Saturday, 19 October 2013

The dark arts

What is the purpose of public relations? Is it to make a company and its employees feel good about themselves and what they are doing? Maybe.

Or is it part of marketing, creating a climate in which people will buy?

The best PR probably serves both functions and many more (like making shareholders feel good)but sometimes you just can't have the best. Some companies are so incredibly unpopular that no PR on Earth is going to make them look good. The bank shortly after one or other financial scandal has come to light, the oil company that has polluted the bay of Mexico... No amount of glowing words is going to make these companies popular.

So what do you do? A public display of heads rolling probably helps. But when the old bosses are counting their millions in golden handshakes and the new bosses are imprinting their own individual bottom designs into the leather furniture, what do you do next?

Well, here's an idea! How about negative PR?

Sometimes you have to just listen to your customers and go with the flow.

It works.

Here's a video that has had ten million views:

FedEx Fundamentals - Annual Income Statement
31/May/2013 ...31/May/2012 ... 31/May/2011
$44,287m ......... $42,680m ......... $39,304m

The company actually seems to have done rather well since the video was posted in December 2011, though of course the financial returns have to be read with caution especially in the context of a diverse group like FedEx. One thing is clear though: FedEx customers may have enjoyed sneering at the bad practice (and the subsequent humiliating apologies issued by the company) but they did not stop using its services. And given the huge amount of publicity FedEx got there is little doubt that far more people now the name and the sort of service the company provides.

And this is odd. For the most part people don't like big corporations and will say nasty things about them but all the same they prefer to do business with them largely because they know the name.

It's the Homer Simpson effect. There's a cartoon of Homer sitting in front of a tv showing an airplane bursting into flames. Pretty much all you can see is the logo of the airline on the tailfin. The rest is flames. Homer's on the phone ordering a plane ticket. When he's asked which airline he wants to use, he quotes the name he can see on the tailfin. It's a name he knows.

Leave it to Max

Take the example of the gay footballer who's terrified of being outed and having his career destroyed. He's squeaky clean. No-one could say anything about him. So what happens when he goes to a PR man who knows about the power of the dark side?

He gets photographed coming out of a nightclub with a half naked girl on each arm, possibly getting involved in a punch up.

You think the News of the Screws used to exploit and humiliate? Well, sometimes it did. But sometimes it was used and abused itself.

Small shopkeepers are not always beautiful

Then there's the Ronnie Barker strategy in Open All Hours. He deliberately makes spelling mistakes when he writes on his shop window. His idea is that when clever dicks are drawn into the shop to tell him he's got his spelling wrong, he gets the chance to sell them something.

Barker's intention (or the object of his fictional character) is to make money. It's not about achieving the high regard of his community or convincing people that he has a fantastic knowledge of the English language. He simply wants customers in his shop so he can sell them something.

You don't have to have a positive image to be a star. Villains have always made a living out of the dark side of life, but there's also a different kind of dark star. Consider the case of the late Jeremy Beadle. He was so 'unpopular' or had such a dark image, that people started creating Jeremy Beadle jokes:

What was Jeremy Beadle's favourite kitchen appliance?
A microwave.

But he exploited his image, even calling himself Beedlebum at one stage in his career. There are may similar artistes, quite few like Beadle former or present disk jockeys, but they all share one thing in common. You may laugh at them, possibly even despise them; but you respect or admire them for their professionalism.

Whatever you thought of Beadle, you also knew he was rather good at his job.

The Economist recently (October 12, 2013) reported on the phenomena of humour in public announcements. It quoted the example of funny videos created by Australian and American Airlines to make customers pay attention to the safety drills.

In fact it may be that some dark subjects can only be handled with humour. Ashesh Mukherjee and Laurette Dube of McGill Unniversity

Monday, 17 June 2013

Don't give up the day job

He told it as if it was a joke, but clearly Will Massa, British Council film advisor, had a serious purpose. He said: "Why does everyone want to be a film maker. Stop it. Put the cameras down."

He was probably trying to be provocative (it was at the Mud Wrestling session, devoted to trenchant comments and inflammatory exchanges). "That traditional route of making two or three shorts and then making a feature doesn't seem to be working any more," he continued. As a result, he opined, film makers need to have a second string to their bows. Don't give up the day job.

But Jason Sondhi, co-founder of the rather remarkable Short of the Week web site (devoted to films rather than alcoholic beverages or items of sports clothing), claimed he knew of 14 or 15 Hollywood projects that had started with short films.

Probably true, but the fact that the films made it is no guarantee that the film makers also jumped up a league!

After that it could have been either Will or Jason who said: "This is an incredibly competitive business and even the people with talent, 99% of them are not going to have the sort of stellar careers that they want."

Maybe I had a jaundiced view. The day started badly for me when I arrived at BAFTA (just a few yards away from London's Piccadilly Circus) and the receptionist seemed to be asking if I was there because I was short sighted.

I hadn't stumbled up the stairs so I was curious as to why there was a feeling that my eyesight might be less than perfect. But I'd really been asked if I was there to attend the Short Sighted event, a full day of seminars devoted to the art of making movies that last considerably less than 90 minutes.

Despite the pessimism and the fact that you didn't have to read between the lines to work out that for almost everyone short film making is a labour of love rather than a business, there was a heck of a lot of useful advice and information.

For example, I intend to join two Facebook groups: Cinematic Drifters and BAFTA Shorts (if they will have me). I was also astonished to learn that Shorts International has to obtain 3,500 short films a year to broadcast on its channel. That means that if you can't get one into its programme it is officially the 3,501st worst film issued that year.

Of course, broadcasting achieves recognition and the nice warm glow of realising that someone out there cares about the film you've just sweated blood to complete. What it does not get you is the money to pay the rent, or to allow you to make the next film.

To bring in the cash you need that second income stream, that day job.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Soap On A Phone

The World's longest running soap opera is The Archers, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. According to Wikipedia this was originally produced in 1950 in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture. "The Archers was conceived as a means of disseminating information to farmers and smallholders to help increase productivity in the post-World War II years of rationing and food shortages," Wikipedia adds.
The British pioneered the use of soap as a tool of social policy but this practice is now more or less global. In countries that lack almost any other way to combat the Aids epidemic people have turned to soaps to drive home the message that safe sexual practices save lives, for example.
In South Africa in 2006 script writers announced that one of the lead characters in the country's most watched tv soap Isidingo, was going to struck down by Aids.
The soap, shown by public broadcaster SABC, had an audience of a million. The storyline was designed to strike a chord in a country where something like 16% of adults have HIV or Aids.
Population Media Center (PMC), an American not for profit organisation based in Vermont, has been responsible for radio soaps in America, Africa, Oceania and Asia.
The soaps contain an educational message on subjects as diverse as women's rights, green issues, so called female circumcision, reproductive and children's health, HIV/Aids and rape.
Katie Elmore, director of communications at PMC told the Vermont Woman newspaper: "We start with a feasibility study and identify key stakeholders. We identify if mass media will work in that area. We simultaneously identify funding. We study policies and laws of the country, as well as UN policy on that topic. We gather qualitative information from villagers on a wide range of issues that are important to them. We will find out about the food people have for breakfast, so the soap operas will be realistic."
In Britain, yet another revolution is brewing in the world of Soaps with the world's first soap on a phone, Persona. Right now it has quite a small audience, tens of thousands rather than the millions claimed by Coronation Street or East Enders, but Persona is growing fast.
It has the potential to be a model that will allow almost anyone to set up a tv station. When this baby starts to walk no-one knows where it will go. See for further information.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Voice in a Million

I got a great job, part of a large team videoing an event at Wembley Arena called Voice In A Million. It's a huge inspirational event and it was fun just being there.
It's also always great to work with a large creative team. There were lots of video makers, all with interesting stories to tell. For example, there was the Italian who when sent to video the Pope's Secretary, ducked the offer to kiss his ring (a sign of great favour amongst Catholics). She'd been brought up a Catholic but even so she couldn't bring herself to kiss the old man's ring.
Clearly the Pope's secretary took it as a snub, because that was her last news assignment. After that she was moved to sport.
Videoing in Wembley Arena is a challenge because the lighting during an event like this is extremely uneven: it's often difficult to see what's going on, let alone capture it on tape.
My approach was to concentrate on the interesting cut aways: a study of an individual child performing amongst a large group on a stage can be fascinating.
The kids had been taught to make a series of hand movements to emphasise the words they were singing and I managed to get several shots of groups of arms in profile. This was not the way the performance had been designed (I was at the side of the stage, not at the front with the audience), but I found the sight quite moving. It was like those speeded up views of plants growing, stretching out, you sometimes see. I can't show you those images (I had to hand in the tapes), but this video shows the set up.
We saw a lot of set up. I got there at 2.30pm and we started work after 7pm!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Vibe: It's art Jim, but not as we know it

There's a new(ish) gallery in Bermondsey called Vibe and it wants to attract video makers. Vibe has the ambition to create talent forums and ultimately even produce new artistic videos.
I'm not at all convinced that the world needs more artistic videos (in an abstract sense anyway). That may sound like a daft thing for a video maker to say, but stick with me for a while. I'll try to develop the argument.
Videos are essentially ephemeral. Art is eternal, or at least some of it is. Hence (at least to a certain extent) there's a conflict between the two.
The videos I'm interested in have a purpose: they're selling something, describing an event or highlighting an evil. Of course some of them, rather like audio history, should be archived since they capture real characters and tell real tales. But is this art? If it is, it's probably the Star Trek version of art: "It's art Jim, but not as we know it."
I showed my promo video about Blake Fielder Civil (former husband of Amy Winehouse) but I didn't feel happy about it. There was some stuff in some of the other videos that was genuinely extremely good. The standard that has to be achieved seems to have been lifted. You just have to be about 10% better than five years years ago in order to be adequate.
I'm currently working on my first reasonably serious video using the Canon 7D and a surprisingly wonderful 50mmm lens. This combination and the latest iteration of the editing suite FCP (issued about three weeks ago) offers stunning possibilities.
But it also imposes limitations. You can't really have a one person 7D camera team in the way you could have a single shooter using a Sony Z1. It's also harder, perhaps even impossible, to shoot stuff as it happens. You really need to set up your shot.
It's not the greatest combination if you want to cover a fast moving news event, like a riot, for example. But the quality is simply stunning. Once you've seen what can be achieved, can you ever go back to the Z1?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Sound of Facebook

Chris Jones, author of The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook, and a fine video director himself, organised a Guerilla Film Makers Masterclass, at the rather wonderful Regents College, just behind London's Baker Street tube station.

Jones is a great motivational coach and inspirational speaker, but there wasn't much in his presentation about finding an audience or making a real profit out of video making. He taught us how to raise finance, but he didn't offer a clear route to actually making a return on any finance a video maker might get. His rather chilling message was make your life sustainable, presumably get a job on a Tesco check out to pay the rent!

His personal experience has been utterly awful, when it comes to getting returns. Yes he's made quite a few films and his recent stuff is wonderful, but the angels who gave him the money to make those films, or at least the early ones, did not fare well.

From what we heard Chris Jones' experience of dealing with sales agents has been utterly dire. They have almost invariably gone bust, disappeared with all the money or both.

Well, no doubt, if he looked at my track record he'd have some pretty awful things to say about me!

Jones came up with a constant stream of good ideas, including the rather excellent thought that a new video maker wanting to create a break through video (one that would get noticed) could do worse than form a limited company and re-make Jesus Christ, Superstar. Since there would be no intention to make money, the fact that it would have been a flagrant breach of copyright would be of no significance. If the copyright owner decided to sue, this would simply force the company to go bust and there would be a lot more publicity for the project.

Good thinking, though I doubt if anyone would be silly enough to sue.

I was there with Tony Coll, a Bristol based video maker I work with sometimes, and met Richard Woodburn, one of the Rose & Crown (Walthamstow) group of video makers.

Tony suggested that the hubbub of the huge audience when Chris Jones invited them to do some networking by talking to their neighbours, was the sound of Facebook, a great idea I think. Richard got a good laugh when he suggested the principle of crowd funding should be applied to attempting to raise enough money to get a round of drinks for everyone.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Finding the real Amy

A French tv group wants to make a documentary about Amy Winehouse. They got in touch with me because I started to make a video about Blake Fielder Civil, Amy's former husband, see my blog

I met a researcher called Emilie Helmbacher, who works for a production company called Ligne de Mire (apparently it's the French version of test card), at the National Film Theatre, on the Southbank.

Apparently they have a deal to broadcast on M6 (the third biggest French channel) some time in the summer, but the video may also go on to be shown in Belgium and Canada.

The idea is to reveal the real Amy, apparently.

I never met Amy, so I may not be the best judge, but from my limited knowledge I'm not altogether sure that even Amy knew who the real Amy was. After all she was only 26 when she died from alcohol poisoning.