Storytelling & Storyselling, with Jessica Bendinger @ St Paul’s Adelaide on 18 Jan 2019

Some of Jessica Bendinger's works - cover images

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The seminar I went to last night featured Jessica Bendinger in conversation at the St Paul’s Creative Centre in Adelaide. Ostensibly about storytelling and storyselling it became a superficial discussion of the former, and nothing at all about the latter.

Jessica Bendinger wrote Bring it on, Stick it, The truth about Charlie, and season 4 of Sex in the City. Among other things.

Some of Jessica Bendinger's works - cover images
Some of the works Jessica wrote.

I found myself frustrated by the nature of creatives.  But why, if I’m a creator?

It’s because of two things:

1) creatives forget that they work inside a capitalist structure, and that what they do is a business first and foremost;

2) creatives who are butting up against the wall of new tech blame the tools and not the underlying issues. Like, probably, most people. 

However, I did get take many notes, and I’ll happily share them here.

1. Data doesn’t exist for creators inside Hollywood or working with tech platforms

This is because, in an ad-based, streaming economy, corporations own the data. 

Here’s what this means in practise: In order to understand how many people bought their work for example, screenwriters are required to undertake an expensive and time-consuming process of auditing. The process involves auditing the studio, who then has to audit Apple, for example.

This is why it’s so challenging for people who are legacy writers and creators. By ‘legacy’ you understand me to refer to big studios, as opposed to streaming platforms.

2. There are no more residuals

The easiest way to understand ‘residual’ is to replace the word with ‘royalty’. In a legacy environment, when a film does well, everybody gets paid – over time. It isn’t just Box Office takings; it’s also whenever someone buys, rents, or borrows a bluray or DVD.

In this way, when a film is successful over time and not just immediately, every single person who worked on that film gets a share of the benefits. It’s the ultimate reward for a job well-done. 

But in a platform, streaming, ad-based environment, those royalties do not exist.

This is how people get things so wrong, argued Bendinger. Netflix will stage a full buyout for a fee plus 20%. But the ultimate return is far lower than what it would have been for a creator in a legacy environment, because Netflix does not pay residuals.

The nearest equivalent that I can think of is Spotify. Sure, enjoy all the songs you like on Spotify, but do it knowing that artists get less than they would if you heard them on the radio. So, dear readers, buy direct from artists on Bandcamp and make sure the music you love continues to be made.

3. The direct to consumer model is the best way for artists to be paid

This is why, in China, the podcast market is so lucrative: It’s direct to consumer. It’s why Patreon is so great for so many creators: It’s direct to consumer. Anywhere that you spot an intermediary (iTunes, Netflix, Spotify), you’ve spotted a corporate that wants to make money and doesn’t support the creators in the ways that they should. Creators lose out. Ultimately, consumers do, too, because in chasing more subscriptions, the platforms will chase quantity over quality – which over time means that their content value decreases and subscribers bail out.

4. It’s harder to entertain people

Now, this is the part of the seminar I really had a problem with. Bendinger argued that it’s harder to entertain people. She argued that the rise of MMO (massive, multiplayer, online) games has created a generation of people who want to be involved in, and not passive receivers in, their entertainment. 

She further argued that because we are sophisticated consumers, it’s becoming more difficult to create impactful work. Bendinger cited the fact that we all know the beats of standard genres of film… and made the useful point that this is why biography sells so well: We don’t know what’s going to happen, when it’s about something that is true instead of something that is fiction.

I had a problem with this section because it suggests to me that creators aren’t willing to take enough risks. It suggests that they are wanting people to look after them, instead of doing the work (and this is a point to which I hold strongly and am waiting for someone to furnish me with enough solid information to budge) to create valuablecontent.

If Dario Argento had simply tried to write a Hollywood blockbuster, do you think we’d know about him today?

I’ll get to this further down. Til then, more notes!

5. The future is prescriptive storytelling

Fascinating for me, given my Integration Project (become a Patron to hear more about that!). Bendinger argued that technology, and the sheer volume of story we consume (which rose 2000% between 1998 and 2008) has changed us cognitively. That story does change us cognitively.

She presented information about prescriptive storytelling, and the physiological impact of stories.

It turns out that:

1. scary, horrifying stories increase levels of inflammation in the body

2. wellbeing stories have the ability to heal our physical bodies.

Stay tuned for more on this, because actually I think this is true. We already know that the ability to read, view, ‘get inside’ other people’s experiences is enormously valuable for emotional healing. It’s a short jump into the physical self from there.

There are studies being done in VR that heal phantom pains, improve cognitive function in stroke victims, and much more, in which story is a central factor. 

Therefore, writers and storytellers may find themselves taking the role of healers.

6. Fame is destroying us, and destroying creative output

Because everyone is able to be famous now, everybody keeps chasing it.

Bendinger stated:

‘I think we’ve turned ourselves into monsters with our obsession with fame’.

7. So where is the storyselling in all this?

The point is that in order to get work as a writer, you need the numbers to prove that you’ve got the chops to do the work. If corporations don’t yield their data, creators can’t prove that they’ve done work that sells. And if they can’t do work that sells, they don’t work.

Hello, Yossarian.

Or rather, they don’t work unless they find a direct-to-consumer model that works.

8. My takeaways from all of this

I mentioned above that much of the seminar suggests to me that creators aren’t willing to take enough risks. When it comes to staff writers, they want a salary plus royalties, and they don’t want to be independent artists, frankly. If they did, then they’d be more creative about their work, and find new ways of reaching their audiences.

I recognise that doing this in film is much harder than in books. But there are ways and means, if you’ve got the risk tolerance – and the right people around you – to try something new. Maybe it means pitching for funding to Fortune 500 companies instead of studio producers – and then going and doing it independendly.

Sure, the income maybe wouldn’t be as high. But maybe it’s a call to find your entrepreneurial panties and pull them up and try. Think of all the other creators who find a way to do it, in whatever way they do. You can self-publish and be a success. You can start a broadcast on Twitch and make 250,000 a month if you create valuable content properly.

Maybe it’s time that people in the film industry started forming cooperatives that allows them to not only make films, but handle the distribution, and still all get paid properly.

The other thing is that there was a lot of discussion about copyright, without the distinction of the difference in copyright law from country to country, which I found dreadfully remiss. People assume that ‘copyright’ is a thing, and don’t realise that every country’s rules are different.

The absence of qualification about the US-only market was shocking. For example, Bendinger talked about the ‘problem’ that series don’t get picked up for 14-20 episodes anymore; that studios are only buying 7 or 8 episodes.

Hello! This is what the UK has been doing since the 1980s. Only Americans make things until people are so sick of them that they want to vomit.

You don’t see British creators moaning that they only got 8 episodes. In some of the most remarkable TV series ever created, there were only ever 8 episodes, or less!

Blackadder: 6 episodes

The Young Ones: 6 episodes

The Office: 6 episodes.

Each one was only picked up for a single series, until it proved its worth

So forgive me if her moaning fell flat. Use six episodes. Make an absolute bang, and move onto something else until people demand it. Grow some balls and take a risk. And when people fall in love with it, you’ll get to do more of it.

Your challenge then becomes staying awesome, instead of selling out.

Talk about entitled.

In the meantime, a friend of mine was incensed by her talk. He went on to me at length – and then had the gumption to tell me that I missed her point – that creators aren’t valued.

Sorry, man, I’ve been a publisher; I’ve been an editor; I’ve been a writer my entire life and trying to sell the value to companies. Don’t tell me that people don’t value creativity: I live this every goddamned freaking day

Anyway, I laughed. He got pissed off. He told me I missed the point, completely caught up in the narrative that it’s because of the tech and not because of shit content. Meh.  Can’t help everyone, I guess. I disagreed with him so completely that I was amused, and that annoyed him even more.

In the cold light of day today, I wished I’d asked Jessica if anyone was doing eyeball tracking of attention spans in audiences watching films comprised of non-standard beats. I emailed her about it, though.

She talked at length about the Slow Life, and how she is loving slow stories, but that people haven’t been buying them. But if the problem is that people consume differently, if we’re beyond traditional story structures, and if people are just making the assumption that the blam-blam impact of games is what films need to do, then everybody is going to lose.

What actually needs to happen, in my mind, is this:

* Make incredible, engaging, empathic stories, without giving a fuck about the beats

* Test them on target audiences, and track their attention using eyeball tracking technology

* Analyse what that might mean in terms of the story structure.

If she replies, I’ll let you guys know.

Secondarily, my perspective last night (which I spoke to the audience about) fell flat – it was that writers need to learn the art and psychology of direct selling as well as human nature and what makes a good yarn if they’re going to create impactful story in film. Direct selling teaches us how to capture – and hold – attention, over an even obscene amount of time, when you’re selling things to people who don’t want what you’ve got, or don’t yet know that they want it. Your job is to convince them that they do.

And then convincing them that they do.

You’d think that capturing hearts and minds with stories they have paid to see would be simpler, right? All you need to know is the right hook, and have enough sensitivity to feel it when you need the next one.

It’s not that hard. Surely.

Anyway, there you have it. The notes and my summation, and a bunch of controversial thoughts from yours truly.

Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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