Toronto: Here's What You Missed at the Festival's Most Buzz-Worthy Talk

Copland - P2013

WME's Liesl Copland is developing a reputation for giving TED-worthy presentations; here's her take on the adapt-or-perish approach the industry must adopt in gathering audience data.

Chances are good that over the last couple of days you’ve heard or seen some of the buzz stemming from Liesl Copland’s “Digital on Demand: Show Us the Numbers” talk at TIFF. Copland is an agent in WME’s Global Finance & Distribution Group, and before that she was the head of Red Envelope Entertainment at Netflix, so she understands the digital distribution space from both sides.

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Her talk at 2009's TIFF (“Dear theater owners, fear not -- you are not going anywhere”) was a prescient look at the future of specialty film distribution, so it’s not surprising that her 2013 talk was so well received.

Just like in high school English class, you really owe it to yourself to read the book (transcript of speech here), but in the meantime here’s the Cliff's Notes version: 

So, what’s the problem?

As home viewing habits start to shift away from the traditional ad-supported model and toward digital transactions and subscription viewing, the buyers, sellers, and creators of content are left with analytic “black holes” instead of the reliable numbers generated by Rentrak and Nielsen ratings.

What’s doubly frustrating is that this data goes well beyond anything the networks ever dreamed of knowing about their viewers. Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and iTunes follow us out of the home with our mobile devices to our office computers, and have more detailed information about our viewing habits, which allows them to measure what we liked and will like. To say nothing of the insights they have as to how OnDemand is radically changing our collective viewing habits.

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Why does this matter?

“Simply stated, the player that controls the information has the upper hand in a deal.”

Copland goes on to detail how companies like Netflix are able to use this rich data to grow their business, while content creators are “boxed out of learning about their own audiences.” The result being that they are unable to have any leverage in the market and are making poorly researched decisions about what projects to greenlight.

What’s the solution?

Copland envisions a utopian future, which she believes in this information age will eventually become a reality: “Imagine we will one day track a film's audience from the very first point of discovery,” similar to how the book industry has ISBN numbers, which could lead to “richer content and an engaged audience."

Until that time comes, she encouraged the room full of documentary filmmakers to try new platforms and share the data from their own films. She finished her talk with a semi-call to arms: “If you are a member of a guild, think long and hard about the negotiations coming up in 2014. Many of the big platforms that control a lot of your audience are not at the table and don't have a uniform contract with the studios. This near-future transparency could have a watershed moment in those negotiations where monetization of new media is likely to rear its head again as a hot-button issue.”