Discover more from The Process
Exiting the Mass Media Machine
Toward an Art of Narrowcasting
Over the past three weeks, I’ve experienced an unexpected surge in paid subscribers. It seems I now have the modest resources to begin untangling myself from other commitments and concentrate more on expanding this platform.
There's been a busy revolving door of subs who have signed on solely to view The Reformers, which is fantastic in its own right. Many others have stuck around to support the broader mission, and to you, I’d like to convey my sincere appreciation. Seriously. Your collective support has opened up exciting avenues that weren’t possible only a few weeks ago.
After many years of navigating my ideas through the bizarre labyrinth of the established industry, I’ve concluded that it’s just not hospitable to the kind of work I aspire to make. The internet has opened up a new frontier in the media landscape, but while major disruption and innovation are underway through content churn models like podcasting and blogs, the medium of film seems to be stuck.
I see an opportunity in this platform to take a slightly different tack that could become a development vehicle for a new kind of independent filmmaking. This is my reason for releasing The Reformers here, and what began with a thought of, ‘F**k it, what do I have to lose?’ has quickly turned into something very promising.
At its root, the ‘established industry’ I refer to above is simply a collective of content distribution networks. Behind every screen, sound device, newspaper, or billboard exists a vast infrastructure of industry networks and delivery mechanisms that dictate which content can flow where, which will be promoted and to what extent.
When it’s at its best, broadcasting across these vast distribution networks is the art of mass appeal and comprehension. It discovers talent and brings it together with funding to break new ground and deliver the highest quality art, news, and entertainment to the masses. Coupled with the right kind of content, this mass media machinery can foster a shared cultural grammar and sense of cohesion at mass scales while delivering huge profits to all involved. At its worst, it can be used to generate synthetic hype for objectively terrible art and engineer mass opinion toward political ends.
The health of this machinery relies on its decision-makers, or ‘the middle people’, who gatekeep distribution and promotion through these mainstream channels. Let me draw your attention to a section of an interview with Frank Zappa, a musical virtuoso who has a great anecdote about how the middle people of the music business evolved from the 60s to the 80s.
Since the era of the 80s “A&R man”, the mass media machine has evolved into the all-consuming behemoth we live amidst today. The archetype that Zappa sketches out has cleaved into two distinct species of middle person - the ‘statistical man’ and the ‘priestess’. These two species belong to the clade of contemporary power brokers who are often pejoratively referred to as ‘the expert class’, ‘the managerial elite’, or Mary Harington's ‘cyborg theocrats’.
The statistical man justifies his influence through hard data. He sees the audience as consumers, and his success metric is profit. He analyses the measurable consumption habits of the masses to identify target demographics and guides artistic decisions toward existing trends. The influence of statistical man over media production has grown in concert with the breadth and sophistication of his data. What started out as vague reasoning around box office numbers and focus group surveys has evolved into big data analytics based on the market’s every click. Production and promotion of content, particularly in the case of film, can be expensive, and the statistical man is seen to mitigate investment risk through quasi-scientific rationale.
The priestess is a different force altogether, she’s not driven by profit but by moral influence over the masses. She enters the mass media machine through its bureaucratic and managerial layers with an idealistic belief she can mould the morality of the audience by curating the messaging embedded in any given piece of media. Often with little to no ground-level production experience, she justifies herself through the critical analysis of the industry itself; a practice she learned in the university courses we critique in The Reformers.
The priestess will often lean into the language of statistical man and mimic his forms to expand her influence. The below video is taken from an influential media NGO that partnered with Google to develop AI-powered software that analyses audio and video content to determine its ‘Inclusion Quotient’.
The pervasive influence of both the statistical man and the priestess manifests as a hollowness in the establishment’s output. They view their audiences as consumers and congregants so of course we’re delivered art that feels like theme park rides and sermons. Work of genuine artistic merit occasionally breaks through the distortions of the middle people, but this is rare and typically only happens when a producer of Rembrandt-level skill achieves something truly exceptional.
I think these influences are particularly pronounced in the Australian context where artists have to regard themselves as technicians or creative employees to gain access to the established infrastructure.
In a 1999 BBC interview, David Bowie expressed a similar sentiment about the late 90s music business before making some remarkably lucid predictions about the internet. To paraphrase the lead-up to the below clip, Bowie said he wouldn’t have been a musician had he been confronted with the music industry of the day.
What Bowie understood, and the perplexed BBC interviewer failed to grasp, was that art itself is subject to its medium. Something as seemingly banal as a delivery mechanism can open up new vistas of potential. He could also see that by cutting out the middle people the internet was facilitating a direct relationship between artists and their audiences, which had set in motion a “demystification process”.
One way in which you might have experienced the demystification process is by watching establishment celebrities struggle with social media. Without scripted words, perfect lighting, and constructed scenarios, those that once appeared to us as gods seem a little… ordinary. If the Academy Awards ceremony has started to feel to you more like the regional marketing gala at your local bowls club than the Mount Olympus event it once was, you’re not alone, and I believe the demystification is still only in its infancy.
The beauty of this platform, and the internet more broadly, is that we can embrace demystification, and subvert established distribution networks. Here I can narrowcast to a global self-selecting audience to find a large group of like-minded people who are willing to support my work. I think if we develop the right kind of relationship, we can create some weird and wonderful art that would otherwise sit dead on the desks of the middle people.
Over the past few months, I’ve been tinkering away on this platform as if it were my escape pod from the mass media machine. Now that you’ve topped me up with fuel, I’m ready to hit the button.
So… now that I’m floating in an empty vacuum of pure creative freedom, how am I to chart my course?
I don’t want to follow the path of the statistical man by focusing solely on back-end analytics. I also don't want to view you as congregants and slip into the very real and widespread phenomenon of becoming a digital cult leader. I want to experiment freely, make demands on your attention, challenge you, and myself, and then harvest insights from the best of you in a refining process that will hopefully culminate in inimitable, large-scale film projects.
If healthy broadcasting is the art of mass appeal and comprehension, then healthy narrowcasting is the art of audience curation and feedback. I plan to define what this means in practical terms over the next few weeks and create a kind of digital constitution for this platform. This strikes me as essential work but perhaps a little too boring to be front-facing. If it's something that interests you though, let me know and I’ll find a way to turn it into a post.
Alongside this, I’m working to define all the possible avenues for film R&D and get your feedback on where my effort is best focused before pushing forward. Don’t worry, I’m going to make the process interesting and entertaining. I don’t think many people outside of the filmmaking world understand how enjoyable the research phase of a project can be.
These next steps could be pivotal for this endeavour so I want to get it right. Please excuse a slightly slower rate of publishing in the short term while I nut all this out and untangle myself from other commitments. Once again, thanks for the opportunity here, I’m confident we can turn this into something very cool.