Monthly Archives October 2011

Culture Club, Hallah-ween Style!

As a digital marketing agency steeped in digital, design and creativity, the one thing we have in common with every other company – big and small – is culture.

Culture, like life, marriage or anything else important, takes work. It’s fun to create and eat bread all day as many of us did during our 2nd Annual “Hallah-ween” BreakFest, as seen in the header photo above. (Spreading 25 different toppings on four kinds of Hallah bread didn’t hurt either! And yes, we know it’s more commonly spelled “Challah.”) But what made it cool was the silliness and ridiculousness – not of dressing up, but just another excuse to let our hair down.

I look, with my band of sisters and brothers, for every opportunity (fine, any opportunity) to let our human culture here at 36 West 25th St. in NYC to breathe in the silly.

Happy Halloween tonight! Trick or Treat your hearts out…no excuses needed!

5 Facebook Halloween Campaigns We Love

Facebook Halloween Campaigns

Halloween is one of those holidays that allows brands to be just a little more creative, and honestly, a little more fun than they usually are or can be. With the rise of Facebook, many companies use Halloween to present their products in new ways that call on user interaction and clever ideas, which show that A) these brands do have a sense of humor and B) they’re cooler than you thought they were. Below are five favorites by brands (actually, four are by brands – one isn’t linked to any product or company, but it was just too good to leave out) that captured the spirit of Halloween and built intuitive apps to support their creativity. Selected by Flightpath’s John Whitcomb and Dan Brooks, in no specific order.

Take This Lollipop – Let’s kick off the list with a bang – or in this case, a little stalking. This site has quickly become a viral sensation with its clever use of the user’s personal information and profile, playing on our fears of the big bad Facebook man watching our every move and ignoring privacy concerns of their users. After all, this is Halloween, and no fear should be left unturned.

Connect to this application and you are quickly transported to a dark hall of some creepy building. In it we find the main character, who is clicking away on the Internet. He decides to login into Facebook, but not as himself…he logs in as you! As he goes through your profile and glances at images he slowly starts tweaking out. A map is displayed of your house and he turns towards you with an evil grin on his face. Next, he is driving to what is supposedly your neighborhood with your profile picture pinned to his dash.

The best part about this whole experience is that it has nothing to do with marketing – no brand is attached – it is simply the sick and twisted mind of an individual who knows how to turn a social network into a “scary network.”

Visit the site now…If you dare! – John W

Mike’s Hard Lemonade: Zombifier – There are few things I love in this world more than zombies. Whether it’s The Walking Dead comics, George Romero’s films, or the Resident Evil games, zombies occupy a surprisingly large percentage of my entertainment pie chart. But I don’t like bad zombie stuff; I’m picky with my zombies. Also, since we’re here to talk about Facebook, it’s worth noting that I’m quite selective about my corporate Facebook likes. The last thing I want is my Facebook feed filled with junk messaging from brands I don’t really care about.

So it probably speaks pretty highly of Mike’s Hard Lemonade that I converted to “liking” its Facebook page just to use its new Zombifier, which allows you take a photo of yourself and zombie it up with easy-to-use tools. What actually sold me on the like conversion was the great landing page image: a Zombified photo of a female fan that looked really, really good.

From there, I selected a photo I wanted to use, chose the right gashes, decomposed nose and decaying eyeballs, and I was done! Zombie Dan was posted to my wall and made into my profile picture in about two minutes. What I also really liked: the zombie photo was not branded with a Mike’s Hard Lemonade logo. It may not seem like much, but I appreciate that liking them was enough, and I don’t have to actually advertise the brand with my new photo. – Dan

Target: Get Gourdeous – The main reason I chose this campaign, besides the word play in the title, was because of its simplicity. A user uploads a picture, which is then placed on a virtual pumpkin. The pumpkin can then be posted to the wall of the user or sent to a friend and, voila! Customized Facebook Jack O’Lanterns.  

Pumpkin carving is an activity that I look forward to every year, and now Target allows me to take that idea online. Now as long as no one smashes my virtual or real pumpkin carving masterpieces, this will make for a great Halloween. – John W

Unicef: Trick-or-Treat Costume Party – Not all Halloween campaigns have to be scary; some can actually be charitable, as this example from Unicef shows. Their Trick-or-Treat Costume Party campaign is a great way to not only have some fun but also help out a great cause as well. Users upload a photo either direct from Facebook or their computer, and then use the costume creator to see what various costumes look like superimposed on their photo. The charity part comes in with a great and simple tie-in from the organization, where for a small donation amount, more costume choices are unlocked.

There is also the shareability factor built in with messaging and the ability to share the photo to your wall, or make it your profile image. Additional options such as hosting a Halloween party and other things you can do to assist the organization make this a treat for them and you – with none of the tricks. – John W

Kraft Foods: Halloween Hunt – This is a basic tab/landing page, but it’s really effective and contains more content than one would think. On the page, you’re looking at a classically spooky, cartoonish haunted house in the moonlight, complete with a grave in the front lawn and other details that you don’t see until you look deeper. Your mouse turns into a skeletal hand, and as you move it over different objects, things pop-out and animate. Click that pie in front of a tombstone, and zombie hands reach out from the ground, followed by a quiz about Jell-o popping up. Get the quiz right, and you win access to a Halloween-themed recipe. Click on Kool-Aid Man, who’s staring out of one of the windows of the haunted house, and he flies away, dressed as Dracula, while a different quiz pops up.

I like the well-produced Disney-esque music and monster groans and grunts (and I usually hate the music and sound effects with these things), the basic-but-fun animation, and the interface. But I really love the way it encourages interaction and exploration in an exciting, simple way. Really well done. – Dan

Interview: Billy Fields, Music Business Sales Exec, on Vinyl’s Comeback and Digital Music Trends

Billy Fields

The struggles of the music business over the last 10 years have been well-documented. With the launch of Napster and the blossoming of illegal downloads, sales of physical CDs plummeted, and labels and shops disappeared. Digital sales via outlets like iTunes and Amazon have helped the industry stem the tide a little, but not enough.

Yet over the last few years, something strange has happened: vinyl sales have shown tremendous growth. Once deemed too big and too old in the CD era, the format has somehow made a comeback in the age of digital downloads. We recently caught up with Billy Fields, Director of Sales and overseer of vinyl production and Record Store Day for a major record company, to discuss the return of vinyl, what makes the format unique, and how digital music and vinyl can both continue to grow in the years ahead.

Flightpath: Music is so tied into digital technology these days, but vinyl sales – this year and last year – are really kind of astounding. 2.8 million sold in 2010, and that was up from 900,000 four years ago. Sales from 2011 so far are up 37 percent over the same period last year. Why do you think this is happening?

Billy Fields: I should couch all this. Some of this is actually based in fact because of the business I’m in and who I talk to on a regular basis, but a lot of this is just my thought about the aspect of digital music – that convenience is really fantastic, but convenience doesn’t actually trump the emotional connection that someone has to a record. I just read a story that came in through a vinyl community blog and through a Twitter feed that I follow about this cat that was in San Antonio when the wildfires struck. The guy snuck back into his “by-demand-of-the-police-get-out-of-the-neighborhood” neighborhood to get his records.

Flightpath: [Laughs] Right.

Billy Fields: Now that’s a stupid thing for him to have done because records are not as valuable as his life. But he said the reason why he did it was that every one of his records, he had a sentimental attachment to. I challenge anyone to show me that sort of connection to a digital file.

Let’s be clear about vinyl and the way it’s judged. All the numbers that everyone talks about are scanned through SoundScan, which is the industry standard. It’s what everyone uses, but there is a lot of business that happens that is either added to, subtracted from, adjusted, or never reported at all because of the nature of what the business is. As a couple of examples: Urban Outfitters carries records now in every one of their stores. They report none of those sales to SoundScan. All of the major online audiophile LP specific outlets – Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc – there’s a lot of them. They don’t report to SoundScan.

So we are going off of what the mainstream music business does, and we had a plateau in 2010. 2010 I think, if I remember correctly, was up 15 percent from 2009. It was 2.5 to 2.8 million. And I’ll be honest that once we got through Christmas last year, and we got into January, I started seeing weekly averages of 62, 64, 65,000 units reported in SoundScan. Which was up dramatically from either the fourth quarter of 2010, where the averages, until you got to Christmas, were 48,000, 52,000, 45,000. So something happened this last year at Christmas which was like, this whole other group of kids got turned onto what was going on and started to actually buy. Now all this also, by the way, coincides with a lot of really great indie rock records being released with a digital component [included]. We’re actually able to go to these kids, tie in the sentimental quality of vinyl, but also give them this convenience factor that makes it the best of both worlds. You get something with 12-by-12 art, it’s beautiful, you can read liner notes, you get to get into the details of a record and, you know, you get to put it onto whatever device it is you’re walking around town [with] – you get the best of both. The reason why, back to your original question – it is the sentimental, emotional connection to music, which at it’s heart is what music is. That is driving the business and how it’s developing and how it’s growing.

Flightpath: This is probably a reflection of what you were saying, but I’m a big music fan and nerd. I grew up in the CD age, I’m thirty years old, and I’ve basically switched over to vinyl plus digital downloads. And a big reason for that is because I can buy a new album on vinyl and get the digital download with it, which is great. I love the size of a record, the sound, and you know, the whole experience. But I also think that there’s something to be said for a well-made physical artifact that digital just can’t match.

Billy Fields: I completely agree.

Flightpath: Do you think that a new generation is kind of realizing that, finally?

Billy Fields: I think that every, I don’t know, let’s call it every decade or decade and a half, you get this process that happens. You start to realize that all the technology you’ve been consuming, all this that you’ve done to drive you forward, you’ve done it so quickly that you actually forget to experience being alive. I think that, you know, it’s more this process of every decade, decade and a half of reviewing, “What have I been doing? What did I miss?” And so for you, at 30, you grew up on CDs, you never even really dealt with vinyl.

There are three distinct groups of people that are actually buying records today. There are the audiophiles – the people that never stop buying records and would go wherever they have to go to get the best pressing. So they’d go to European imports, they’d go to little niche labels that release the weirdest psych records that have ever existed but are so lovingly made, and made in such small press runs, that they become highly collectable. Then you’ve got people like me. I’m 14 years older than you. I actually grew up on records – the end of records – but adopted every technology from there. I’m on Spotify, I’m a Rdio user, I love iTunes. I don’t buy a lot of music that way, but I use it. I have music on all my devices because I like to take it with me. So you’ve got my group of people that grew up on it, absolutely, but sort of walked away from it, that are now coming back because, “Wow, this really is better than CD sound. It’s better than ear buds in my ears on the train. I can hear this music, I can let the music envelope me, almost like a physical blanket.” And then you’ve got kids! And I’m going to call you a kid at this point – well, your age and younger, that never even thought that records mattered or never even had the opportunity to like, open up Dark Side of the Moon, put it on with headphones, and realize, “Holy shit, this is blowing my mind.”

So, that’s what I think is happening. You’re going through the process where we’re all saying, “Hey, let me sort of reflect on how I go forward into the future.” And you also have kids that are like, “I’ve never even experienced this before and this is really fantastic.”

Flightpath: Most of the time, when I find out about a vinyl release, I’m finding out about it online, either through Twitter or through something posted on Facebook.

Billy Fields: With all the aspects of our media world that are splintered now and [are] becoming even more splintered, the more we get away from the ubiquitous song on radio – we’re sort of past that right now, but it’s not done yet – it’s almost, “Wherever the water rises to, that’s where we’re going.”

I mean, I’ve got my trusted sources. I am, what’s the word…a disciple. I’m a disciple of independent retail. I shop in record stores. I like the people that work in record stores. I call any number of them my friends. I like to buy records.

I’m in Denver right now. I went to Twist & Shout, bought records, and I’ll buy some more records before I leave. And the reason why is that when you walk in there and you say to someone, “Hey look, what are you listening to? Oh wow, that sounds great. I’m going to buy that.” That’s how I get turned onto records. I knew about Mumford and Sons before the two million people that bought it, because independent records stores were telling that story way, way before anyone else was aware of who that band was. Way before they were on the Grammys. I mean years before. And I mean, we all do this differently. It’s either, “This is what my Twitter feed is, this is what my Facebook friends are saying, this is what people I work with say.” I mean, we’re getting it, but it’s funny because it all goes back to that idea of, “I trust the people that I know. I trust the people who have previously told me about things I have loved.” You know, I’ve got people that are in that independent retail community that I could seriously just pick up the phone, call five people, get five different answers and they would all be fantastic records that you would never have heard of before.

Flightpath: Right. I mean, I really miss record shopping. It’s exactly what you described. I discovered Marshall Crenshaw because when I was in college, I walked into a record store in the Village and someone was playing his greatest hits, and I was like “What is this?”

Billy Fields: Right! You were like, “What is that!” I mean, we can’t consume it all. There are so many great books that are written that you’ll never read, you just don’t have the time. There are so many great records that are recorded that you’ll never get to hear because there isn’t the time to do it. You have to decide to pick and choose, build your filters well, and adjust that batch that best helps you hit the mark every time, you know?

Flightpath: One thing I like now is that the marketing seems to have gotten very creative – in regards to vinyl – in targeting fans. Matthew Sweet has a new album out, so does Wilco, and they had these packages where you could preorder and you get the record, a t-shirt, and a tote bag. All this cool stuff. It seems in a way like the marketing is more creative than I’ve seen it in a long time.

Billy Fields: I do agree. I think the reason they are doing that is that for one, you’re seeing the splitting apart of what the retail environment used to be. You simply can’t get all those things in all the places that you could before. You know, even those music retailers or the big box stores that actually carry music that are out in the market, they don’t carry as deep of a selection as before. They are catering to a different audience. It’s a sea change in how the bands reach out specifically and say, “Hey, you’ve already contacted us as a fan and because of that, we’re going to let you in on something cool and here’s the opportunity.” And it’s also combating the idea of valueless things.

I mean, I think it’s great that Lady Gaga sold the records that she sold, and her record frankly, for what it is, it’s a great record. I’m not going to talk bad about the record; I mean, it’s not my bag but it’s a cool record. But for someone that visible, how does she not sell millions of records at 99 cents? [Lady Gaga’s album was released as a download for 99 cents – Dan.] I mean, to me it’s like, does the public actually believe that it’s worth nothing? Or is there some weird, like, “I’ll pay fifty bucks for a preorder of a Wilco record,” and it’s a matter of some people think it’s worth nothing, and some will give their right arm for it. You know, you have those bands that are like, “They want to support me. They like what I do, I want to give them something really fantastic.”

Flightpath: Exactly. The focus of the music industry for a long time has always been on digital. Do you think that was a mistake?

Billy Fields: I don’t think it was a mistake. I mean what has always happened, at least for the music business – and I could even probably say [the same] for the publishing business, or whatever the business is – we’ve always followed the technology. We made singles when that was what was hot. I mean, we’re the music, but we’ve always been about the medium. So as the medium develops and moves into a different environment, so does the music. So I don’t think it was at all a mistake, just that this is the march of technology. You know, I’m talking to you on an iPhone. Ten years ago, what I have in my hand right now was probably conceived by people like William Gibson, but the people walking down the street weren’t thinking like, “Hey, I’m going to be able to carry my entire collection on this thing that I also talk on.”

Flightpath: They didn’t know they needed it at the time.

Billy Fields: Exactly. So, there’s a bit of marketing and a bit of the showmanship of that, but we are an interesting, malleable creature, us humans. We follow pretty well. And if it’s done well, and if it’s done right, and it ends up being easy, we’ll follow all the more. So no, I don’t think that it was a mistake. I think it’s the natural evolution of whatever it is. Don’t you see a future where you don’t ever carry anything anymore? You just think it, you know?

Flightpath: What’s the feeling in the industry right now about vinyl? Is it very excited about everything that’s happening?

Billy Fields: Well, it all comes down to who you’re talking to. I mean, I’m excited about it, I love the format. I’m tied into it in a big way for my entire company. It’s a tough question.

Flightpath: As a music fan, I find it very exciting.

Billy Fields: It is. I’ll use Lady Gaga for an example. Is that really a record that should be on vinyl? I’m not sure. They put it out, which is cool. And it sold. But is that fan really excited about it being a record? I think that’s really what it comes down to. It’s not so much about the format overall, but does [the artist] really work well with the format? Are they going to love that experience for that artist? I think it’s a lot more about that than the overall thing and what the excitement is about that.

Flightpath: I feel like there’s the opportunity there, though, that it could make a person become a fan of the format.

Billy Fields: I think that happens every day. [Laughs] When I had just got out of working in retail and I got into working on the distribution side of the business, I was always amazed by how many Metallica Black records we sold. And what I would always come back to is, “Yeah you know, every year another 13-year-old kid turns 14, and the Metallica Black record becomes the most important record of his life.”

Flightpath: [Laughs] That’s totally true.

Billy Fields: I mean, that’s what happens! Sometimes you get it when you’re younger, sometimes you get it when you’re older; it all depends on how it breaks down. You never know when a record is going to be the most important thing in your life.

Flightpath: Are most bands excited about their stuff coming out on vinyl now?

Billy Fields: Again, the ones that love the format and the ones that actually want the record to be released on record – absolutely. You know the thing is, even after all this time, is your music even officially released until it’s on vinyl? I mean, maybe? Maybe it doesn’t really become real until you’ve got a 12-by-12 record. You know, maybe then it becomes real.

Flightpath: I’m not just saying this, but I don’t download music illegally. I’ve always preferred to buy it. I’ve always felt like I want to support the artist. I like having a collection. I think a lot of my friends, or even a lot of my generation got to this point where they don’t want to pay for anything, and all physical media has kind of suffered for that. What’s your take on that – that phenomenon that’s happened, since the Internet kind of made free access to media possible?

Billy Fields: Well you know, that’s funny, because being as I’m an old man now comparatively, that’s what I think: a bunch of lazy kids, not wanting to pay for anything. That’s good to hear. But I don’t know. That’s a really tough question to figure out. It really is. If we could all turn back the clock and go back to when Napster first started and say, “We’re going to figure out how to monetize this now as an industry,” and not go through the decade that’s been a struggle to figure [monetizing MP3s] out. What would have happened 10 years ago if we had services such as Rdio or Spotify or any of these services that are actually legitimate, real things that gave people access to hear music that they wouldn’t have otherwise? I don’t know. Because it’s not just that people feel like maybe they don’t have to pay for anything, but I guess isn’t that in everything?

Flightpath: I mean, there are pirate sites for comic books. I was reading an interview with Grant Morrison, the comic book writer, and he was talking about how comic book sales are plummeting for different reasons. But he was also saying that it’s like no one wants to pay for anything anymore and that’s a real problem.

Billy Fields: Maybe if we made more stuff and talked a lot more about the fact that it takes talent, and effort, and work, and that work pays off and that you’re fully employed and employable and that you aren’t working at whatever job that you can barely cover your rent, maybe you have a little extra money to say, “I love this artist so much that I’m going to support them.” I don’t know. I think that the way we behave is directly proportional to sort of the messages we’re told or the messages that are parroted into us through various media outlets. Sometimes those messages are pretty disruptive in what they tell you what’s valuable and what isn’t. But again, that’s almost a sociological conversation and I don’t know that I have any of the answers for that.

Flightpath: I wanted to ask you about Record Store Day and about how that came to be. It seems like it’s been really successful.

Billy Fields: It’s been fantastically successful. It started with a group of record store guys saying, “Hey, there’s this thing called ‘Free Comic Book Day.’ We should do something like that for record stores.” Next year will be the fifth year, so yeah, [it started] four years ago and it was mostly an off shoot of what Free Comic Book Day was, which was just, “Hey let’s give away a bunch of great stuff out to people who come in and get them sort of acquainted again with their neighborhood community record store.”

Some of these stats might not be exactly spot-on, because I’m doing this from memory, but in 2010 there was something like 1.1 million people that went into record stores worldwide on that day. Recordstoreday.com’s web traffic for the month of April was something like 1.25 million page views. The amount of retail dollars – I can’t actually answer that, and I don’t know that there is a very clear indication of it. But when you talk to individual stores – and these are stores that have been doing this as community-based, local record stores for 25, 30, 35 years – they say that, “This is the best day that we have had in our history.” So what I would say is, that this has built, and built, and built. I want to say in 2010 that there were 174 specialized releases that were released on Record Store Day. Now, that can be anything from a short run of 100 seven-inch records that are only in a single market to big records, like a Black Keys special 12-inch that’s leading into their release that we made, you know, 5,000 of. So, in 2010 there were 174. Last April, there were around 300 different items that were released.

Flightpath: Wow. So it’s bigger and bigger.

Billy Fields: It’s bigger and bigger, but the thing is, we’re feeling like it’s almost getting too big. It’s sort of too much for stores to handle, and how do you sort through it? Just because the industry is saying, “This is really hot, we’re going to get involved in it and make these things available,” it doesn’t mean that the stores have to buy everything. The stores really need to pay attention to, “Hey, what can I sell to my consumer? What can I sell to my fan that is coming into my store?” So this gives you more of a choice to do it. Did more releases necessarily mean better results? I think yes and no. But again this last year, the same store I just related about “the best day in our history?” This year, it was store after store after store saying, “We’re up 45 percent from our last year. At noon, we had eclipsed last year’s numbers and we’re still going strong. We had a line 40 deep for seven hours.” I mean, I live in New York, and I went out with a bunch of friends from Atlantic [Records], and I think I hit seven record stores that day and it was great.

J&R was a mad house. People were grabbing and pushing and screaming and it was just like, “Oh my God.” It was crazy. But then you go other places and it was, “This is what we’ve got left, and it was crazy at 9 a.m. when we opened,” and then you hang out at a store like Permanent Records out in Greenpoint and they’re like, “Oh yeah, it’s better than last year,” and they’ve got bands playing. It’s like a whole day party. Come out, interact with other human beings. Get out of your digital world and your 140 character lives and actually shake hands and say, “Hey,” to people that share an interest that you have.

Flightpath: That’s awesome, and that’s why I don’t think vinyl will ever go away and why I’m excited it’s coming back. I just can’t think of anything else that would inspire people to be so excited about an entertainment format.

Billy Fields: You know, I think that’s a really good point. Even though this is very specialized and we all admit that this is niche and it’s a very small percentage of the overall music business. And it is, let’s be real. But what other events have happened in the music business that are as exciting as Record Store Day? And not just the music business, but even in the entertainment business, period? In stores, where you have people lining up for hours and hours and hours to hang out and buy some things that they’re coveting. I have not seen any other event occur. In fact, one of the reasons why vinyl is exciting and why vinyl continues to grow is because of Record Store Day.

Flightpath: What’s your feeling about where everything is going both for vinyl and for digital?

Billy Fields: Well I think that vinyl is going to continue to be a really strong format. I see no reason why it won’t continue to have, on average, 20 percent growth, year over year, for the next number of years. I think that there is still a lot of content, and I say content in a very generic way, that isn’t in the format that needs to be. Whether it’s specific records where the artist really wants to take the time and do it right and put it back on the format, or just other things that haven’t yet been explored, whether it’s more seven-inch series or special 12-inch pieces or whatever. There is still a lot of vinyl business to be had and grow. The prime vehicle for marketing, and this is really the truth of it, is artist pre-orders and artists talking to their fans. It’s Record Store Day and it’s online record stores like Music Direct. So we have a lot that we can still touch on when it comes to selling.

I think as far as the format’s concerned, it’ll continue to grow and it’ll continue to be a niche product, which it is now. But I don’t see any reason why it’s going to stop being 20 percent [growth] year over year. I think last year I said, “I see no reason why we’re not going to [grow] 20 percent, year over year, over the next five years.” This year, I think through last week, we’re 35 or 36 percent above last year. And we still have the busiest quarter of the year.

Digitally…I don’t know. I think the growth of digital music has everything to do with the growth of whatever the device is. So, you see every year at Christmas that [new mobile or digital devices] are sold and then you get this huge influx into the iTunes store. Whereas three years ago, it was primarily music that was the benefit of that, now you’re seeing people buy everything. It’s apps, it’s books, it’s video – it’s everything. So I think that that will continue to grow, but it will be dependent upon the devices that support it. And so, as long as that continues to evolve and develop, I don’t see any reason why that slows down either. And frankly, the services like Spotify, Rdio or Rhapsody, and all that – sort of like, “Hey, come on in, listen as much as you want, have access to as much as you want for a set fee or free,” – I think that’s another access model for discovery, that lets people then make decisions like, “Hey, I’m going to go out and buy this record now.”

Are You “Getting Emotional?”

Getting emotional is as human as it gets. It is also as dog as it gets – as my Airedale shows me when she gets near the vet. Brands don’t get emotional, yet we people (I am not sure about dogs) get really emotional about some brands and could not care less about others. It’s not simply about filling needs -like in Maslow’s Hierarchy – as nobody actually “needs” a Coke, a Swatch Watch or of course, the iPad, but now feel they do. I believe people get emotional about brands, not for what they are, but because of what is referred to in psychology as transference.

Transference is about projecting, as in, projecting a feeling about one person or thing to another. The brands that have become meaningful and successful in today’s hyper competitive marketplace have done so by transferring emotional related value to the user, as opposed to functional value.

Steve Jobs talked about this in a presentation he gave soon after rejoining and redefining Apple when he was introducing the “Think Different” campaign. He clearly understood, regardless of the functional differences between a Mac and Windows, that Apple would never return to his promise of “changing the world” if the brand remained emotionally detached. Fighting a product battle of “we’re better than you” would be a losing proposition, even though he and his faithful knew that they were better. The connection people had with the individuals featured in the campaign – Ghandi, Ali, Peron, Einstein, Lennon, Dylan – was exciting and elevating, and connected with people on an emotional level.

Brands today need to be vigilant about “getting emotional” and not about simply getting to a lower price point (though that doesn’t hurt as part of the deal). As a sociology major (I get emotional just thinking about how many moons ago) I was fascinated by the study of human interaction and still today often transfer or project that currency on to brands. Here’s two things that usually come in to play when trying to get deeper and more emotionally connected to a brand:

  1. The One and Only: Does the brand convey exclusivity and intangible differentiating factors – the things the product delivers to you on spiritual or emotional level – over other brands? Luxury cars, high-end fragrances and premium chocolates nail this messaging; Apple’s iPhone 4S video is a perfect example.

  2. Why Me?: Yes, there are always the specific functional reasons you should choose a brand; but it’s the emotional mood elevators and the fulfilling of desires where it gets exciting and makes an emotional connection.

New York Comic Con 2011 Photos

Comic books are becoming more and more intertwined with digital (see our interview with DC Comics’ SVP of Digital, Hank Kanalz). Comics are now available in the digital format for the iPad and other mobile devices; comic book creation is now routinely accomplished with digital tools, from pencils to inks to colors; and web comics continue to pop up around the Internet.

This past weekend, Flightpath attended New York Comic Con 2011 at the Jacob Javits Center. We’re happy to share our photos from the getting-bigger-every-year event, which attracts retailers (both physical and online), comic book publishers, toy makers, movie studios and more. Enjoy the sights and weirdness that is New York Comic Con.


New York Comic Con gets very, very crowded. This year, however, the show was spread out over four days, and took up more of the convention center, which made for more space and a more enjoyable time. Still, if you ever go, count on getting jostled. A lot.


As you’ll see in this report, a big part of Comic Con is cosplay – costume play – with attendees dressing up as their favorite comic book, videogame, movie and TV characters. Many of the costumes are highly, if not shockingly, detailed. Here, Bumblebee from Transformers suits up.


Lots of movie promotion at Comic Con (except for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises, which honestly, will print money for Warner Bros. regardless of having a presence at these things). Here’s a life-size fake Spider-Man from Marvel‘s upcoming reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.


Marvel was really pushing The Avengers, its coming film that brings together the leads of its various franchises – most of the cast also appeared for a panel discussion and autograph signing.


Captain America’s movie suit, guarded by two “agents” of SHIELD.


And what would a comic book convention be without toys? (I ask that sincerely.) Hasbro showed off its various Marvel lines, including Thor…


…and Spider-Man.


Five-year-old me would have been very excited to see that Optimus Prime himself made an appearance at Hasbro’s booth.


Reallusion showed off iClone5, its very cool 3D animation software.


DC Comics was also, of course, a major presence at Comic Con, having dominated the news lately with its line-wide reboot, in addition to this week’s much-anticipated release of Batman: Arkham City for PS3 and Xbox360.


Speak of the devil! Or of Batman: Arkham City, which fans got to play on the show floor.


The crossover event NO ONE demanded, but would actually kind of rock! Rogue from X-Men and Dark Helmet from Spaceballs.


DC Direct, DC’s in-house action figure division, showed off its upcoming line of toys based on the revamped designs of characters from DC’s relaunch.


The whole gang is here!


Flightpath favorite Threadless, makers of the greatest tees on Earth, were also present…


…and brought along an awesome zombie.


Many fans go to Comic Con to meet their favorite artists and writers, who set up for commissions and autographs. Here, Trevor McCarthy, famous for his work on Nightwing, talks with fans.


Billy Fowler signs for some fans. (Nice Wolverine, Billy.)


Predator looks angry, but I hear he had a wonderful time!


There were tons of comics retailers, and it was hard not to spend a fortune.


Jem is her name, no one else is the same. The classic ’80s cartoon is coming to DVD via Shout! Factory.


No job is too big, no fee is too big: the Ghostbusters!

And that’s it! Hope you enjoyed our photos. If you went to Comic Con, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

New Facebook Insights Helps Marketers Understand Potential Targets

As many are aware by now, Facebook recently released an update to its Insights product. This was the first update to this section and was, according to the release issued by Facebook, a response to requests from brand marketers for a deeper understanding of the community they were building.

The update was filled with a number of new features, including the new “Talking about this page” metric, which shows first time users the level of engagement each community has, along with its size. However, a little more digging into these updates and one now finds demographic data for the group that Facebook defines as the “reach.”

Reach is made up of consumers who are in some way connected to the page but may not directly be a fan…yet! They may have seen a post in their friend’s feed, or they may have been exposed to an ad produced by the brand’s page. Up to this point, most community managers could easily describe the demographic of their community, but only a handful could define the connections of their community members. This group is what my current supervisor likes to call “the low hanging fruit” of our potential audience – in other words, these are people who we should be able to easily convert to actual fans.

Now I know the whole point is to increase engagement and not the number of fans, so using it for this purpose is contradictory to why the update was released in the first place. But let’s be honest; for now, my clients are still going to look at fan growth as a significant metric of success, so any thing I can use to help me achieve that growth is helpful. Once I have them on the page then I need the second part of the strategy – which is to engage them and get them talking.

So how do we use this demographic information? We can use it in a number of ways, from growing the community to product development. If, for instance, you have a new product idea, you can match it up with this potential audience to see if it would fit in that demographic. If your potential demographic is mostly made up of young woman from 20-35, and you primarily produce product for older children, maybe it would make sense to expand to some products geared towards younger children as well. One way Facebook could increase the usefulness of this potential even more is by displaying top likes of your reach as well and associated interests. This would give us a better idea of their activity and who they are, as opposed to just the demo data.

As the network continues to stress ties with brands and make the platform more useful for marketers, it will be interesting to see what other data they make available that could help us in our campaign planning.

The Flightpath Roundtable: iPhone 4S and the Smartphone Market

iphone 4S

Welcome to the latest installment of The Flightpath Roundtable, where we gather various Flightpath employees for a discussion on the hottest topics in digital.

Today, we’re talking about the iPhone 4S, the newest model in Apple’s vaunted line of smartphones. The announcement of the 4S, however, was met with mixed reaction. Many people were disappointed that we’re not getting the iPhone 5, while others are happy with the upgrades of the 4S over the 4.

The participants in this discussion:

Dan Brooks, Digital Marketing Associate
John Lee, Director of Digital Marketing and Analytics
Cliff Medney, Chief Creative Strategist
John Whitcomb, Social Media Strategist

Dan: Alright, so we’re talking about the iPhone 4S. John Lee, I’ll start with you since you’re a big iPhone fan. What are your thoughts on the announcement of the 4S?

John L: Well, I wasn’t paying as much attention this time because I wasn’t planning on upgrading. I’m pretty happy with my iPhone 4. I know coming out with the 4S, and only the 4S, disappointed a lot of people. Especially when early reports indicated that they were coming out with different levels or tiers of iPhones for different price points. What seems to be the case now is that if you want the iPhone 3GS, you can get that for free [Laughs]. If you want the 4, you can get that for $99. If you want the brand new 4S, they are $200, $300, or $400.

I know it pissed off a lot of people who were expecting the iPhone 5. Personally, I’m not that surprised that the iPhone 5 didn’t come out. First off, they’ve been delayed with this product. With the iPad 2, they were running late with that [too]. But it doesn’t make sense for Apple to come out with a new product every year. I mean, this isn’t that different from when they launched the 3GS right after the 3G. To come out with a brand new product every year? I don’t think that’d be very smart. They cost a lot in R&D and a lot in production. Imagine what they have to do in China, refitting all those factories that they have – it just wouldn’t make any sense.

In terms of overall improvement, I’m glad I got the iPhone 4 when I did because it doesn’t seem like that huge of an upgrade from the 4 to the 4S. I’m sure you have a better camera and a better processor, but I don’t think they updated the RAM. And of course if you want the 64 gigabyte version, that’s great if you have a lot of media. But again, I don’t really see the huge improvement. It didn’t get as much hype as it usually would because of Steve Jobs [dying].

Dan: If they called this the iPhone 5, it would have been a huge disappointment, right?

John L: Yeah, they’d have to come out with a completely different design to call it the iPhone 5. You saw those leaked patented schematics of what the new iPhone is probably going to be – whether they were fake or not, I don’t know. It would have been nice to see a iPhone 5, but I’m not surprised it didn’t come out this year.

Dan: I was waiting and waiting for the iPhone 5! I was all excited and when I saw the iPhone 4S, I was like, “What the hell is this? I’ve been waiting so long!” [Laughs] But I think it’s a pretty awesome piece of hardware, so I’m excited to get my hands on it.

John L: Even the 4 is still a pretty slick device. The retina display is excellent.

Dan: [to John W] You have a 4? What do you have?

John W: I have a Droid Incredible.

Dan: Oh! As a Droid user, what do you think of the iPhone and iPhone 4S?

John W: I think that the iPhone is fine. One of the main reasons I’ve always had a Droid is that we’ve been with Verizon, and for a while the iPhone was only on AT&T. Now that it’s available on Verizon I guess I can switch, but I haven’t yet because of my comfort level with the Droid. I like the Android operating system.

I was surprised. I really thought they were [going to announce the iPhone 5]. Unlike what [John L] said about not being surprised, with all the hype surrounding it, I was expecting the announcement for the iPhone 5. I think a lot of people were and that there was a lot of disappointment. I don’t know if I would call it an absolute failure, but there was a lot of negative buzz that was produced using the 4S versus the 5.

I thought one of the most interesting things was all the rumors that led right up to the day, including what carriers were going to be allowed to do it. There was a rumor spreading that Sprint would have sole access to [the 4S or 5] when it first came out, and then they would allow other carriers to do it. Sprint hadn’t even carried the iPhone up to that point. But it was a ridiculous amount of money that they were going to pay to have exclusive access and they were going to have to buy a lot of iPhones from the company. That was interesting to me, as a person who doesn’t even have an iPhone, but from a marketing perspective.

Dan: You use an iPhone, right Cliff? Are you upgrading to the 4S?

Cliff: No, no. Maybe the 5 when it comes out. I guess I have 2nd or 3rd generation, and it’s just delightful. So I don’t know how much more of a kick that I would get from an upgrade. Do I use, in my limited way, even 70% of what this thing has to offer? You know, I would imagine I haven’t maxed out. If there was anything I hear about anything that’s better, it’s the photography. I take a lot [of photos] so that would be nice.

Dan: One of the big criticisms I heard a lot when the iPhone was first introduced was that it does the “i” part great, but not so much the “Phone” part. There were a lot of dropped calls. Has that improved, especially with the 4 and going forward?

John L: I mean, I’ve always been on AT&T for as long as I can remember. In terms of reliable signals, it’s always been kind of a problem. I hadn’t really noticed the difference when I moved onto the iPhone. I have nothing else to benchmark that against. I understand that Verizon is supposed to be pretty reliable, but I’ve also heard people say that it’s just as bad.

Dan: People seem to put up with it for whatever reason.

John L: Yeah. I think in large metro areas like New York, everyone’s on their devices which puts a lot of demand on their network. Whether or not that’s a cause, I don’t know.

Dan: And what about the impact of having an iPhone or a smartphone on your lives?

John L: In a city like Manhattan, it definitely comes in handy when you need to find a restaurant or you’re trying to navigate through the city. It’s just very convenient to have something like this at your disposal.

John W: I mean, I feel naked when I don’t have it on me for few minutes. I feel lost without it. I use it every day, from the morning when I get up to track mileage expenses, to navigating the city if I don’t know exactly where something is, to looking up a quick bite to eat, to keeping on top of Internet stuff to being able to connect to email.

Cliff: Yeah. In its simplest form, it is a device. I used to carry around little pads and a pen everywhere because I would have an idea or notion that I would need to write down, or I would forget. So now [I just use] the notes section of this thing, and if I think it’s actually worth sharing, if not profound, I can then email it [to myself or others]. So as a device that expedites either the sharing, the development, the capture, [it’s great]. Then when I sync it up with my home computer, I have storage of it. I don’t have to…[holds up notebook filled with scribbled notes and ideas]

Dan: …carry that around? [Laughs]

Cliff: [Laughs] It’s not a pretty picture. So I think as a device, it is so multifunctional that it does help you navigate life differently.

John W: What he said I think is about smartphones in general, not just iPhones.

John L: But we have to also acknowledge that smartphones have really been following what iPhone has sort of designed. If you look at all the smartphones now – the UI, everything – they are all pretty much designed from Apple. I like the Android operating system, I think it’s a great operating system, but let’s face it. It’s still the UI that is pretty much taken from Apple’s design.

Android has the market share right now. I think it has almost twice as much market share as Apple has in the US. You know, I don’t take anything away from Android. I think it’s a great operating system. The Samsung Galaxy 2 is pretty fast – it’s more powerful than the new iPhone 4S, but I don’t know. I just like the iPhone. I think it’s a little bit more slick with the industrial design.

Dan: The 4S, I was just reading, has broken sales records so far with preorders. So it looks like it’s paid off – the announcement and everything. People were waiting for it. It’s going to be a success.

John L: I think so.

Cliff: The notion of trading up is so compelling. All of these different smartphones. The idea that you can so easily trade up these days and get the best. It’s pretty hard to say no. The barriers to entry…

John L: Well that’s just the thing, too. The barriers are getting smaller and smaller. Smartphones are pretty much for everyone now and are becoming commodities. The iPhone is somewhat of a commodity now too, since they are giving away the 3GS for free. It’s pretty much, anyone can have a smartphone these days, and pretty much everybody does.

Cliff: Right. I mean, can you imagine in a year? I have a flip phone too that is like, my kids’ hotline. But you’re going to see someone with a flip phone and it’s going to turn the whole Apple/iPhone thing on its head from 5 years ago, when you would see someone with it and think, “Oh my god, that’s amazing.” Now you’re going to think how bizarre [a flip phone] is in a year. So there’s iPhone years like there is like dog years.

Dan: What about going forward? Do you think that this would be a new model where Apple might take their time before introducing a full-fledged new model like the iPhone 5 or iPhone 6, and then have these updates in between?

John L: You know what? I hate to say it, but with Steve Jobs gone, who knows what’s going to happen.

John W: The updates kind of remind me of operating system updates. Where you know, you had Windows 98, and then Windows ME, Mac 10.3, Mac 10.8, or however the Mac operating systems go up. It’s the same kind of thing. You always feel like you have to be at the top level to be “in.”

Even though it broke the sales records, one of the questions that I would have asked people is if they are truly happy they got the 4S, or if it was more, “Well, that’s what they had.”

Dan: With the announcement of the new phone?

John W: Yeah.

Dan: I think the danger if that would be the model is it could kind of water down the iPhone brand. It creates some confusion. There’s something about the 4S that feels…I said something to my friend like, “I don’t want to get a stop-gap device.” You know? And maybe it’s not [exactly a stop-gap], but it’s not the iPhone 5.

John L: Let’s face it. With the launch of every iPhone, there is something that people are going to be very critical over. Just like when the first iPhone came out, it was like “Oh my god, it doesn’t have 3G.” And so they came out with a 3G version. What did people complain about with the 3G version? “It doesn’t shoot video!” There’s always something that people complain about, but people keep buying it. It’s still a very slick device. I have yet to see a phone that’s as well built as an iPhone.

Starting a Company in a Small Apartment & Building It…With Help from Steve Jobs

steve jobs

I started what is now Flightpath on one of Steve Jobs’ early inventions.

It was 1994 and I had a boxy little monochrome Mac SE with 4 MB of RAM, my cat, and a 14.4 dial-up modem. I started using the web before there was a mosaic/gui browser. There was a whole lot of clicking the spacebar to proceed through text. One day, after watching me click away for months, my cat jumped up on my desk and started clicking the spacebar – surfing the web. (Jobs gets a lot of credit for making devices so intuitive that kids can use them. Who knew they were easy enough for cats?)

Eventually, I traded my SE for a sleek Mac Quadra with a color monitor that I rode for a few years, before eventually succumbing and living with a series of crappy Gateway and Dell PCs.

About two weeks ago, I finally got my first new Mac in more than 10 years and it rocks. I’m ordering my iPhone 4S tomorrow. But what I’d really like to get my hands on is a vintage copy of the Whole Earth Catalog – something I guess I’d always heard of but never knew much about until reading about it in one of the Steve Jobs obituaries. Apparently, many facets of the Whole Earth zeitgeist informed Steve’s worldview (DIY, community-aware, creative, self-sustainable). If nothing else, I’ll start following them on Twitter (@wholeearth).

Interview: Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits – Part 2

bill-hunt-the-digital-bits

In the final installment of our two-part interview with Bill Hunt, the creator of The Digital Bits discusses his site’s landmark Alien Quadrilogy feature, the future of home video, and helping two of Flightpath’s favorite films get the special edition Blu-rays they deserve.

Flightpath: I wanted to ask about the Alien Quadrilogy feature. It was really rich with information and you seemed to get a level of access that I’d never seen before. How did that come about?

Bill Hunt: The backstory on that is, the producer of that set, Charles de Lauzirika, [became] a very good friend of mine. That happened because when the very first Alien was going to be released on DVD, I talked to the people I knew at Fox, and they said, “Next year we’re going to be doing our first special edition, and it’s going to be Alien.” And I put that news in The Rumor Mill on The Bits. I got an email within a couple of hours, basically, from this fella named Charlie, who said, “Listen, you don’t know me, but I’m an assistant. I work for Ridley Scott. I saw this news and I told Ridley, and he had no idea that Fox was going to be putting his movie out. He would love to be involved. He would love to do a director’s commentary and all that kind of stuff for it. So who do I contact to make that happen?”

Flightpath: That’s amazing.

Bill Hunt: Yeah. So I put them in touch with Fox and got them all talking together, and as a result of that, Charlie got his sort of first special edition producing job. And he’s of course since done some of the greatest special editions on both Blu-ray and DVD that have ever been done – Gladiator, Blade Runner, the Alien Quadrilogy, and the Blu-ray version of that – amazing, amazing work.

When he was just getting into that, we sort of hooked up and became friends. So when that Quadrilogy project began to happen, Doogan and I were writing a book about DVD. It was called The Digital Bits: Insider’s Guide to DVD. It was something you could take to the store, find out what the good discs were, and figure out how to hook up your DVD player and that kind of thing. And I wanted to do a feature on what it takes to put a really good special edition together, because I had never really seen anything like that. To me, a good special edition producer is almost like an archaeologist for one of these catalog films, because they’re going back in boxes and they’re interviewing people who worked on these films 20 years ago. It’s this kind of really in-depth research that’s involved. So I told Charlie, “Listen, I think it would be a great topic for a whole chapter of the book.” And he thought it was a great idea, so we went to Fox and said, “Can we have permission to do this? We’ll go behind-the-scenes for the year-and-a-half or whatever it takes to document it all, but we won’t put any of it on the website until the title gets announced – we weren’t going to leak secret information – but we’ll release it in the book. And then at a specific time, when the title gets announced, we’ll do a series of stories on the website.” And they agreed. It was amazing. They signed off on it. So literally, for a year-and-a-half, for every two or three weeks or whatever, I went to commentary recording sessions, and into the Fox archives to look at all the boxes of material. It was pretty extraordinary.

For the very original DVD release, I was at one of the sessions where they were doing the hi-def transfer for the original Alien. I was there in the capacity of doing that stuff [for the book], but also as a friend of Charlie. And it was riveting – sitting in the room with Ridley Scott when he was doing commentary. Ridley would be in the booth doing his commentary, and we’d take a break, and he’d come out and have a drink or something. It would be Charlie, the recording engineer, and Ridley and I, sitting in the room and we would just start talking about the films, and it was amazing. Then he would go back in and complete the commentary. We did that for all the actors involved – Tom Skerritt and all those people – and it was really amazing.

Flightpath: Did that lead to you doing advising on bonus features or anything like that?

Bill Hunt: We do a lot of that. It’s very often not credited stuff. I did get a credit on one of the Alien box sets and a couple of other things. But a lot of it is when the producers are working on these things, and then they have a question [like], “I’ve got two options [for bonus features],” or “I’ve got this content and this content but there’s only room for so much, and I’ve got to choose one.” That kind of thing. Producers or studio people will call me and ask my opinion about things.

A similar thing happened on the Blade Runner set when Charlie was in Warner Bros. working on the first DVD release. I was kind of behind-the-scenes on some stuff there too. These executives at Warner Bros., many of whom I’d known for years at that point, said, “We just don’t know about this. We’re really putting a lot of money and resources into it, but this is a film that has never sold well on any format. We just don’t know.” I turned to them and I said, “Trust me. You’re going to sell just so many copies of this, you’re not going to have any idea.” It was one of the first DVD titles that was ever released – in a real bare bones format – and nothing had been done with it since then. It was one of those legendary cult titles, so it was just ripe for that in-depth treatment.

And then there are a couple of titles that we have actually helped get on DVD. Synapse did a release of the Leni Riefenstahl film, The Triumph of the Will, that we kind of helped happen. And then there was another film called Six Days in Roswell, which was this great comedy/documentary that a friend of mine actually had directed, and he was looking for distribution on DVD. So we put him in touch with a company and sort of helped that happen. So every now and again, we do that.

There’s things that we say on the website and that we reveal, but there’s also a lot of things we hear and learn and information we’re given that we don’t reveal. It’s not necessarily to be controlling of information, or any kind of an ego thing. It’s just that, what we’ve learned over time is that with a lot of these special edition things, if information gets leaked too early, they can actually fall apart. Sometimes when a studio is planning to do a release, they haven’t contacted the director yet, or they haven’t contacted the actors yet. They plan to, but they haven’t done it yet, because they’re preparing the gameplan and trying to pull assets together. A couple of times it’s happened where information has gotten out early, and an actor or an actor’s agent has heard about it and said, “Well, they’re obviously going to be coming to us for something, so we’re going to jack up our price.” Whole titles have been scuttled because of leaks breaking out on the Internet. So we try to be careful not to say anything until a project is well underway. It’s a really interesting balancing act.

Flightpath: There are other sites – I won’t name them – that get into the game of posting spoilers for upcoming movies. I feel like that’s something you’ve resisted, or at least when you get to advance screenings, you’ll give your impressions of the film, but you try not to be a source of spoilers. Is that a conscious decision on your part?

Bill Hunt: Yeah. Very, very much so. I’m kind of a mixed-mind about spoilers. I remember as a kid, how amazing it was to see the ending of Empire Strikes Back and have to wait three years to get the answer to that, because there was no Internet, and magazines didn’t cover it very much. So, yeah, I definitely think those things shouldn’t be spoiled. When I see a theatrical screening of something, I’ll go on the website and review it or talk about it, but I very much try and just give an impression. When I do a little synopsis of the story, what I try and do is just set up the story. I don’t go through and do a recap of the whole thing and reveal everything. I just try to give people everything they really need to know to go in, and that’s it. Give them just enough to get them intrigued or get them interested, or tell them why it’s good, why they should go check it out, and that’s it. Let them go and see it themselves. That’s something we’ve always tried to do, is not ruin it for people.

Flightpath: Where do you see the industry going from here? It seems like the streaming wars are really heating up, and at the same time, they’re still trying to push Blu-ray.

Bill Hunt: Physical media is gonna be around for another 20 years, is my feeling. But what you’re gonna see is, is it’s gonna shift in importance. There’s an inevitable trend toward all-digital – streaming, downloading, that kind of thing – and I think that’s unavoidable, and that is gonna be the future, probably. But there will always be some physical media, in terms of like, a really gorgeous box set with nice packaging and all that, that our generation is going to continue wanting to buy. Physical media will still be around. How are old are CDs? You can still go to the store and buy CDs. We still have them, we still use them. So DVD and Blu-ray, I think, are gonna be around for awhile, and you’ll still be able to buy them. But they’ll be rarer and the importance of that will change toward the digital.

One of the great things about the disc format is, you know, you put the movie on there, and then you’ve got all this extra room. The tendency with the studio is, “Okay, we’ve got all this extra room. Let’s fill it up with good stuff.” You don’t have that concern with a download. There’s really not a lot of reason or incentive to include all of the extra ancillary bonus content as part of the download, because really, most people who download just want to see the movie. They don’t care about all the rest.

The other interesting thing I see happening is, I really kind of see the whole industry contracting in the same way that the music industry has. Look, you can charge $39.99 for a physical disc, and people will buy it. A lot of them will wait for a sale, but you can charge $39.99 for a physical disc. You can charge $99 for a box set. You can’t charge that for a download. At best, you’ll get maybe 10, 15 bucks for a download – at absolute best. So what will happen is, the amount of income coming in will go down. You can say, “It will be cheaper for people,” and all that jazz, and there’s certainly good aspects to it. But one of the concerns I have is, you’ll see a lot less extras; a lot of that stuff will go away. The amount of money coming into the studios from the DVD boom, a lot of that went right back into remastering and preserving and restoring the catalog. That’s kind of changing. A lot of studios are selling their catalogs. Disney let the Miramax catalog go. The financial value of the catalog right now – in a world where DVD is fading and Blu-ray is still only a percentage of DVD – is down. So, money isn’t being put into restoring films as much. Certainly, a big classic like Citizen Kane or Ben-Hur, is going to get the money to do a restoration. But, for example, with Godfather, Steven Spielberg had to step in and help pay for the restoration of the Godfather films. Paramount wasn’t all that interested in spending the money to restore those films. They needed restoration, and Steven Spielberg said, “Listen, I’m going to put money into this, because it’s important.”

One of our guys who occasionally writes for The Bits, Robert Harris, he’s also one of the greatest film restoration guys in the business. He did the restoration on Godfather, he did the restoration on Lawrence of Arabia. A dream project of his has been to restore the original road-show version of The Alamo, the John Wayne film, which is in terrible shape right now. It’s in absolutely terrible shape, and if a restoration isn’t done fairly soon, that film might get lost. That original version. There’s just no money. He’s been trying to get that project going forever, and there’s just no money. The studio’s just not willing to spend the money, and nobody’s stepping forward with the money, and it’s just a really complicated, political thing.

So, that’s kind of my concern. There’s a lot of advantages of digital. But with everything going digital…record stores, video stores, book stores are closing. There’s a whole sort of infrastructure that’s going away.

Flightpath: It’s like an ecosystem that gets effected just from the format change.

Bill Hunt: That’s absolutely right. In some ways there are good aspects of the downloading thing. And I get the convenience – I get all that – Netflix and stuff. But at the same time, it sort of feels like the golden age of this stuff has passed. And as things go more and more to the download side, it gets a lot less interesting for people like me. What we love covering is the special editions and the features and all this stuff, and that really is going to be less important going ahead.

Flightpath: I have one last question for you, and it’s related to this. I wanted to know if you could use your powers and your influence to get a special edition made of a movie that I feel really needs its due.

Bill Hunt: Sure. I do it all the time!

Flightpath: I don’t know if it’s something we would agree on or not, but it’s the Martin Short comedy, Clifford.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] Nice!

Flightpath: It’s one of my all-time favorite movies.

Bill Hunt: This is part of what I do every day. People email me and say, “Hey, this movie should be out. It should be a special edition.” [Types on computer.] That is an MGM film. I will absolutely put in the good word with all the right people. I will tell you that the odds are really long. [Laughs] There’s a lot of titles that deserve special edition treatment.

Flightpath: Well, the other one I was going to say is Ghostbusters II. It’s also one of my favorite movies.

Bill Hunt: Oh, totally. The first Ghostbusters has been given a really good special edition, but II never was.

Flightpath: They kind of ignore it. It’s not even out on Blu-ray.

Bill Hunt: I think there’s a possibility of that. Clifford‘s a long shot. [Laughs] Ghostbusters II is more likely. But I will put in the good word.

Interview: Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits – Part 1

bill-hunt-the-digital-bits

For years, The Digital Bits has been a leading source of home video news, thoughtful reviews and industry discussion, developing a huge following among cinephiles and casual movie fans alike. From the beginning, it has been a champion of film restoration and presenting films with the best picture and sound possible; it helped establish the language of what constitutes quality bonus features; and it has an uncanny ability to offer smart film and disc critiques while addressing the technical aspects of DVDs and Blu-rays in an easy-to-understand manner. Today, its review archive is a treasure trove of insights and information on film and home video releases. In part one of our interview with Bill Hunt, creator of The Digital Bits, we discuss why he launched the site, the events that helped it make gains in popularity, and his new role as Star Wars therapist.

Flightpath: Can you talk a little bit about your life prior to The Digital Bits, and what led you to start the site?

Bill Hunt: Well, I’m originally from North Dakota, and I studied film at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And right out of that, rather than getting into film, I actually got into video production. Did a lot of corporate stuff. I lived in Minneapolis for awhile after college and did a lot of directing and editing of corporate videos – training things, that sort of stuff. And that actually brought me out to California. In kind of a sideways way, I was doing video out here, and once I was out here I thought that maybe I’d establish some contacts in the film industry, and maybe see if I can’t put my foot in those waters and get involved there.

The interesting thing is that I actually became friends with a lot of people who worked at the studios. I’ve always been really interested in the technology of home video – video technology, film technology – and so when DVD was being developed, I had a lot of contacts at the studios, and so I was following it really closely and I was learning a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes things about the technology. At the time, like many film enthusiasts, I was a big LaserDisc fan. I kind of thought, for quite awhile, that a movie disc format with discs the same size as a CD would probably be a huge hit if it happened. That wasn’t necessarily the prevailing wisdom in Hollywood. There were a lot of people, very early on, who didn’t think that was going to be the case – people that I talked to at the studios.

But when it became clear that DVD was happening, they were developing a format, I started writing about it. I was using EarthLink at the time and I had a free homepage.

Flightpath: And what year was this?

Bill Hunt: This was ’97. Real, real early. When I would talk to these folks at the studios, I would put on this EarthLink site the interesting information I’d heard from them – what discs were being planned, what the technology was all about, what studios were going to be supporting the format. That sort of thing. It initially started as like, an email newsletter that I sent to a few friends, and then I moved that to the EarthLink site. But then within a month, EarthLink called me up and said, “You’re getting way too much traffic. You need to do this as a business.” Because what was happening was, there was really nobody covering DVD. Even Variety and Hollywood Reporter weren’t covering it. Video enthusiasts – Videographer and magazines like that – were sort of talking about it a little bit. But really, there was nobody who was diving into it, especially online. It was a time when there were very few websites devoted to this stuff.

So what was happening was, I was posting this information online, and all the Hollywood people who worked at the studios and the movie directors whose movies were potentially being considered for DVD, and just the whole Hollywood community, jumped on board, and just the whole enthusiast community jumped on board, and traffic just went crazy. So, within a month I bought a domain name and started doing The Digital Bits. I ended up quitting my job doing video production, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Flightpath: Where’d you get the name from?

Bill Hunt: You know, it’s interesting. I was trying to come up with something that wouldn’t be obvious, which is both good and bad, because obviously on the Internet, if you want to read DVD news or Blu-ray news, you search “DVD” or “Blu-ray.” But my thinking was that everything was going digital. All these things were moving from analog to digital, so digital had to be in the name. And “bits” just seemed like bits of news, bits of information, and it tied into the actual binary bits of digital information. And it all just kinda worked, and it’s good because a lot of other DVD websites have come and gone or had to rebrand themselves later. And we are still plugging away.

Flightpath: What were some of the tougher learning curves in launching the site yourself and developing it? Because as you said, there just wasn’t much around at that time.

Bill Hunt: Yeah, there really wasn’t. Just learning how to build a website – and this was of course, ’97, which was very, very early, so it was very early HTML – that was definitely a learning curve. And it’s still a learning curve, because after I got it up and running, it took off so quickly that I’ve never had a chance to go back and redesign. So I’m actually, right now, doing a redesign that will take The Bits from sort of the original HTML model into blog, database-driven content. Yeah, so I’m just now doing that. And the reason is because, in addition to being the web guy, I was the reporter; I was the main contact with all the studios. So there just was never enough time, and that’s what I’m doing now.

Flightpath: I was going to ask about that. That’s one thing I always kind of liked about The Digital Bits. I feel like I’ve been visiting it as long as I’ve been interested in DVDs and movies, but you know, it’s always kind of felt the same. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but I’ve always liked that you seemed to resist the sometimes knee-jerk reaction of websites to redesign every year.

Bill Hunt: Yeah. It was both purposeful and not. One of the reasons it’s taken so long to work on a redesign, is because one of the things I hate about a lot of websites these days is that the blog format tends to really McNugget everything. I used to read the old music magazines – Crawdaddy and those kind of magazines, and the LaserDisc Newsletter, and some of those things – and one of the things I liked is that you’d get one long column in which the person would go from one topic to another, and kind of tie them together, and give you a little context. And so you’d get lots of news, but you’d also get some background information, and you kind of would see how it all fits together. You also got some personality, because there was room to add a little personality to it. That’s kind of always the way I wanted to write and the way I’ve always done The Bits. The problem is, when you go to the blog-driven format, the tendency is for every single piece of news to become a news McNugget. And so you get like 20 posts a day versus one or two good, long, substantial ones. The struggle has been to try and figure out how to adapt to the blog format without losing that personality. You know, everyone is trying to drive up hits and drive up content, and the more posts you do, the more hits you get. So there’s that theory. But my feeling is that, the people who like The Bits and who have stuck with us over the years, like The Bits for what we don’t do as much as for what we do. [Laughs] It’s like you say, there’s personality and we don’t do the McNuggeting. I have no desire to take a press release that I get from a studio about a Blu-ray release and just copy and paste it, and upload it and call that a post. Anybody can do that; it’s just not very interesting.

Flightpath: The problem with shorter content is that you can’t inject as much personality, or really, thought, into something.

Bill Hunt: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, the news is everywhere. There are a hundred websites that are posting this kind of news. But what people tend to come to us for is perspective, so that’s what we try to bring to it.

So that’s been a challenge. And then I would say that the other challenge has been sort of the business side. Trying to figure out how to dive into the advertising model, and selling advertising and dealing with the other side of the studio – the ad buyers and the media people. One of the most challenging aspects of that has been that in the film industry, at the studios, there’s just a gigantic revolving door. So people go from one of the PR agencies to one of the studios, and then they go back to another studio, and then they go back to a PR agency. So it’s this constant churn of different people you’re dealing with.

Flightpath: Are you doing all of it? Those are very different hats to wear: creative and business.

Bill Hunt: I do a little of each of it. My wife, Sarah, does a lot of the business-end now. I really tend to focus on content and looking behind-the-scenes in the industry, maintaining those contacts, and doing reporting on those issues. We have columnists. For example, Barrie Maxwell, who does our classics column, reviews all the different formats but from a classic film perspective. Adam Jahnke does a lot of our more eclectic, more offbeat things. There’s also Tim Salmons, Todd Doogan, Jeff Kleist, Mark Altman and a few others who cover different things. And another good friend of mine, Matt Rowe, started a site called MusicTAP. So we partner with him on music content. We try and spread things around. But my whole day is spent answering emails, answering inquiries, talking to people in the studios, talking to DVD producers and special edition producers. That really is, I would say, the lion’s share of my day. And that’s hours, some days.

Flightpath: The Digital Bits launched way prior to things like Facebook, Google+ and social media. What did you do to try and spread the word?

Bill Hunt: The answer is we did almost nothing. The real advantage was that we were doing this before anyone else was really doing it, so there were very few other places to go. There were a few other good websites: DVDFile happened around the same time, plus DVD Review, Home Theater Forum. And Steve Tannehill’s DVD Resource Page was doing its thing. There were a handful that started around that time, but we were fortunate to be among the first. So everybody in that group, in that interest field, knew who we were, and it kind of spread via word of mouth within the industry and within the enthusiast community. And then certainly that was helped by the fact that we were right in the thick of the original format war, which was DVD versus DivX.

Flightpath: Yes! I still don’t understand DivX.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It was so ridiculous. We actually broke the news of DivX. We were the first publication, in print or anywhere, to reveal that Disney and Fox, for example, were going to adopt this format called DivX, which was sort of a pay-per-view flavor of DVD. And then we actually contacted DivX, and within a couple of weeks, we actually went to DivX and did a really substantial feature on the technology. We gave it a very fair shake, originally, and reported all the details of what it was and how it was intended to work and what it meant. After that, we sort of did a separate thing and said, “Well, here’s what we think about it.” And it really just kind of took off from there.

Flightpath: Related to that, was there a specific review or a feature that you ran, which really turned the corner for the website?

Bill Hunt: I would definitely say the DivX thing did, because that format war supercharged interest. Interest was really picking up, in terms of DVD, at the time. That topic just absolutely went everywhere. It was all over mainstream media. Attention coming to DVD was really [borne] out of that controversy about this format war. So I would say that.

And then also, when the Star Wars special editions came back to theaters, which I think was ’97, there was talk that those were the obvious movies to bring to DVD. Those are the movies that everybody would want. And I think it was in 2000 when The Phantom Menace came out, there was this controversy – it came out on VHS, it came out on LaserDisc, but it wasn’t on DVD. It was a huge thing. It’s like, [George] Lucas is very progressive about technology, and these are obvious films to bring out. And so we, along with several other websites, did this whole Star Wars-on-DVD campaign. And Lucasfilm took notice, and they basically said, “We’re gonna do it.” And a year later they put out Episode I on DVD. So we were covering that, and that also was a big landmark event for the site.

But I guess – probably the biggest thing that’s really helped The Bits grow over the years is that we’ve just assembled a really great group of columnists. I mentioned some of them earlier and there have been others as well that made key contributions and moved on. But for example, Todd Doogan coming on board and bringing his experience as a laserdisc reviewer and his time at TNT’s Roughcut – that was a big deal. Adam Jahnke – who started as a writer for Troma – brings a really refreshing and unique expertise and writing style to the site in his Bottom Shelf and Jahnke’s Electric Theatre columns. And Barrie’s passion and knowledge of classic films is as strong and deep as anyone I know. Each of our writers comes from a different place and a different perspective, but we’re all of very similar mind in terms of our love of this stuff and what we’re trying to accomplish. These guys are a big part of The Bits’ success and popularity. Even more importantly for me though, is that they’ve all become really great friends. Hell, they’re like family at this point. So I guess that’s really the thing I’ve gained and appreciate most from The Bits over the years – the friendships with them and others in the industry.

Flightpath: You mentioned Star Wars…it’s funny, because I’m a Star Wars nerd. And I feel like, reading your review of the Blu-rays and all the Star Wars releases where Lucas makes changes to the films, you almost have to act as a therapist for Star Wars fans.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] It’s really true. It is true. And the funny thing about that is, I’ve said a couple of times, even in my reviews, is that I’m the same way. I grew up with those films; they had a huge impact on my life. It’s taken me years to learn how to sort of separate my practical, just common sense perspective, from the feelings I have connected to Star Wars. But having done that, having been able to do that, now I find that a lot of other people still aren’t able to do that. [Laughs] So in my review, I just try and say, “There’s good and bad here, but it’s not the end of the world. This isn’t rocket science, it’s not brain surgery. The films look good.” There is an aspect of that.

The other interesting thing about this website – tied to both format wars, tied to Star Wars, tied to you name it – is that I get hundreds of emails a day from people. Just readers who have questions or who want help. One of the things I tried to do very early on was to keep The Bits very focused at sort of a mass audience. Widescreen Review is a great publication, but you have to be a real expert and enthusiast to really appreciate all the detail it’s going into. My goal was to always say, “Okay, I want to do two things. I want to expose people who are new to DVD or Blu-ray to the technology, and explain it to them in a way that they can understand, and help them to appreciate it, to get the most enjoyment out of it. And then on other side of the coin, I want to expose people to a lot of films that they maybe haven’t seen before.” One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was in college, as a film major. Growing up in North Dakota, I didn’t have a chance to see a lot of foreign films, or independent films, or art house films. And suddenly, I was a projectionist for the film department, and I was watching [Akira] Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and [Federico] Fellini. That was just an amazing time for me – discovering all these great movies from around the world. So, what I was trying to do, was sort of bring my love of those things to people who may never have seen a [Stanley] Kubrick film or a Fellini film, and say, “You know, you might really be interested in this, and here’s why.”

We didn’t want to talk to the in-crowd, necessarily. We wanted to talk to everybody. We wanted to get everybody into the fold and let everybody share in the fun. Because of that though, we’ve developed a readership where, whenever they have a question or an issue, they start emailing. [Laughs] So, you know, half my morning is spent just going through emails and trying to answer as many as I can.

Flightpath: With great power comes great responsibility.

Bill Hunt: [Laughs] I guess so. I guess so. And the other fun thing about the site is, the longer we’ve been doing it, people just sort of feel like they know you. It feels like a family, to a degree. People have no problem emailing and talking about stuff, I think, because we do put a little bit of our personality into the site. They feel like they know who we are.

Be sure to come back later this week for part 2 of our interview with Bill Hunt!