The Future of Entertainment is Crowds

These are confusing times we find ourselves in… I’m writing this on day four of #LockedDownLA (having moved here seven days ago) and no one really knows what’s happening.

If you work in the entertainment industry this feeling will fit in pretty well with your typical day-to-day. 

Amidst all the changes hitting the industry, there are a few that are especially important to content creators and companies looking to make the most of all this upheaval. 

These are: 

  1. Sky-high demand for original content 
  2. The Nichening™ 
  3. Consolidation of opportunity 

All of these trends come together in one phenomenon that has long existed in other realms, but has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance in entertainment: Crowdsourcing

And be glad that it hasn’t gone mainstream, because there is still a huge opportunity for companies that are willing to invest in this model. 

One of the reasons this hasn’t gone mainstream is the association of crowdsourcing with cheap or illegitimate connotations. Another is that Hollywood would rather not cede more power to tech platforms than it already has. 

I’ve been guilty of this, too. In the past, I definitely would have looked down on a product raising money from kickstarter vs. a VC or the idea of big breakthroughs coming from a mass of random people. 

But a couple of weeks ago I was inspired by Endeavor’s participation in a $13 million investment into Tongal to look deeper into the world of crowdsourced content, and the power of crowds in general. I have to say, I liked what I found. 

How Fat is that Ox? 

You, seven hundred and ninety-nine of your closest friends, and an ox. All hanging out. You all rudely decide to guess the weight of the Ox, with the winner getting $1,000. You all take turns guessing, you’re all wrong. 

But… when one of you takes all the guesses and averages themtogether, you find that the group was within 1% of the exact weight. This is exactly what social scientist Francis Galton found in 1907 when he ran that same experiment. That’s the opening anecdote in James Surowiecki’s bestseller The Wisdom of Crowdswhich explores the various ways that crowdsourcing can be used to improve outcomes. 

Stanford, being Stanford, was skeptical and wanted to investigate this for themselves. They ran a study in which they collected 500,000 responses to 1,000 questions over 50 domain areas. They found that crowdsourcing performs well given the right context. For one, if members of the crowd can see what others are doing the average quality of responses typically went down. Crowds perform better with more individual thought. For two, response quality varied a lot from question to question, but was very consistent over a domain like “sports”. This was summed up in the following way: 

“The consistency of the crowd leads to cumulative advantages when performance is measured on an extended battery of questions.”

So if you were to get a group of well-informed people, kept their answers private, and applied them to a similar set of problems within the same domain, you could get great work. 

Utilizing the mind power of big groups has flipped the model on traditional gatekeepers in a handful of areas. In fundraising, Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have made it possible to raise funds without getting a VC’s stamp of approval. Lego regularly finds hit new products through its open ideas portal.

But, where the power of the many really shines is in solving problems. Even huge, world-changing problems like global warming and space travel in the case of X Prize, founded by Peter Diamandis to host global competitions for technological advancements that benefit humanity.

But also creative problems. Like what’s the most compelling story we can tell in 10 minute blocks through audio? Or how do we tell a story about overcoming fear that entertains while representing our brand? 

Crowdsourcing Entertainment 

Which brings us to the world of entertainment and the trends shaping its future. 

  1. Content Demand: We all know demand for content is already absurdly high and only going up from here. This is being accelerated by the seemingly daily launch of new streaming services, the widespread implementation of 5G and the transition of all companies into media companies

    If you’re a brand, forget about it. Your internal marketing is never going to keep up with today’s content demands and do it in a consistently surprising and effective way. Instead of relying on a small group of probably homogeneous individuals, you could tap into thousands of creative brains for blog posts, videos, advertisements and more. 

    But this is just as true for entertainment companies. If you’re not Disney or Netflix, coming up with enough content to consistently engage your audience is a real struggle. And a small group of creatives isn’t going to provide the breadth of stories that the crowd will. An additional benefit is you get a glimpse into what your future audiences are thinking about and excited for. It creates a feedback loop for stories like those present in good tech startups. 
  2. The Nichening™: Some companies have vast libraries of IP comprised of super heroes and classic stories that they can obsessively repurpose into billion dollar blockbusters. 

    Most do not. For the others, finding niche audiences and serving them hyper-relevant content is the way to stand out. 

    To do this at scale for multiple niches would be incredibly hard. Niche content at scale has been a dream of mine for a while and I didn’t know how it could be done. Crowds. Imagine identifying an underserved audience and soliciting content ideas from creators in that same audience? You would produce much better content that would resonate with them and you would provide opportunities to people that don’t usually get them at the same time. 
  3. Consolidation. It’s not just companies and IP that are getting rolled up into increasingly larger organizations that dominate the market. The same thing is happening with talent. While some producers like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy are landing enormous deals, opportunities are becoming harder to find for the average creator. While the producers landing these deals are creating amazing content, this results in more stories from fewer sources. Crowdsourcing is an efficient way of driving opportunity to more creators and getting a broader array of stories made. 

Doing it Right 

So why aren’t more people doing this? One is perception. Another is that it can be hard to do it right and in the right context. 

Amazon was a pioneer in this space when they first launched Amazon Studios in 2010. They built a content funnel that worked like this: 

  1. Open submissions for scripts and concept videos, leading to a huge top of funnel coming from all experience levels and backgrounds. 
  2. Customer feedback through their invite-only “Amazon Preview” program that allowed invited customers to provide feedback on a filtered set of concepts. 
  3. Public voting during their pilot season from Amazon customers. Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent both came out of this voting process. 

They shut it down in 2018. There were a number of reasons for this. Executives at the time talked about the inefficiency of getting a show made. It would take a long time to get from submission to creation, something that didn’t sit well with creators. As they shifted to high-budget fare they wanted to mitigate the risk as much as possible through big-name creators and stars. 

Given the research on the consistent power of crowds, I’m not so sure that this will mitigate risks. Plenty of big-budget movies fail to inspire anyone and audiences are getting more selective all the time. 

The application and context weren’t right for Amazon, but there are examples to look towards today. 

Companies like Tongaleyeka, and Flare Studio are bringing creators and buyers together. In Tongal’s case they’re doing this at scale for major brands and studios like Disney and Lululemon. 

They’ve hit the sweet spot by building a robust platform for contests paired with workflow tools that make them easy to manage. Where Amazon built an entire platform for internal use, Tongal provides it as a service, giving them flexibility to adapt with the needs of the market. As of 2017, Tongal creators had made over $40M on the platform, with at least one creator crossing the $1M mark individually. 

They’ve also put a premium on supporting their community of creators with maybe the only regularly updated corporate blog I’ve ever seen. And it’s actually filled with well written and relevant content like how to write strong characters, optimize your pitch to buyers, and stories of creators succeeding. They have the perfect partner going forward in Endeavor and it will be exciting to see how they continue to build on this model. 

If I had to guess they will invest in the creator experience, maybe establishing a premium tier that receives concierge support or elite-level mentorship from industry professionals. They could also build out specific niches of respondents organized around either genre (horror, comedy, documentary, etc.) or the communities they are a part of. Lastly, they could leverage Endeavor’s network of portfolio companies to develop content pipelines internationally (Endeavor China), in sports (IMG) or even in personal creative work for celebrities through WME. 

That’s it for now! If you’re a creator or interested in talking about the business of entertainment please reach out to me at [email protected]. I’m in LA now and would love to learn about what you’re working on and even meet up when that becomes a socially acceptable thing to do again. 

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