The Professionals Can Teach Us Something, Sometimes

Short amateur video creation. An interesting concept. You make a short video, say 30 to 90 seconds long, and people watch it, then they tell their friends to watch it, and suddenly you are famous and can give up the day job. Why does that not happen more?

Compare and contrast most amateur video on YouTube with, say, television adverts. Well, they are the same length (30 to 90 seconds). They are designed to be memorable and they have to latch onto popular culture (my personal buzz phrase for commercial content is “culturally relevant” which is short hand for saying “what a 15 year old Korean girl might like is probably not going to fly a kite for a 45 year old German man”). They are also “disposable” and available on many media (cinema, TV, internet all tend to share them.)

And millions of people happily watch them without turning off or looking away.

Why does that not happen more often with machinima and amateur video?

Well, it is not as if the game references are a total turn off for viewers. One of my more recent posts already looks a little silly in suggesting that machinima is for a knowing few. The advertisers are already riffing on Sims, WoW and Second Life (as here in the Coke Superbowl commercial) – ok, a bit of a cheat as they grab stuff from lots of games to maximise their attraction to a broader audience, but it is still “game characters”.

One clue is in how it was made: look down that page and note that it took 60 (count 'em, I was too lazy and just guessed) highly trained professionals a period of time to make. The simple step of dividing the labour among people who are experts in each area is another clue (far too many talented amateur camera people are not so hot at audio, or scripting, and vice versa). Finally there is the issue of budget. Yup, plain old money.

That money enabled them to buy in a great script, hire top artists to make customised content, animations and effects and to try many, many takes and edits until it “scored” highly enough in tests to be released. Few amateur video makers can afford to do that and still pay the rent and buy cat food.

I was temped to ask “how good a version could you do simply in machinima with some cheap post software” given that you could borrow most of the characters simply enough? Even if you did, would we not be falling into the cult of the amateur trap and making more and more stuff that is less and less worth watching?

The simple economic fact is (it is claimed in New Scientist) that the  long tail really does not exist as we thought, which is an interesting article if you like buying over priced 'hit' articles and forget (as many researchers do) that the stuff in the long tail was once in the 'hit' parade, it just got older.

We all know the key fact: the consumer does not care what it cost you to make, only how good it is to watch.

The only metric that ultimately matters to the consumer is “was that the best use of the 60 seconds I devoted to it?” if someone has made something that is “better”(*) to watch then they get the attention, and that drives the onward recommendation engine and before you know it, that “better” video has 6m hits and you have 600 (from your 1st and 2nd circle friends only, usually). If they had to spend $13m to make it, the consumer does not care. They win, you lose. Doubly so if they put $5m of that into a campaign to get eyeballs and recommendations as well.

Lots to think about there. Consider “eyeball minutes” as the metric instead of “sales” and you will start to see the problem for amateur video makers seeking an audience: the graph goes to zero fast for the traditional market.

You may already know that the ever readable Mr Scoble has been known to warn us that we need to expect more stuff, but much more bad stuff, in exchange for a little more very good stuff, if we crowdsource and thereby increase participation. I'm all for that. Well, I would be, as I have made no secret of my passionate belief in amateur creativity and participation.

So, amateur content can't compete with professional content. It is not commercial. The long tail is not there. That would rain on a few parades in Web 2.0 land, wouldn't it?

So, what if there was a solution? Tools that make it easier. Smart, intelligent tools. Collaborative tools. Tools to edit and promote your video properly. Would that help? Yes, I think so. Problem is, no one is making them right now, or at least, no one is making all of them in one place right now.

But it is certainly worth thinking about, isn't it?

(*) there is currently a vacancy for someone who can define “better” in terms of consumer video.