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Forget Art Let’s Watch the Footy

I attended a roundtable session today called ‘Content Crisis and Convergence’ run by QUT’s Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation. For me it was a blast from the past. Debates I hadn’t heard aired since 2007 seem to be back from the dead. Sadly we don’t seem to have moved on substantially.

Self congratulation seemed to be the order of the day with the ABC and Screen Australia very chuffed with themselves that TV viewing figures haven’t fallen off a cliff as predicted by digital hardliners as early as 2006.

As it turns out, the introduction of a raft of new digital TV channels in Australia have reversed the downward trend, at least for the time being. The only catch is that Seven2, Seven mate, Gem, Go, One and Eleven are not showing Australian content. ABC 3 has the best record of any of the digital multi-channels on digital content – but so it should, this was the ABC’s promise when it attracted government funding to establish the channel.

So there was a lot of talk about TV first up in the day and back slapping because Australians are watching Australian content. I’d contend this has more to do with our national religion – televised sport – than cultural content funded by agencies such as Screen Australia.

The agency has just released a new report – Beyond the Box Office – which gently acknowledges that we might need to look at new media platforms… um, some time soon. In the meantime 96% of Australians have watched free to air or subscription TV and average Australians consume 21 hours of TV per week. Whew! But wait, there’s more – view their video below.

So what are we watching? Underbelly and Packed to the Rafters seem to be the only Australian drama listed in the top 20 programs of 2009 (these are the most recent figures on Screen Australia’s website). Masterchef comes in on top followed by the AFL finals, the Melbourne Cup, the Rugby League Grand Final, the State of Origin then Tennis. I rest my case.

But feature films are doing well aren’t they? Yes, young people like the cinema almost as much as console gaming. Cinema attendances have actually gone up – but if you look at other Screen Australia statistics Australian share of box office actually went down from 2009 to 2010.

So what do we know? Zoom out a bit on the graph and compare TV viewing in 1991 with 2011 and it’s clear that there is a long term trend of decline. Cinema attendances have remained more stable but Australian box office share has generally declined on a very bumpy path.

So where does that leave us? What about the interwebs? Shouldn’t we be trying out a few new things there because the government is putting all this money into this NBN thingo? The one-size-fits-all “quality Australian content “formula isn’t going to work here – and I’d contend it’s not really working so well on the telly or the cinema screen. TV drama is important but it’s not the only valuable Australian cultural content. If we’re going to populate the frontiers we need to go there and that means embracing bloggers and gamers, social networks and multiplayer worlds. Otherwise when the big pipes get turned on they’re going to be brought to you exclusively by Google, the BBC, EA and Sony. Lots of content plays online and we have to depart from the old formulas if we’re going to make a splash in the new pool. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to reserve part of that pool for a new generation of Australians to start to create the future.

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Tunnel to the Future?

OK, I admit it, I downloaded a feature film on Bittorrent this week and watched it! Don’t worry, I wasn’t doing anything illegal. The Tunnel is a new Australian horror feature which was released via Bittorrent on the Vodo portal on May 19. The film has hit the news because of its low budget, the attachment of Andrew Denton’s company Zapruders Other Films and some innovative uses of online media (it won an Australian Interactive Media Industry Association -AIMIA – for its use of social media in 2011).

So after all the lead up how was the movie?

To be honest I think it was actually a bit slow to to get going but well worth hanging in there for the sequences set in the tunnel system under Sydney (which do exist by the way). The Tunnel is really a great ‘found footage’ film demonstrating that with the right set up you can indeed invoke profound terror using little more than infra-red footage and a wobbly camera. So hats off to filmmakers Enzo Tedeschi and Julian Harvey for delivering a great film experience – it was truely gripping!

I think some of the investment, distribution and marketing models these filmmakers are pursuing is also worth talking about. In May last year they started to sell ‘frames’ of the movie via their website for $1 each with a target of $135K to be raised. They got to about $35K before releasing the movie on Bittorrent but in the past week this has increased to over $41K and there have been over 144,000 downloads of the film.

So what’s the economic model? The sale of frames would not have gone close to covering the salaries of the crew or a lot of the expenses. From looking at their website the team seem to be hoping that loyal viewers will want to buy additional merchandise including a DVD packed with extras, the soundtrack and an e-book featuring some of the artwork of the film. I’ve got to say the visual look of the film is great, the tunnels under Sydney are a spectacular location and some of the VFX work is top notch. I have no information on how the sale of this merchandise is going but I’m betting that sales are going to be slow. If anyone hears any different I’d love to know.

Another platform being used by the Tunnel is Flattr, a crowd-sourced micro-payments system which allows you to make donations to creators of projects that you love. The idea is that you set a monthly budget which is split between the Flattr projects which you nominate each month. Flattr’s motto is ‘many small streams will form a large river’. It’s a great concept but ultimately relies on enough talented content creators adopting the system so that the big river can form. What do you think, should I put a Flattr button on my blog?

Getting back to the Tunnel, the biggest problem I have with the project is actually something at the creative heart of the project. The story context is very ‘Australian’ – I know that sounds funny coming from an Australian – but if you’re going live to the world on Bittorrent surely you need to make every effort to speak to an international audience.

It’s the opening of the film I had the most problems with, conspiracies within the NSW Government just seem a little too parochial (and as a Sydney-sider I’m over them). I might not have been so sensitive to this but I read some online commentary about the film urging the filmmakers to include English subtitles on the film. Not sure if it was the larrikin ocker mateship between the TV crew featured in film, or the intelligibility of Australians under ‘found-footage’ duress that prompted these comments. I think they ring true in a local industry that often doesn’t think big enough in what it sets out to do. So while I applaud these young filmmakers I also was slightly aghast that their bold new distribution strategy wasn’t backed up with characters that were a bit more transcendent and content a bit more universal.

But I see that since writing the first draft of this post this afternoon that The Tunnel now has over 150K Bittorrent downloads. I really hope it does succeed, not just for the Australian industry, but for the global independent film industry which has been in steep decline for the last five years. Courageous new business models are urgently needed and more experiments like The Tunnel need to be tried. Filmmakers need to embrace the power of the internet and actually put time and effort into exploring new options.

And, by the way, the Tunnel has already been broadcast on Showtime on Foxtel and opens at the Hoyts EQ cinema in Sydney on June 8. I’ll bet that the Bittorrent publicity actually boosts their box office receipts.

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Digital Sydney


I’ve been involved in an advisory team set up by the NSW Government last year to develop the Digital Sydney Initiative. It’s been a great experience for me to meet other people who work in the same city but in different parts of the digital industry such as research and development, education, business and digital content in all its many forms.

Digital Sydney aims to showcase Sydney as an international leader in digital business, education, creative collaboration and innovation. It’s about community building, aggregating events across a range of digital industries, and promoting ourselves more effectively to the world.

We’ve just launched our community and have developed a Sydney Branding Online Competition which is explained in the above video.

If you live or work in NSW and have an eye for design, this is a great opportunity to have a go at creating a visual identity that best represents Sydney’s digital community. There’s a cash prize of $10,000 and designs will be judged by a respected panel of leaders from Sydney’s digital community. Simply download the competition brief and submit your designs by April 11. The winner will be announced at the official launch of Digital Sydney on May 30.

Look out for more Digital Sydney events and activities coming up during the Vivid Festival in May.

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New Switch Centre Launch



I attended the launch of the new Information, Cultural Exchange ICE/SWITCH centre in Parramatta this week and was inspired by the creative energy and commitment I witnessed. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have been active in Parramatta digital arts and culture over the years and ICE or SWITCH usually figures in their history.

The new centre has been designed to be a focus for creative activities in Sydney’s West and will run workshops and short courses as well as host business incubation and creative projects. The design of the space is very innovative and they’ve really managed to build in a lot of potential for flexible use.

It’s a renovated warehouse space really – previously a Vincent De Paul second hand goods centre. The design is very open – large Mac computer screens are featured in the reception foyer mounted above round tables. As you walk into the space a kitchen area is centrally placed with an island bar suitable for hosting events but also small creative meetings over a cup of coffee.

Two computer labs are visible from the foyer behind large glass windows and at the rear of the building there is a large multi-function space suitable for performances, meeting and events. Glass folding doors separate a big meetings and function room at the rear of the building which can also be opened to become part of the larger open performance space. Multiple video projectors and flat panel screens were used to display some of the dynamic work that has come out of the centre.

Finally I was really impressed by the open plan upstairs offices and a space (not quite finished) that is going to host incubator projects and businesses – a large open plan space with a view of the parkland at the Parramatta end of Victoria Rd.

The centre was launched by NSW Arts Minister Virginia Judge and there were some inspirational speeches including the Chair of the ICE Board Susan Green who related her personal story of empowerment through her work with ICE.

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Online Strategy for the Arts

I spoke today on a panel at the Australia Council for the Arts looking broadly at the futures of online engagement by arts organisations.

The opening presentation of the day was given by Stephanie Hutchinson who set up the ‘Discover’ education programs at the National Theatre in the UK. I was really inspired to hear about this extensive program of community engagement by a major institution in the UK both in practical, face-to-face activities and their extension into the online environment. It was the philosophy of community engagement that I found really compelling because it’s the place where any successful online strategy needs to start.

National Theatre Discover program

It’s true the National Theatre has several natural advantages over its Australian counterparts. It is already an established global brand that has strong associations with names like Laurence Olivier and Helen Mirren. It’s budget is also relatively large yet neither brand nor budget are necessary pre-requisites to adopting a strategy of direct engagement with audiences.

The online sphere is still young enough that it is possible to build a substantial global presence from scratch given institutional commitment to community engagement. This needs to be followed through on all channels, including online. I don’t see this leap being made often enough in Australian arts institutions and it’s a shame because it obviously creates many new opportunities.

These are the notes I prepared for my brief presentation which outline my views on the future of online engagement in the arts.

Does online digital media have a big future in the area of arts education? The answer is yes but the jury is still out on whether traditional arts organisations will lead online or if they will be supplanted by more nimble creative players.

The challenge of online is not about ‘having a good web site’ any more. It’s about maintaining a constant presence online that is dynamic, exciting and 24/7. And to do this properly it costs money and requires a serious long-term commitment to community engagement both in the physical and online worlds.

To succeed in the online world you need to consider who your competitors are: this is a global medium and there are no barriers to entry. Remember, the long tail of content is about professional and amateur content co-existing side by side. Artists aren’t so special any more, you need to take amateurs seriously, online they are your competition and also potentially your strongest supporters.

You need to commit to publishing useful information for people online. One of the biggest challenges faced by all educators is to compete with the vast amount of information that is already out there and available online. While a lot of this information is not great, the best material does tend to rise to the top of search engine rankings – the sheer weight of numbers of people contributing and viewing material online is overwhelming.

To engage with an online audience you have to understand how the medium works. People are out there looking for answers to questions online – and they find them through online search or through ‘human search’ – crowd-sourced answers to questions on social networks such as Twitter. If your answers are relevant this is one way you can ensure you are found online.

Arts organisations all have high levels of expertise in various specialist areas. A commitment to education is a commitment to sharing that information with a community and also a commitment to listening to their input. Social networks demand that we put out more about ourselves online – this also follows for institutions. Because if institutions are to successfully make the transition to the online world they have to humanise themselves which means not only answering questions but also listening for them.

The ability of any organisation to be found online is going to become a bigger challenge in the future – for everyone. Because it’s becoming harder to bring traffic to your own web site and more and more important to distribute your content on as many online channels as you can – particularly those social networks.

Overall though, it’s about how you communicate your artform and passion most effectively to an online audience – monitoring what questions are being asked and how best to answer them. It’s about value adding to what you are already doing –providing rich resources online – video, photographs, games alongside relevant and up to date information.

So is this education or is it something else? Borrowing again from the National Theatre strategy, maybe ‘discovery’ is a good way to look at it.

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Gamecrush: move over chatroulette

Gamecrush is a new service out of San Francisco that is reportedly so popular online that its Beta service

is temporarily unavailable due to the incredible user response (more than 10,000 inquiries in five minutes)

Not a bad PR stunt to kick off a new service that combines online gaming with online dating. Word is spreading fast, I found out about it from one of my students who presented it in class as an example of online innovation. By the end of the day I heard it being referred to in a number of conversations – perhaps because it promises a new method for young people to make money.

Whether the reality lives up to the promise remains to be seen.  For $6.60 gamers can connect by 2 way video link with an online date while they play a game. Playdates can earn up to $5  for taking part in a ten minute session. According to my students this “sounds better than flipping burgers”.

And if you’re still able to concentrate on the gameplay the online gaming experience will range from casual online games all the way through to Call of Duty and GTA. The service is apparently going to be offered on the XBox Live Network and will be extended to the PS3 and even WOW according to the press release.

Who’d have thought that webcam stripping and online gaming would meet in this kind of sandwich? I didn’t spot it, but then again, my server isn’t falling over.

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