‘New Technologies & Opportunities’ Presentation -

This is a presentation I recently did on ‘New Technologies and Opportunities for Filmmakers in the Middle East’.

It offered me an opportunity to explore some new possibilities of storytelling with tools like PC tablets and dSLR cameras that I’d like to use for my own filmmaking in the coming months. If you’re interested in things like crossmedia, the iPad, and independent distribution then I think you’ll enjoy this.

One of the themes of this presentation is the idea that we as filmmakers need to provide our stories or messages in various forms to our audience.

With that in mind, you have TWO WAYS of enjoying this presentation depending on your preference:

FIRST OPTION, you can download a PDF of the slides and written narration.

SECOND OPTION is to simply read the post below, where I’ve embed the slides and some delicious videos and useful hyperlinks.

Enjoy . . . and tell me what you think:

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New Technologies & Opportunities
for Filmmakers in the Middle East

1. Introduction:

In order for us to use new technologies we have be ready to conquer a learning curve and the feeling of being disorientated.  Despite this, as filmmakers we must embrace the new opportunities these developments provide.

We will be talking specifically about the Middle Eastern region but much of what I’ll say is applicable to most of the world especially if you live in an underdeveloped region and you’re trying to communicate a story for your local and global audience.

This short presentation isn’t meant to be a sermon – rather the beginning of a conversation. I really want to hear your opinions about how we as filmmakers can leverage technology.

2. ‘The Triangle of Filmmaking':

The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only of the seven wonders from the ancient world still standing.  It’s considered a triumph of architecture, whose construction we still don’t fully understand. When we examine projects of this scale, we consider three attributes. First, we see the form and function of the building which I’ll term the ‘ART’ of the structure. Second, we consider the capital and investment that it must’ve taken to get such a structure designed, built and maintained, which I’ll term the ‘BUSINESS’. Finally, we understand the last two components would not come into being without tools and construction techniques to actually bring the project into fruition, which we can term ‘TECHNOLOGY’.

I mention all of this and I use the example of the Great Pyramid because I believe, like architecture, film production requires these three components. The medium of film is unique from many other forms of expression in that it is tied intrinsically and historically with technology. In the last hundred years of filmmaking what has changed the most dramatically is the actual tools we use to make and project films. This doesn’t mean that technology is a replacement or a way of compensating for a weak business-model or weak film-aesthetic, its just one very important component. If we don’t appreciate that then we are at the mercy of the machines we use to record and edit images and sounds.

3. ‘Films are a luxury?’

But we can’t forget that the intent of the ‘technology’, ‘art’ and ‘business’ of filming is all for nothing if we can’t get those films in front of an audience, preferably a paying audience.

My argument, which I will try to explain in the next couple of slides, is that this activity we are engaged in, ‘making films’, is actually a luxury-

luxury: an inessential, desirable item that is expensive or difficult to obtain

I know that sounds very harsh but I will show in the next couple of slides that we find the definition of ‘luxury’ fits rather perfectly well with our current circumstance of making, selling and consuming films in the Middle East and in much of the world.

4. The Health of Our Audience:

Let’s talk a little bit about our audience in the Middle East:

One very powerful statistic we can use to determine the wealth or poverty of a region is something called ‘the poverty line’. The Poverty Line of a nation is defined as the minimum level of income needed to afford the basic necessities of life like food, shelter, etc. The average for the Middle East is $2 per day – again this will vary depending on where exactly in the region but basically someone needs to be earning at least $2 per day, the cost of a Starbucks coffee, in order to afford the very basic necessities.

Roughly 20% of the Middle Eastern population lives below the poverty line – 20% earns less than $2 per day. Now as depressing as that fact is, this figure actually hides the severity of the problem because it is an average. There are regions of the Middle East, small pockets, where the figure is much higher.

For instance, in the Gaza Strip you have 80% living below the poverty line. West Bank, 45%. As startling as these figures are, they are understandable given the current situation and lack of growing industries in the Palestinian territories. But, the idea that poverty of this magnitude is limited only to these occupied, war-torn regions is misleading. For instance in Southern Egypt 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.

I would argue that inside every nation of the Middle East there is a ‘gaza strip’ or a ‘west bank’, not a place of occupation but rather a place that has been marginalized and whose people aren’t able to provide for themselves and whose governments have forgotten them.  It might be an entire region, like in the case of Egypt, a village in Syria, a neighborhood in Amman – basically a pocket of severe poverty.

5. More depressing news . . .

I know all of this is depressing, again we’re talking about it to get a better sense of our audience – who they are, what they want, what they can afford, etc.

Another useful statistic in terms of understanding this region’s current economy is unemployment. The Middle East has the highest unemployment of any region in the world at 16%. Again, the average is misleading – if we look at specific areas and demographics we find the problem to be even more troublesome. For instance, in Egypt if you look at males aged 25 to 35 years old, a very large demographic, 45% of them are unemployed.

Again, I’m sure there are pockets in each nation where the numbers are this startling.

The point, if you haven’t realized it yet, is that much of our intended audience in this region can not afford the basic necessities of life, let alone going to the cinema or buying a DVD.

6. But . . .

These statistics do hide something quite interesting that you see when you’re actually on the ground, in these neighborhoods and villages of the Middle East. Almost everyone seems to have access to a satellite TV, almost everyone seems to have a cellphone.

Now you can say what you want about the quality and content of satellite TV but the reality is that this media, specifically free media, has become the new culture.

There was a recent study in Egypt to examine what people are watching on satellite TVs and why. The results showed that the vast majority, about 80%, watch to understand and learn about things happening around the world, through films, the news, and short videos.

In a sense what’s happened is that television has turned each home into a private museum – a window to escape into different worlds.

And this cheap, or free, media has become as important as daily bread.

7. The Luxury of Filmmaking:

Now, I think you understand what I meant by filmmaking being a luxury – the current means of production and consumption are too expensive for our local market.

As filmmakers we are underfinanced, making films that can’t even be enjoyed by much of our local market. The reality is that even if you do get to make your film, very few people in this region can afford the $7 movie ticket or $20 DVD it costs to enjoy your story. Many of your potential audience members can’t even afford to buy pirated copies of those films.

If we don’t acknowledge this and try to do something about it then we’ll be making films for the few that can afford the current price of a film-experience.

8. Solutions -

I’m not suggesting that we as filmmakers are politicians who must somehow solve these problems.

We are storytellers that are able to work in this medium because of technology – yet that same technology is partly to blame for these problems.

We need to lower the costs of film production, which will in turn decrease the cost to consume those film-experiences.

9. Moving on -

So enough abstraction, let’s talk about specific, new technologies and opportunities for filmmakers in this region that take our current economical circumstances into consideration.

I’m going to mention specific brands and models but only so we can talk about abstract ideas of storytelling and how we need to constantly think about leveraging new developments.

10. Two technologies -

The first technology allows us to talk about a concept called crossmedia where filmmakers are creating content and story-worlds instead of just one film-experience. We will examine the Apple iPad platform in order to illustrate the potential of this kind of content-creation.

The second technology is what many are dubbing the ‘new cinematography’. It involves using hybrid dSLRs, to shoot high quality HD films and short pieces without the bulk and price that we’d normally pay with a similarly capable HD digital video camera.

Some of these specific ideas and solutions might not be useful to you and your filmmaking, again the point is get your brain thinking about how to leverage possible technologies.

11. The Potential of the iPad for ‘content-makers’ -

For those unfamiliar with the Apple iPad, you can check out the official video below. What is relevant to this conversation is the idea of a device that provides multi-media entertainment and experiences. It can provide stories in book-form, film-form, video game form or some kind of hybrid of the three.

It is driven by something called the ‘App Store’, which is the real reason for the iPhone’s success – to date 150,000 applications that you can quickly purchase and download. It’s these apps that make gadgets like the iPhone or the iPad so functional.

These applications are developed not by Apple, but rather developers who earn roughly a 70% royalty on what they sell through the App Store. And they do so without worrying about a ‘middle man’ – as long as someone has the iTunes application on their computer a developer has a direct line to potential customers.

What some developers are starting to do is create and distribute ‘applications’ that are actually story-worlds that allow users to experience and interact with a story.

I’ve provided two great examples of that which are currently available on iTunes:

Let’s walk through a regional example of how to build such crossmedia application  -

12. Example -

I’m going to use a real example from film school. Several of my colleagues have made short documentaries on various subjects in Aqaba, Jordan. So let’s say I’m a producer and I want to help these filmmakers get their stories to a paying audience.

I could create a free application that aggregates all of the stories and have a menu, in the form of a map of Aqaba, that’s really a ‘storefront’. What I mean by storefront is when a user clicks on one of the locations they’re taken to a trailer to a documentary that was shot at that location.

13. ‘A store within a store’ -

If they like the trailer, they can purchase the film, which might have additional bonus material like a director’s commentary.

Also, if the viewer really enjoyed the music that was used in the film I can provide a link to the soundtrack in the iTunes store for them to purchase.

What I’ve done is create more than one stream of revenue for this story and linked it with other related experiences and media.

14. A more complicated example -

Let’s look at a second possible use of the device and of creating crossmedia applications.

There’s a real graphic novel that came out in Egypt recently called ‘Metro‘. Click this link to learn more about it.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the plot:

Magdy El Shafee’s Metro, the first adult Arabic graphic novel, is set in a chaotic modern Cairo pulsing with financial and social insecurity. Shihab, a young software designer who has been forced into debt by corrupt officials, decides to get out of his dilemma by taking “direct action”: robbing a bank, with the help of Mustafa, his loyal but reluctant sidekick. He finds himself caught in a vortex of financial and political corruption; the only relief comes from Dina, an idealistic journalist.

Even though it looks really interesting I haven’t been able to get my hands on it because it’s physical production has been banned and it isn’t digitally distributed.

This is what distribution of graphic novels and comic books looks like right now in the Middle East – you have to physically pick up a print form printed on inferior paper, usually black and white because color costs too much and in only one language.

15. The Metro app -

We could create an application to deal with some of these issues and let the global market learn more about this story.

The application would be free, but again it would provide a storefront where one could preview and purchase issues, back-issues and even purchase any associated short-films that were made based on the graphic novel story world.

16. Richer experience than print-form -

Within the actual graphic novel, we could provide a much richer experience than traditional forms of distribution:

  • We can give the reader the option of changing the language of the text.
  • Provide ambient sound for each of the panels (for instance on this panel we could playback sounds of the subway).
  • We could provide voices for each of the characters instead of making the reader read the dialog.
  • We can switch to color without worrying about printing costs.
  • Finally, we can choose to make some of the panels, richer in media – for example we can have a panel that is animated or is a small interactive game that a reader has to complete before moving forward in the story.

The possibilities really are endless.

17. iPad . . . $$$ . . . what?

Now I know what you’re thinking. We started this conversation with statistics on how poor the region is – how is such a device and a platform that very few can afford relevant to this discussion?

Whether or not we’re aware – there are two ‘markets’ for our films: ‘the global’ and ‘the local’. We’ll define the global market to be that part of our audience that is not restricted by the typical conditions and living standards of our region – like the West or even wealthy pockets in the Middle East like in Dubai, Amman, etc.

This Global Market, with higher income and standard of living, has an almost insatiable hunger and high expectations for the media they consume. They own Playstations, iPhones, broadband connections, Criterion DVDs, etc. We can’t term them wealthy for these possessions are really commonplace in their regions. They not only demand media-rich experiences but also are willing to pay for it.

On the other hand, the Local Market for storytelling is confined to a handful of distribution avenues like television, cellphones, etc. And, like we said before, they’ve come to expect this media to be free to fit in with their standard of living.

By providing your stories on various platforms and forms, some cheap or even free and some much more expensive, one market can subsidize the other.

Let me explain: in Egypt, and in many third world countries, hotels, like Hilton, Movenpick, etc.,  charge two different rates: A rate for it’s citizens and a rate for ‘tourists’. The rate for its citizens tends to be about 50-70% cheaper than the price these foreigners pay. Financially, what is happening is that the foreigners are subsidizing, or paying part of, the Egyptians’ stay at the same hotel.

This phenomenon also occurs in the publishing industry where a college textbook publisher like Macmillan will charge $90 for a textbook, printed on high-quality paper with a bonus CD, to college students in the United States while the same book, on lower-quality paper minus the CD, is available to students in India for $15. Of course such a tactic fights piracy but also reflects the reality of what students in India and the US can and can’t afford.

What I’m suggesting is that instead of offering just one way into your story-world you offer many, some very cheap, and maybe even free, while others are richer and more expensive. And you offer each story-form on a platform that is popular and feasible for each subgroup of your audience – so you might offer your short film for free for cellphone download in the Middle East while as an application on iTunes it costs $2.

18. ‘Translate’ your story-experience for each economic region -

So such a device, or platform, as the iPad allows you to reach a much larger audience who are more likely to pay for your content and help make it financially feasible for you to offer the same story to your local market for a price they can afford.

Again, you have to take into consideration the cost of developing such applications, the ease, which can be outsourced, and it’s applicability to your type of stories. These two examples that I’ve provided may not be useful to you but what I’m encouraging you to do is look at ways of speaking directly to an audience and providing them with a rich story-world instead of just one film-experience.

If you’ve put all this effort into creating characters, landscapes, etc. try to maximize it by offering various ways the audience can experience them and hopefully pay for each of those journeys and media.

Let’s move on to the next technology -

19. ‘The New Cinematography’ -

To discuss the ‘New Cinematography’ we’ll be examining the Canon 5d Mark II. It’s a hybrid dSLR, which means it works on a 35mm lens system and shoots digital pictures and video. In fact it shoots, raw HD. It can be set for a wide-array of frame rates, even 24p. And its depth of field is fairly close to film so there’s no need for those bulky Redrock adapters some cinematographers attach to their video cameras to get that film look.

The camera is $2500 but there are several other hybrid dSLRs far cheaper that have many of the same features – I use this as an example because it is currently the workhorse of the dSLR cinematography movement.

The reason you should be aware of such a camera and technology is that in this region, and in most of the world, we face several difficulties when it comes to shooting. One, permits are sometimes impossible to obtain. Two, crowds tend to form when we do shoot on the street. And, professional-grade cameras are still so cost-prohibitive that we usually have to rent them instead of owning our means of production.

20. ‘Hot-rodding’ it -

What some cinematographers have been doing with this camera is ‘hot-rodding’ it or customizing it with film-camera like accessories, follow-focus, rails, etc. as you can see in the slide below -

Refer to the first video below to see what I mean – a couple of film students customizing their own dSLR with an actual Panavision film-lens.

Then look at the second video shot by a different crew filming some promo stuff in the Middle East – the thing I love about this short video is how they’ve captured the textures of Cairo and Beirut without worrying about crowd-control – some of the stuff they shoot I think would be a nightmare with a large film or digital camera setup.

21. Conclusion -

In conclusion, we have to move away from this current situation where we’re underfinanced, trying to pay for films that are too expensive with tools that we don’t even own and we’re unable to communicate those stories to our local audiences because they can’t afford them and we’re not even speaking to them on platforms they currently use.

We need to get rid of the ‘middlemen’ and have direct conversations with our audience that doesn’t have to end with just one transaction or film but that continues as long as we’re working in this field.Finally, the two technologies I mentioned were meant to get you excited but they, by themselves, are not solutions – you have to think about how to leverage them to make your stories and build an audience for them. They might not be applicable to what you’re doing – maybe all you need to is a website and a fanpage on Facebook to get to your audience – you have to find your own solutions for your film.Again check below for the links and resources mentioned in this presentation. And please leave any comments/feedback/etc – like I said before this presentation wasn’t meant as a sermon but rather a conversation-starter so please share your ideas regarding new technology and its opportunities for us as filmmakers.

Best of luck -

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RESOURCES/LINKS:

Apple iPad:

Inspirational Crossmedia Apps:

Metro Graphic Novel:

‘The New Cinematography':


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