Friday, February 19, 2010

Lightfoot Lives!!!

So there I am at the computer on Thursday afternoon, tweaking the final copy for a video shoot with a bunch of hockey celebrities later that night.

Beeping in the corner of my screen are Tweets from various and sundry in the Canadian TV community attending the CFTPA Prime Time Conference in Ottawa.

I’ve got the radio playing in the BG, mostly to catch a traffic update before I hit the road.

On top of that, I’m typing with one hand while ruffling the dog’s ear with the other.

Who says I’m not at my best when I multitask?

The Ottawa tweets are confusing, giving the impression that most of the panels and speakers have their own agendas when it comes to unravelling the multi-platform future of our industry.

Apparently, the road to El Dorado runs through social networks, or maybe mobile video, or 3D, etc. and may be powered by either Push or Pull Culture. That last phrase makes me wonder if the iconic Far Side cartoon is a metaphor for our future.


Once or twice, I’d also gotten the distinct impression that a Tweeter was questioning his or her own career path. How do I use the story skills I’ve honed in this new world? How can I produce something here that can make any money? Will the delivery system I work for even survive?

I know exactly how they feel. I’ve been in similar conference rooms being hit by colliding agendas, differing philosophies and speakers who don’t seem to have a clue about the future --- but, then again, just might.

It’s like attending some Media Snake Oil Medicine Show, wondering if one of those fancy bottles of mystery elixir really will provide a longed for cure.

But it’s also the Medicine show from some Ken Maynard or Tim McCoy Western with the Carney Barkers knowing the folks from the last town they scammed are getting close and they better sell their wares quick and blow town.

Do you ever get the feeling, with all of this looming Media Fund pressure to commit to multi-platforms before anybody is clear on how they actually work, that once again Creative isn’t driving the agenda?

In any other country and culture, somebody creates and somebody else figures out how to make money off the creation. Here it seems to be, “We think we might have a market, so you kids figure out something cheap that fits in that niche so we can sell it!”

But isn’t what audiences in our industry always gravitate to (and are most willing to pay for) usually connected directly to the story?

“Avatar” may have stunning special effects. “Lost” may be a complex puzzle. “Twilight” mostly functions as a teen masturbation fantasy. But none of them would have been able to showcase those marketing opportunities if they didn’t have a story at their center that the audience could engage on some level.

To be sure, a lot of what gets sold in the Pop culture marketplace is just another empty calorie chocolate bar. But story is the flavor at the center that distinguishes one from another and ultimately connects with the consumer.

Why do Creatives in Canada always seem to be the last ones allowed on the bus? And why does the bus always have to be driven by guys with money who may not be clear on where they’re going besides hoping the last stop is at the bank?

As I was pondering this, news came on the radio that Gordon Lightfoot had just died.


It was a profound moment. The guy has a special place in my life --- make that the lives of most Canadians. He’s one of our great songwriters and story tellers, our unofficial Poet Laureate, a friend with whom we’ve all shared a long road trip, a lost love and the pride we feel for our nation.

Knowing the mood among my friends in one of those windowless Ottawa conference rooms, I felt they needed reminding that an epic storyteller had once been among us. And I thought maybe Tweeting the sad news might bring them back to how much more important story is than how its sliced and diced and contorted for whatever platforms may or may not arise.

No sooner had I repeated the news than the guys on the radio were backtracking after discovering the death notice was a hoax.

Now, how did that happen?

Apparently, it began with a Tweet and because of the way internet news spreads quicker than the Mainstream media can react, the news department at the radio station got “confirmation” from Rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who’d fielded a couple of calls himself and figured it must be true.

Now, I know Ronnie a little and he’d be the last person to tell you he’s any kind of “reliable source” on anything. But desperate not to get scooped, his confirmation was enough for somebody who manages one of those media operations bent on maintaining their position amid all these new platforms and they went public with the news.

And these are the people who are supposed to lead the transformation of story into the digital age?

Mighten we consider that their sheer desperation to survive and remain relevant may cause them to leap before they look?

About an hour later, as I drove to my gig, Lightfoot called in to the same radio station I’d been listening to, telling the story of hearing of his own demise, confirming he was going strong and still trying to get hold of his daughter, who would be devastated if she heard the hoax before learning the truth.

On one level, it kind of warmed me to think that Lightfoot and I rely on the same media outlet for our news. On another, the thought that nobody had considered his family before their own ratings was kind of chilling.

But that's the culture the platform pushers being enabled by the Canadian Media Fund come from, isn't it?

Now, let me tell you a couple of stories about Gordon Lightfoot that come from personal experience.

I first saw him perform when I was 17. He was playing at the University of Saskatchewan on a tour that had seen him play Winnipeg the night before. During one of his interludes, he remarked on a statue of a bull or a buffalo that stood outside the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Agriculture. He’d been amazed by the detail the artist gone to in depicting the beast, right down to its astonishingly large “Gent-inals”.

The word stuck in your head the moment he said it. Had he misspoke? Or had the poet in him found a much more descriptive word?

A few years later, I made a movie with Jack Nicholson and one night he and I ended up dropping in to visit Lightfoot at his home in downtown Toronto. It was a great night, with two of my cultural icons sitting on a couch swapping jokes and anecdotes about people they knew and Gordon playing a couple of songs he was putting on his next album.

Sitting beside him through the evening was a woman he was seeing named Cathy, who would become infamous a half dozen years later as Cathy Evelyn Smith, the woman who injected John Belushi with his final, fatal speedball.

Now, let me ask you something about those two little anecdotes or “stories”. How would they be enhanced by 3D or enriched as a Youtube video? Would they be worth more to you in a different format? Would you have paid to hear or see either if it was downloadable to your phone?

Now translate that concept to the much more valuable Lightfoot library.

Would “Early Morning Rain” be more powerful in 3D? Does “Sundown” have a bigger market as a ringtone guys could hear when their mistress calls? Will “If You Could Read My Mind” be more poignant and affecting if you could play the game version?

Because from what I’ve read and heard, those are the directions in which the gurus speaking at CFTPA’s Prime Time Conference want to herd us.

They’re no different than all the people in LA ten years ago insisting Porn was going mainstream and would be our most profitable future or that “Indy films” would soon kill the major studios.

Commerce never leads the culture. It follows. And if it supports the correct projects it makes money. But when it tries to make the zeitgeist match its pre-determined spending choices, it invariably loses.

Anybody remember how “The Great Gatsby” was going to revolutionize fashion or that people would be lining up to collect “Howard the Duck” memorabilia?

I don’t know if writers like Jill Gollick are on the right track about what will work in the new media future. But I know she’s smart and talented and creative and I’m more likely to believe anything she says than everything that comes from a guy in a suit with CTV stamped on his business card.

Guys in similar suits warned Gordon Lightfoot he’d never get any American airplay ever again if he recorded “Black Day In July”. Industry insiders cautioned that nobody would listen to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” more than once because it was too bleak. Recording a seven minute single called “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was considered by most record company executives to be a complete waste of half the side of an album.

But Lightfoot, in the tradition of all storytellers, went with his passion and the rest is musical history.

Any good writer, decent agent and responsible studio or network executive always tells young writers the same truth. “Don’t write what you think will sell. Don’t write what you think we want or will fit the market. Write what matters to you. Write what comes from your heart.”

They all know the heart and our shared humanity is where we connect with our audience. It has nothing to do with whether or not you share the same 3G network.

Yes, the gadgets are wonderful on a whole bunch of levels. But they will only succeed if the content providers are allowed to find material that connects with their users, not what is mandated in advance in order to receive funding. 

As a Coda to all of the above, I offer a final personal experience from last night.

I was working with Ex and current NHL stars. They all carried state of the art  Smart Phones, Netbooks and Blackberries. By coincidence, our shoot overlapped the Canada/Switzerland Olympic Hockey game.

As we worked, a couple punched news feeds to get the score. And even though Canada suddenly wasn’t dominating the play as expected and the game was tied going into the final minutes --- nobody bothered searching for video clips or stats or detailed updates. They were all DVRing the game and wanted to catch it in a fully watchable experience when they got home.

They wanted the whole story, not fragments or enhancements or even immediacy. They wanted the experience, the emotions and the excitement of the outcome.

Like our ancient ancestors gathered around a campfire, they wanted to become enthralled, still finding something that touched their hearts no matter how many times they’d heard the tale.

Gordon Lightfoot, I’m so happy you’re still with us and I look forward to all the stories you still have to tell.

At the same time, I can still get lost in and be touched by the stories I’ve heard you tell a thousand times before. Because I know you lead with your heart. I hope those of us who follow in your footsteps never forget that’s what’s most important.


Joe Clark said...

“Platform pushers”: Neologism of the week.


Mac said...

You make the correct observation that story is the heart and soul of content (not the platform) but I have to add another layer to this perspective. I think some of what's going on with the CMF is a late response to address a long time problem. Canadian producers of cultural content (as opposed to commercial content paid for by corporations, etc) have been, by design, discouraged from creating online content. Broadcasters haven't paid sufficiently to cover the cost. So unless one could get money from the Bell Fund or other public sources, there simply wasn't the budget. This situation has hindered the growth of Cdn online content production. As much as it appears the CMF is putting platforms first, I think they don't have a lot of choice because there is so much catching up to do. They are so late to the party, their party pants are years out of fashion.