brooke is currently waging his own war in this arena with ‘The Cat’s Maw,’ his self-published debut novel of a proposed five book series titled ‘The Shadowland Saga.’ But Brooke was a pioneer of many of these online strategies. And with his profile, he has been able to find a niche, even within the notoriously difficult genre of ‘Young Adult’ simply by adopting his own trans-media approach;
‘The way you differentiate yourself is by telling your story through a trans-media strategy, building a narrative universe and asking how it can exist through different media. .Having now written ‘The Cat’s Maw,’ I’m asking myself how this can exist in an app environment or in an art driven environment. You need to cut the fat and find how you can express in different ways the reflective qualities of this world you’re building through all of the platforms available.’
Cinema admissions are now at their lowest since 1994 with an estimate of 1.26 billion tickets being sold between January 1st and December 31st, 2014. And in just one year, cinema revenue dropped by 5% from 2013 to 2014 (Hollywood Reporter.) This twenty year low demonstrates most clearly the change in climate between audiences and studios. Yet ticket prices continue to rise. Is this a refusal to yield to the changing times by the cinema chains or a necessary step towards survival? Either way, we’re all making it loud and clear that since the recession, a movement towards cheaper, even free, sources of media are the preferred option. After all, why leave your house for an over-priced, sticky floored cinema to eat stale popcorn whilst watching a film over the head of the person in front of you when you can put on Netflix through your own 50-inch TV (complete with sound bar) with your mates at an insubstantial cost? Cinemas inevitably responded by flooding the box office with reboots, sequels and adaptations, each one coming with a guaranteed audience and a satisfactory return. Only established directors such as Tarantino, Scorsese and Nolan are taking risks by challenging blockbuster audiences with original, one off stories. We saw a resurgence towards the end of 2014 with films such as Boyhood and Nightcrawler, but these are a luxury few studios can afford. And unless we stop buying in to these franchises, so it shall remain.
So has this influenced film makers taking a chance on experimentation in their work?
‘It depends on the film maker’s goal,’ Brooke says. ‘I still ardently follow film and TV developments through surfing the zeitgeist to see what’s going on, what people are liking and why, and I mentioned the nostalgic trip before; it’s the age of the remake and the homage; how can we tap in to an old idea that’s worked? How can we play with something that’s safe and then build tent poles and franchises around that? What’s interesting is that you’re seeing a two pronged approach where some film or content makers rally against that and make something that’s unique and utterly compelling, usually a short film or trans-media experience, and if that gets any traction and some of the major sites or social media sites start to promote it, within a week you’re hearing about not only a studio optioning the idea and hiring that director to do some tent pole they already had planned around a remake, but also, the response of, “Wow, they did this for nothing. You can have some money, (not a lot,) now do a big screen version of the same thing and let’s see if you make a hit out of it.” There’s a little bit more in the sense, in the lower budget realm, of throwing stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks. But it’s all coming down to the fact that film makers and visual creators are doing something with their own money or even for free. So with that and how little is being offered to creators that’s where people turn to crowd funding.’
Crowd funding has served as a portal for creative aspirants in recent years to find a market for their product or project. Yes, there are hundreds of others trying to achieve the same thing, but you’re asking the public to take a chance with you. With every investor that pledges, artists from every walk of life are shown the value and widespread appeal of their idea. This can only usher in a new era, as Brooke puts it, of unique and utterly compelling storytelling. A shift towards a new industry of people not afraid to take a chance in creating and investing. This also completely destroys the established model of a financial elite controlling said industries, the film industry in particular. Power back to the people, a digital revolution.
And maybe it is this very gap between audiences and the creators they look up to that has led to the studios falling one step behind. Out of touch, even. Yet, the internet is the only place to amend this; I met Brooke Burgess for the first time through the realms of social networking, back in the days of Myspace. Even then, Brooke was more than happy to chat to passionate fans about the universe of Saints and even to those critics unhappy with the direction that he took. ‘You have to access social media to get the pulse of your audience,’ Brooke states, and with this quote in particular, I couldn’t agree more. Facebook is now an extension of the Broken Saints forum, a collective tribe of enthusiasts able to communicate with the chief himself. Brooke, in return, is able to keep these fans, far and wide, updated with upcoming projects and recently reached out to them with his own pleas of crowd funding for his debut novel. Not one to exploit his followers, this personal touch is something that worked regardless because a sense of connectivity had been established. Further evidence of this can be seen through the Twitter boom where the masses feel, on some level, in touch with the celebrities they idolize. A shallower avenue, to be sure, for it’s only ever one way traffic. But it has created a culture of transparency that in this world of vast class division, has been a necessary step forward, if only for the celebrities to continue doing what they’re doing.
The internet has even changed the way freelancers find their next job, through online crew databases such as Creative England and websites, such as Mandy.com, that list skill specific callouts from nationwide production companies of the professional, semi-professional and amateur markets. This same website also hosts casting calls for actors. For film makers of any level, it is a resource to bear in mind. Actors can now have a presence through websites like Spotlight, which serves as an online curriculum vitae and a place where essentials for actors like headshots and show reels can be submitted. Any actor I have ever worked with that has been worth their salt directed me, from their very first email, to their Spotlight profile, an extension of social networking and not dissimilar to LinkedIn. And crowd funding is not the only financial resource available to film makers; the internet has opened new and exciting channels in the way of grants, and online film competitions and festivals blaze a trail for the directors of tomorrow.
The answer to how the internet has changed the way we access film, for both audiences and film makers, is levelling the playing field. Brooke Burgess has taught me that for every negative this spells is a massive positive, a shift of power and a transference of control. But ultimately, how both parties are coming gradually together to break new ground and establish a new era of balance. Yes, we have some way to go. We’re like infants handling a new toy; it’s exciting but it has its hazards. We’re also on the verge of becoming apathetic. But I trust that a new horizon is on its way; as the old ideas begin to run out, there will be a yearning for something new.
Broken Saints started out as a dream with no business model and blossomed. Brooke said he often wonders what would have happened had he waited twelve years and released Saints in today’s market. With so many more resources within the virtual threshold, one can but wonder. But sometimes a good idea speaks for itself beyond the channels it chooses to take. And therein lies Saints true lesson for success, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the internet; have faith in your idea, maintain your creative integrity and, most importantly, see it through to the bitter end.