Old Media and the Red Carpet: How to Innovate from Within

I recently had lunch with a senior-level film producer who is based on one of the major studio lots. He's a guy who has spent his entire career navigating within the studio folds. Despite his young age, he has been very successful at it, having had a hand in some really great movies over the last decade. The purpose of our lunch, however, was for him to lament that nothing innovative ever happens at his studio. His feeling was that the model of film producing today is broken, and his greatest fear is waking up at age 50 and suddenly finding himself irrelevant. Sure, his studio would survive ... but would he?

My response was that if he wanted to really discover both the studios' future and his own, then he needed first to acknowledge that major studios aren't built to be innovative. They protect legacy revenue streams. It occurred to me that what makes movie studios sexy is that they provide us with the familiar. We're drawn to red carpet premieres because we see stars with familiar faces; we pay money at theaters to see stories that feel familiar; we tune into TMZ.com to see familiar names from the big screen acting like idiots in their private lives.

That's why I always chuckle when I hear a studio CEO brag about the cutting-edge stuff his company is doing with digital. All of these speeches are just fodder for Wall Street because the studios haven't really taken advantage of digital. Sure, they've finally come around to using Facebook for marketing, but that's still simply an effort to drive eyeballs to their traditional distribution platforms. Every now and then, a studio will even throw $5 million at some digital innovation in the hopes that the innovation will blossom under its wing, giving its executives something cool to talk about. In virtually every case, the studio is always smacked with the reminder that it's simply easier to spend $500 million to acquire the same thing from the outside once it has achieved critical mass.

Traditional news media is in much the same boat. Local newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations have had a tough time fitting into the digital age because they too like the familiar. While these local news players don't usually have the bankroll to buy innovation from the outside, like the Hollywood studios do, the successful ones have learned that they can at least rent it.

For instance, I recently stumbled upon an interesting company in Nashville, Tenn. (home of my alma mater, Vanderbilt University). The company, called Eviesays, has built a business that very smartly capitalizes on local media's lack of innovation. For years, newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations have labored to individually and manually aggregate event and entertainment listings, knowing that they drive the local decisions people make everyday. Where are we going tonight? Who's playing at the Roxy? What time is the movie?

Eviesays wrote sophisticated web crawlers to automatically aggregate all these listings, thereby rendering irrelevant the manual approach that local media was using to collect this information. These days, Eviesays aggregates 1.4 million event and entertainment listings from across the country in much the same way that Craig Newmark started craigslist as an aggregation of classified ad listings. While scraping this content from the web isn't brain surgery by technological standards, Eviesays has created a unique template that operates at a fraction of the cost traditional media has previously spent in this area. As a result, some 530 local media partners use Eviesays to display their event listings. The company is now launching social media tools targeting both individuals and communities in order to keep its media partners' innovation rolling.

So I told my producer friend at lunch that he'd only get more and more frustrated by looking within his studio for innovation and that, instead, he should look outside of it. His Holy Grail (and his future) would come in finding ways to bridge the ever-present gap between the staid traditional media world and the more exciting innovation that he'd soon discover on the outside. I encourage all of you to periodically engage in the same exercise. While it seems like a simple concept, corporate empires have fallen unceremoniously at the hands of those who ignored it. Needless to say, in typical Hollywood style, I stuck the producer with the tab. 

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