Craveable - The Culture Craver Blog
Monday 27th of February 2012
Jamie Bennett, who is both an early Culture Craver user and the chief of staff and director of public affairs at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, thinks not-for-profit arts organizations can learn a lot from Dancing with the Stars. In a conversation with Culture Craver’s Julia Levy this weekend, Jamie shared his opinion on how arts organizations can learn from gyms, 7-Elevens, and Pandora as they work to build new audiences.
Julia: What are you excited to see right now?
Jamie: In DC, I’m really excited because Basil Twist, the puppeteer, is coming down, and there’s going to be a sort of Basil Twist mini-festival, and the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland is doing “Symphonie Fantastique,” Shakespeare Theater is doing his “Petrushka,” Studio Theatre is doing “Dogugaeshi,” and Woolly Mammoth is doing “Arias With a Twist.”
Julia: When you come up to New York, how do you decide to use your limited days and nights?
Jamie: I’m actually seeing less now than I used to. When you live in New York, you develop that whole stable of people that you sort of have to see but don’t necessarily want to see. If you went to a show, you could sit together for two hours and not have to talk, so it was a win-win. Now I come up and see people I actually want to see. Because it’s so limited now — because I come up once maybe every six weeks for one reason or another — it tends to be word of mouth. Tonight, we’re going to see Stew and Heidi’s new thing at the Public Theater because a friend of mine who I’d gone to see “Passing Strange” with had emailed me and said, “Oh my god, we totally need to go see the new Stew piece,” and I said, “Absolutely. It looks like I’m going to be up this weekend in February.” Particularly because my time is so limited, recommendations have to come from people I know and trust.
Julia: And those people are usually friends and less commonly professional critics?
Jamie: It tends to be somebody I’ve gone to a show with. Because I have to read so much and keep up with so much news, I don’t have time to read all of the critics nationally.
Julia: Really? You don’t have time to read thousands of critics?
Jamie: I do, of course, still read The Washington Post and New York Times critics as much as I can, but it tends to be someone I personally trust.
Julia: How do you think creators of art create desire among their potential audiences?
Jamie: I think the not-for-profit arts sector has a lot to learn from the for-profit arts sector when it comes to this. If you look at the NEA’s survey of public participation in the arts data, traditional audiences for traditional arts traditionally consumed in traditional venues is shrinking. Dance is particularly hard hit. At the same time, if you look at the number of hours of primetime network television devoted to dance, it’s never been higher. “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Best Dance Crew,” etc., etc., etc. I’m not saying that “Dancing with the Stars” is the same thing as the New York City Ballet —
Julia: Well, they haven’t cast Bristol Palin yet.
Julia: You think that the commercial or for-profit sector does a better job at allowing people to have individual experiences?
Jamie: Right. If you don’t like Lady Gaga, there’s not something wrong with you. If you don’t like Lady Gaga, we’ll give you Katy Perry. If you don’t like Katy Perry, we’ll give you Justin Bieber. You’re allowed to make an array of individual selections, and you’re allowed to like and dislike. There’s no impugned judgment.
Julia: It’s almost like it would be easier to create audiences if the attitude were, “There are people who will love this, and we want to give it to them, and we don’t want to force feed it to the people who won’t.”
Jamie: Right. My understanding is that Nick Hytner at the National Theatre in London, has his membership department actually email members telling them to skip certain shows. They’ll say, “Julia, you’re an individual with individual tastes. We’ve been paying attention to what you like and what you don’t like. Don’t come to see what we’re doing in February — it’s not your cup of tea — but be sure not to miss our April show; you are going to love it.” It’s absolutely correct that the National Theatre should be doing all of those shows, and it’s absolutely correct that you shouldn’t have to like every single one of them. I’m not saying we should shut ourselves off to new experiences or only experience things within a narrow band, but if I’ve tried something and I don’t like it, that’s OK.
Julia: Or, if it’s so far outside what you are normally doing, it might just be too big of a leap.
Jamie: Right. And that’s what’s so nice about Pandora. I was actually just out in Oakland and spent a day and a half with the guy who founded Pandora, Nolan Gasser. He really conceived of Pandora, fundamentally, to connect art and audiences, and to allow people to experience things that they didn’t know about. Sort of similar to Culture Craver: you like A. A is not dissimilar from B. You might like B. Give it a try. And if you don’t like B, that’s fine. I’ve got C and D. There’s an encouragement to keep experimenting, to develop a taste, to develop a point of view, and to refine what you’re consuming as a result. Your Pandora algorithm doesn’t stay the same based on your thumbs up and down, in the same way that your Culture Craver algorithm changes with stars and bombs. The system gets smarter. And systems that acknowledge individual taste and individual experience and use them as a lens to help you experiment more are really powerful.
Julia: I’m really intrigued by this question of what not-for-profit arts creators could learn from Dancing with the Stars. Are there any lessons you can share — short of casting celebrities like Bristol Palin?
Jamie: In no way am I saying you should change what you’re doing: I’m not talking about curation or artistic direction. That needs to stay true. But think about subscription models. The traditional arts subscription model is I go to the ballet every third Thursday at 7:30. That’s not really how we live our lives anymore. If you look at gyms or you look at lots of Internet services, you pay and you can go anytime you want and do as much as you want and then leave. What would it look like if a performing arts center has a membership model where you paid $25 a month, charged automatically to your credit card, automatically renewing, and you could come see as much performance as you wanted. Maybe one month you wouldn’t come at all and another month you would come constantly. You’d have to figure out some logistical things around ticketing. The rest of the world has moved to acknowledge that that’s who we live our lives. There’s no reason live performances couldn’t figure out models where it would be similarly “on demand.”
Julia: Obviously, turning on your TV and watching “The Voice” is easier than going to a concert. How would you make it seem that going out to an event is as accessible and as un-intimidating as turning on your television?
Jamie: One, it actually turns out that electronic consumption of the arts is a gateway to more live arts consumption. If you look at the NEA research report “Audience 2.0,” people who consume the arts via electronic media are twice as likely to see three times as many arts events and explore a greater variety of genres as someone who doesn’t. I think we should be less afraid of people who consume arts electronically. I don’t think it’s ever going to take the place of live performance because something magical happens in that space. But it does serve as a gateway to that experience. So, in the same way that we were convinced that records would be the death of live music — once I could do this at home, live music would disappear — there are still great audiences for live concerts and live music. For visual arts, we were terrified that photography was going to obviate the need for painting; we were terrified that color catalogs and slides were to take away the need to ever go visit museums or galleries. We got through that. We’re at another moment where we have to think about electronic arts consumption as a companion to live arts consumption. Two, I do think the subscription model is interesting — allowing me to decide when I come and how often I come and how much I consume. Three, there is that intimidation factor. If you sort of look at the physical architectural metaphors of arts organizations, they don’t tend to be welcoming. The metaphor of the box office is the metaphor of a bank teller’s window. There’s value on one side, there’s something that keeps you out. You come as a supplicant to ask for some value that is doled out parsimoniously. There’s something about that exchange that very much says, you being here isn’t valued by us. Andrew Taylor talks a lot about this. I’m stealing it from him. And I think it’s really important to think about incorporating things like restaurants and bars and spaces where you can process arts casually within the temples of art. So I can go and see a show and I can sit down with a friend and have a cup of coffee after and talk about it and process it. I think arts organizations need to do more to incorporate themselves into the daily lives of people. So that I think about it like, “Oh, I could go to a movie, or I could go to a show, or we could grab a cup of coffee, or, or, or…”
Julia: Do you think audiences or arts institutions think of it that way? It seems like all of my friends go to movies, but it’s a big leap for some people to go to art or theater. How do you get moviegoers to consider other art forms?
Jamie: In recent years, there have been a lot of efforts made around arts calendars and listings. If you live in New York City and you haven’t figured out how to go to the theater, having an alphabetized listing of 330 performance options isn’t going to be the magic bullet that makes you say, “Oh, OK. I’m going to take in a play today,” so I’ve become personally obsessed with looking at the affinity algorithms of preference discovery engines that exist. Amazon says people who bought X also bought Y, so if you bought X, you might want to buy Y. Facebook’s model says, I like Julia, Julia likes art, therefore I might like art. And Pandora says, you like this song, which has the following attributes — a strong narrative, a powerful bass, a lot of vocals — therefore here are other things that have those similar traits. I think we need to spend more time exploring those models. Theater companies tend to buy other companies’ mailing lists with the thought that, “If you went to the Public Theater you might want to come to PS 122.” I think that we need to do more stuff that looks trans-genre, so if you like jazz music and you liked reading “The Color Purple,” you might like Bill T. Jones dance company. And so I think that beginning to explore trans-genre is really important. And the other thing, which I think we talked about in an earlier conversation: In England, there is one centralized ticketing system. And there was a data wonk who was in mining the data as data wonks do, and he was going through the records and looked up his wife’s records, and looked at all the tickets she bought in the last year, and then said, “Oh, I wonder if there’s anyone else who has seen exactly what my wife has seen?” There was one other record that matched his wife’s identically. Then, he looked at the next thing that person bought, and then he woke his wife and said, “What do you know about ‘The Cherry Orchard’?” and she said, “It’s on my list.” And he had this eureka moment about what are the ways that you can predict taste, what are the ways you can predict desire, to predict craving.
Julia: How would you advise arts make to look cross-genre when they are looking to build new audiences? Is it talking differently to audiences, or is it talking differently to colleagues in the arts?
Jamie: I think it’s both. The rule of fundraising is it’s much easier to get someone who’s given a dollar to give a second dollar than it is to get someone to give the first dollar. My gut is that in the arts, it’s much easier to get someone who is going to go to a performance of something to get them to go to a performance of something else. So, the key is looking at the people who are already consuming the art and sharing that audience data, sharing what the audience experience is, and figuring out a way to cross-pollinate it. RoseLee Goldberg runs Performa here in New York City, which is an every-other-year festival of performance art, and she comes at it through the visual arts lens. She’s presenting a lot of the same artists who might get presented at Under the Radar or any of these other things, but she’s bringing a visual arts audience with her. She was asked to speak at the Public Theater about some of the artists that she had presented who were also Public Theater folks, and she did a poll of the audience, and said, “Who here is a visual arts person?” And there was nobody. And if you asked that same question about those artists at a Performa audience, it would be all visual arts people and there wouldn’t be any theater people. They’re consuming the same thing, and yet the audiences don’t cross-pollinate. I was just at a meeting in Oakland that is part of a big research workshop that we’re doing to create a model about how art works, what is its impact on individuals and communities … one of the questions that came up for me is: we draw this arbitrary circle around things we call “the arts.” Some of us draw it very narrowly — things that happen in tutus and travertine marble. Some of us draw it more broadly, and include church choirs. However you define it, there is this circle that encompasses this thing called “the arts.” I’ve begun asking myself, “Why have we drawn that circle? Does it have meaning? Is there something that the arts all have in common with each other? Is painting part of the same cohort as theater? Is dance the same cohort as music?” I believe it is. I’m still working it out in my mind — to have a well-spoken philosophical rationale for this, but I believe it is something. I think creating a real community within that, and not saying, I’m a contemporary dance company and I have nothing to do with classical dance, let alone a museum, I think harms us, and if we saw ourselves as a larger community and worked together that way, I think we’d all benefit tremendously from it. So, figuring out a way to conceive of ourselves as a sector and operate as a sector and realize that more is more. If somebody comes to see something at another theater, that’s ultimately good for my theater, because it’s creating a new audience, it’s building an audience, it’s building an informed community.
Julia: Right. And if you’re a theater company and you are pointing people toward something they’ll enjoy that is not something you produced, you are becoming a tastemaker.
Jamie: I think we need to adopt a more is more, rising tide lifts all boats attitude.
Julia: You think there is a way to expand the pie?
Julia: Fifteen years ago, there weren’t reality shows, and now there are more than most of us have time for. We can make the audience for the arts expand in the same way.
Jamie: Thirty-five percent of America is consuming traditional arts in traditional ways. There’s huge room for growth. Sixty-five percent of America isn’t participating. There’s a lot of audience to be created.
Friday 17th of February 2012
This week, Culture Craver’s co-founder, Julia Levy, had the chance to talk with artist Adriana Farmiga, who just completed a solo show at LaMama. Adriana discussed her formula for figuring out what art to see and the importance of forming your own opinions rather than becoming a disciple of any one source. She also became the first Craveable interviewee yet to relate creating desire for art to preparing borscht.
Julia: How do you decide what to see next?
Adriana: At this point I have a formula that I’ve developed. I grew up around New York City so I consider myself a New Yorker. I went to school here. I show here. I teach here. I enjoy life here. I’m a New Yorker in all senses of the word. Really, it’s a combination of things: I still read newspapers. Then there’s the incredibly active, informative and critically minded cyber community of artists and critics, which is an amazing and an invaluable resource. There’s always the ubiquitous Facebook. Besides your friends, if you get yourself networked into the people who are either critical within the art world or critical of the art world, it ends up informing your choices of what you should see. If you’ve been around long enough, you end up forming those connections to that kind of community. One of the perks of being part of a larger community like that is essentially having a really big bulletin board.
Julia: So everybody is posting different events and people are responding?
Adriana: Yeah. For example, there was a post this week — Gallerist New York did a story about Artists Space. I was checking Facebook waiting on a line to pay for something, and came across it. And both Ken Johnson, (NYT critic), and Jerry Saltz (NY Mag) posted links to the article with their own commentary, each diametrically opposed to the other's. It was amazing and funny to be able to navigate through the fine print of the article itself, then to be able to parse through what Ken was saying, then Jerry — and then to see how their followers, either hallelujiah'd, or disagreed with it. That’s a profound thing when you consider that wasn’t happening ten years ago.
Julia: The immediate feedback and opinion?
Julia: Do you find you are always in one camp or another camp, or do you go back and forth in who you trust?
Adriana: I’ve learned to pitch my own tent. It's all too often that someone feels they need to pick a camp, or, rather, picks a socially designated arbiter of culture to follow. It's a disservice that inflicts that individual with tunnel vision. A lot of the art critics that are active on Twitter are very vocal about the “post disciples” that Jerry has on his Facebook account, so it’s fascinating to contrast the formats of Twitter to Facebook, as an example, where the arc of criticism and tone of dialogue can vary dramatically.
Julia: So, you check out everything and then, using your own filter on the world, figure out what’s worth your time?
Adriana: Yeah. I have friends. I have colleagues. There’s a massive community that I feel constantly plugged into. That’s part of the benefit of having lived in New York as long as I have and been able to navigate through many different facets of the art and entertainment world. I consider it a blessing. It’s great.
Julia: So, is there anything you’re dying to see right now?
Adriana: Well, the Whitney Biennial is coming up.
Julia: That’s on my Crave List on Culture Craver.
Adriana: There's a constantly revolving carousel of gallery shows and I just have to keep updating my list. The Triennial just opened at the New Museum, and my former studio mate and friend, Julia Dault, has work in it. I’ve already caught a few commentaries and write-ups on Twitter, so I feel like I’ve at least gotten the flavor of it. I’m coming off of a big solo show myself, so I’m still in need of taking a nap. [See images below]
Julia: Do you find that most people are like that or most have a favorite art form?
Julia: So, I want to move to the idea of creating desire. Culture Craver is built around the idea of Craving — allowing people to say, “I want to go to this.” If you’re not making an active choice, it’s silly in a world where there are so many options and you have limited time. I’m really interested in how people creating art are thinking about their eventual audience. Maybe it’s not your job — maybe you don’t see it as your job — to create an audience. But I’m interested in that pathway from the creation to the people who end up going.
Julia: What surprised you most when you were on the other side of the curtain?
Adriana: Just how accessible a lot of these collectors and museum directors can be. Meaning, they’re people, who are just as curious and invested in all of this as I am. That’s what surprised me. I’m sure it holds true for any other structural format. Don’t people always say horrible things about middle management? I’m not saying that that end of the art world is pure in any sense- it's never that black and white- but this experience allowed me to see the human element of it, for which I'm grateful.
Julia: How does this experience relate to the idea of “craving”?
Adriana: I saw an accessibility with that experience that allowed me to see the way the art world functions in so many other and different ways. It made the picture much clearer for me. Part of my experience there was going on site visits for the Peter Norton Family Foundation … we would go around to X number of nonprofits that had submitted proposals for funding. This was every month — a revolving door of proposals and submissions from 501(c)(3)s, that said hey we want to do this or we really need X amount of money for this specific show or for general operating, etc. Participating in this process allowed me to appreciate and understand the nonprofit structure in a very unique way. To me, it kind of felt like post-graduate work in a sense because it wasn’t informing the work in my studio but it was informing the way that I perceive my studio in the larger context — the context of a larger art world. So now, I’m a working artist, a showing artist, but also a programming advisor to a nonprofit. I’ve been able to place myself in a position where I get to create opportunities for artists or projects that wouldn’t be possible in the commercial Chelsea machine. So, to me, part of that process about creating craving, generating desire is very much a grassroots model.
Adriana: Here’s an analogy: When you make a good borscht — and I give my students a recipe for borscht the first day of class —
Julia: How many actually make it?
Adriana: I don’t know. I should have them make it and bring it to class. When you make a good borscht, the magic happens on many different levels at the same time. It’s a synchronized magic. And you can’t say: “Oh, it’s all about the beets,” because that's just beet soup.
Julia: You’re saying it’s all of the different elements in the soup. It’s not just a marketing guy saying, “Hey, you should go to this” that brings people through the door. It’s the whole evolution and it all coming together that leads people to come.
Julia: Has that always been, or has the way you make the soup changed over the course of your career?
Adriana: Somewhat. I think you get keener to the ingredients.
Julia: So if you were advising students or someone who just moved to New York about how to make sense of the art world, what would you say?
Adriana: You have to leave your computer and go see shows. You can’t look a show up or a relevant project up and have the same experience seeing it online through a gallery’s website as you can in a physical space. That’s how I started, so I feel like it makes sense to get my students started in a similar direction.
Julia: By just going out and experiencing things?
Adriana: Yes. And that part is hard because we have so much opportunity in terms of information and how we can access it. There’s this site and that site: there’s ArtCat, there’s WNYC, there's Paddy Johnson's Art Fag City, there's Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail, Time Out, and on and on. And now it's all in your phone or in your computer, so in a way it gives you an opportunity to back out of going to something because you can read the two line review or the 140-character review and decide that you don’t want to see it, but often that may not align with your personal assessment and undermines the capacity to generate your own opinion. There are trustworthy sources, but ultimately you are your own source.
Julia: Because it’s all about personal opinions and as you said earlier there were two different critics today who have totally different, valid opinions.
Adriana: That was brilliant. I literally laughed out loud. That’s how genius this has become.
Julia: I wonder if they follow each other.
Adriana: Oh, of course! Everybody knows everyone. You and I are probably two steps removed … I just think it’s really important for individuals to be able to create their own itineraries, and formulate their own critical analysis of what’s out there. It’s one of the dangers of having packaged information so readily available to you. But there are also huge advantages to that. I think it’s learning how to balance the two … This is a massive city. There are many opportunities, many studios, many artists. The one curator who discovers that one artist that no one has gotten to first that then ends up in the Whitney Biennial — everybody will be glomming onto that artist (or curator) next. But there remain hundreds of artists still worthy of the same opportunities, and until the right series of clicks happen in the carousel, they can be overlooked. So, I think there’s a danger of having packaged culture because you run the risk of that happening.
Julia: So, it’s making sure that things that don’t tend to get attention can bubble up — and that there’s room for exploration.
Adriana: That’s why you can’t stop listening, you can’t stop seeing or paying attention, or allow yourself to get too comfortable. If you do, you'll forget that the margins are much wider and the horizon line actually continues.
Friday 10th of February 2012
Former Mayor Edward I. Koch, 87, isn't shy. Since he governed New York City, in the 1970s and 1980s, he has shared his opinions on public safety, foreign affairs, fellow politicians, and films (yes films).
The avid moviegoer usually heads twice a week to the movies and writes reviews, doling out a plus (+) to the movies he enjoys and a minus (-) to those that don't meet his expectations. He takes his movies at the cinemas — like other regular New Yorkers, shunning private screenings. "I'm not a buff ... I'm not an auteur," he insisted when he spoke with Culture Craver's Julia Levy. "What people like about my movie reviews is that they're very honest." He joked that his fans like his amateur movie criticism more than they appreciate his political commentary. We're not so sure about this, but we do see the clear appeal of his personal, funny, matter-of-fact reviews.
In a Q&A, the Mayor discussed how he decides which movies to see and divulged that at least 40% of films endorsed by New York Times critics turn out to be "terrible."
Julia: Which of the Oscar contenders should we try to see before the awards are announced?
Mayor Koch: Help. I loved it.
Julia: What did you like about it?
Mayor Koch: The subject matter, which was segregation in Mississippi. One of the proudest moments of my life was when I went down to Mississippi in 1964 to represent young black civil rights workers. I’m very proud of being part of what happened in that very important year. Seeing that aspect of if — segregation itself — was just very, very impacting, and I think people should see it.
Julia: In general, how do you decide what to see, what not to see?
Mayor Koch: It’s easy: I have a radio program on Friday nights. It’s from 7 to 8 on Bloomberg Radio. And then, from there, I go to the movies. So I have to find a movie that begins somewhere between 8:20 and quarter to 9. There are not so many because I have to get to it from the Bloomberg studio. So, I read the New York Times, and I figure out which are the movies that they think are worth seeing. After I take their advice and see only the ones that they think are really good, 40% of them are terrible. Generally, I will give them a “minus.” While The Times doesn’t give stars, the language of the commentary conveys that they are outstanding and should be seen. I pick one of those outstanding, good movies reviewed on Friday in the Times, and whichever one is going to be screened Friday night somewhere between 8:20 and 8:45, that’s the one I see.
Julia: Despite this very regimented process, you find that almost half are not worth seeing?
Mayor Koch: Forty percent minimum are terrible, and they find them good. I’m amazed. These are different reviewers at The Times.
Julia: Is there any rule you’ve figured out to outsmart them — to figure out in advance which ones are going to be terrible?
Mayor Koch: No. There’s no way of knowing. The reason I read The Times that way is I don’t go to advanced screenings; I only go to regular screenings. I think they’re totally different than the other kind where everybody thinks he or she is an expert. I don’t like that. So, there’s no way of my knowing whether The Times is right or wrong. I have great respect for them, but 40% of the time, I have found, they’re wrong.
Julia: Do you go to the movies every single week?
Mayor Koch: Normally, I see two movies a week — on Friday night and Saturday night. Saturday nights I’m obviously able to pick my time as to when I’ll go, so therefore, the array of movies available to me is much larger.
Julia: Do you review all of them?
Mayor Koch: I review every movie I see. I see two a week and I review two a week.
Julia: How many people are tracking your reviews?
Mayor Koch: I have no idea, except that I have a mailing list, which I send out, which is at this point 10,000 in number, but Mayor at the Movies is a website that plays me every week and the Huffington Post does it too — with music.
Wednesday 8th of February 2012
Culture Craver’s Co-Founder, Julia Levy, had a great chat this afternoon with Carly Hugo, the producer of “Higher Ground” and the co-producer of “Bachelorette,” which debuted at Sundance and was picked up yesterday by the Weinstein Company. (Congratulations, Carly!) Carly shared her thoughts on how to choose among the 100+ films at Sundance and on the importance of traditional media outreach in building indie film audiences.
Julia: Are there any movies you’re dying to see?
Carly: You know what I really want to see? I want to see “Pina” and “Hugo” in 3D — both because I haven’t seen them and because I feel like I’ll be missing out if I don’t see them in the theater. I saw “The Artist” last week, and I freaked out — it was amazing. I saw “The Artist” and “A Separation” in a double feature, which was so the wrong move.
Julia: Which did you see first?
Carly: I saw “The Artist” first. I should have just switched the order. I should have thought about it and switched it because it was like a slap across the face. I loved both of them —
Julia: But they’re different. I haven’t seen “A Separation” yet.
Carly: It’s so good. It’s phenomenal, and I usually don’t like Iranian film. I think Kiarostami is very boring. And I normally don’t get excited, but everyone was freaking out about it so much that I had to see it. And I’m so glad I did. It’s not boring for a second.
Julia: So, you were at Sundance last week. How, when you were there, did you pick what movies to see?
Carly: At Sundance, there are a hundred-something films to choose from. The schedule is so crazy with so many other things going on, so most of it is based on what I can fit into my schedule. The best thing by far I saw was “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which was the most amazing film I’ve seen in five years. It was just stunning and so impressive. It was a first time director, producer, and cinematographer. It was just so exciting to see what they did. I tend at Sundance not to see the slower dramas just because I’m so exhausted. I don’t want to fall asleep at Sundance! I saw a wonderful documentary that’s going to be on HBO called “Ethel,” that I did not want to see. It was about Ethel Kennedy, and I thought it was going to be so boring, but it was amazing.
Julia: The only Ethel I’ve been thinking about is the one in “Downton Abbey.”
Carly: I haven’t watched that yet. That’s my next thing.
Julia: You can binge on it — just take a weekend.
Carly: People say it’s like “The Wire.” You can’t stop.
Julia: It’s weirdly addictive. So, how many movies in all did you see at Sundance?
Carly: Not a lot — probably four or five. So much of the time is spent promoting our own movie. I saw our movie four times, but that’s just because it’s exciting to see it with a real audience finally. A lot of the films at Sundance, the good ones come out eventually, so that makes me feel better about not seeing a lot of them.
Julia: To the bigger question about how you shape public desire, at what point in your creative process do you start thinking about the eventual audience and how to get people to want what to see what you’re making?
Carly: I think from the first time I read the script, it’s very important — especially because there are so many films out there right now and especially with all the new marketing techniques and digital platforms. Sometimes I get annoyed when people post every picture from production, thinking they’re going to have fans from the very beginning. That’s not what I mean. What I mean is just doing very strategic press from the very beginning and the right kinds of interviews and thinking about, “Is this going to be an indie movie or a big breakout thing?”
Julia: How did you approach this with “Bachelorette”?
Carly: With “Bachelorette,” we’ve always had a big, shiny, beautiful cast — Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, James Marsden. With “Bachelorette,” paparazzi were on set every single day and we were in touch with the actresses’ publicists from the very beginning to try to shape it. Kirsten started dropping the name “Bachelorette” in her interviews about “Melancholia.” Even though “Bachelorette” was done on a very small budget, it needs to give the appearance of being a bigger thing because it should go to a wider audience. “Higher Ground,” which I did last year, was more of a solid art house movie. We knew from the very beginning that it wasn’t going to play very well in middle of the country, big megaplex theaters, but it was one of the highest grossing films at Lincoln Plaza this year. We knew from the beginning that the smart New York and LA audiences were going to be the people who rallied the most behind Vera Farmiga, the director, but also the people who understood that we had three Tony winners in our cast. New York audiences are going to appreciate that.
Julia: What did you do to reach out to those smart New York and LA audiences?
Carly: We focused on the Broadway press a lot, actually. We did a couple of exclusives with Broadway.com. It was one of Nina Arianda’s first film roles, and she was just blowing up on Broadway, so we focused on that. Vera did every interview that came across our door because we knew that she was the heart of it. People were going to go see it because of her. We did a lot of Vanity Fair and Elle. U.S. Weekly didn’t really care about “Higher Ground,” but they’re going to love “Bachelorette.”
Julia: What you’re talking about is more traditional press outreach. Do you also do Twitter and Facebook — direct outreach to eventual consumers — or do you find that you’re more successful sticking with what’s worked for decades?
Carly: I know the popular answer is to say, “We had a Facebook page from the very beginning.”
Carly: The truth is, I’ve tended to do more elevated dramas and documentaries. You can have 5,000 Twitter followers because they’re all obsessed with someone, but that doesn’t actually mean they’re going to go see the film. In “Higher Ground,” Taissa Farmiga, who’s Vera’s younger sister, is one of the actresses in it, and then she was in “American Horror Story,” and she blew up. She has all these random Brazilian fans for some reason, so I had her Tweet to her 18,000 followers. She literally got them all overnight, so she Tweeted to them and sent the link to iTunes, so now we have all these Brazilian teenage girls saying, “I love ‘Higher Ground.’” In that case, it totally worked, but we weren’t planning on it.
Julia: So, it’s more of an organic thing when social works?
Julia: Ultimately, what is driving audiences to a film like “Higher Ground”? Is it something they read in the news or something they heard from a friend?
Julia: Were the audience reactions and critical reviews usually aligned?
Julia: Were people only Tweeting after the film was over — or during?
Carly: Sundance is a kind of serious audience. I think if someone pulled out their phone, it might get slapped out of their hand.
Julia: We’ve talked a lot at Culture Craver about the role of critics in deciding who goes to what. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Carly: I’ve started on Twitter following a bunch of film critics and bloggers. It’s so interesting to me how opinionated they are and how they write the review and then they really will champion the film or they won’t. There are certain filmgoers who refuse to read the reviews before they go and just go based on word of mouth, and there are others who will only go if a critic they like liked it. I do know “Higher Ground” got a stellar, crazy, amazing New York Times review, and the next weekend, our box office numbers went up dramatically. I think people still look toward critics…for these indie dramas and documentaries, I think the critics can make it or break it.
Julia: Is that just a reality of your work?
Julia: When you make something you’re really proud of that isn’t reviewed well, what do you do?
Carly: At that point, you just hope that people still go to see it. Honestly, the films that haven’t been reviewed very well, I haven’t been 100% proud of. The final product is not always my favorite product, and I feel like going into those situations, you can figure out what the reviews are going to be ahead of time based on test audiences and based — really — on your gut. I knew going into Sundance last year what was going to happen to “Higher Ground,” because everyone who had seen it had had that same reaction. I can’t think of any specific examples of films I’ve done recently where I’ve been shocked by the reviews.
Julia: Are there any final lessons that you’d share with other people in your position?
Carly: I do think social media is changing every day. There are a lot of really expensive ad campaigns where you pay someone a lot of money to build your Facebook page. I don’t think that works because I don’t think those people are the people who see the films. But I do think that what Culture Craver is doing is amazing because I’ll go to films based on what my Facebook friends have to say and based on whatever David Edelstein tells me to do, and I think that to build a network around that, you’re able to build your own list, it is an easier way to figure out what you’re going to do next weekend.
Julia: Well, I hope so.
Carly: The key is getting more people to use it. It’s better if I’m looking at a microcosm of all of my friends rather than my same three friends I always talk to. Then it will be easier to get a consensus. I don’t see the same movies and don’t have the same taste as most of my 1,500 Facebook friends, but that’s why it’s interesting what you are doing.
Monday 6th of February 2012
Saturday 4th of February 2012
In Culture Craver’s ongoing effort to (1) find out what people are craving and (2) learn different perspectives on how to cultivate desire, Culture Craver Co-Founder Julia Levy caught up with Brandon Stanton, the photographer who started “Humans of New York,” an online photographic census of New York City. Brandon discussed the tricks of approaching strangers and the importance of leveraging Facebook to build a brand.
Julia: What are you craving right now?
Brandon: Broadway musicals.
Julia: Anything specific?
Brandon: I really want to see “Book of Mormon”. I’m on a very tight budget right now. One thing that I would do if I had unlimited money, is to go see every musical in New York. I don’t know — they just make me feel good.
Julia: Is it the singing or the dancing?
Brandon: Just the fact that they’re so New York-y. They originate here. It’s part of the culture. The history of Broadway is here. It just feels like something that’s really engrained in the city — there’s an energy to it.
Julia: Is there anything in your realm of photography that you’d recommend at the moment?
Brandon: You’d be amazed. I go to Barnes and Noble and I open up the photo books instead of buying them because they’re so expensive. I flip through and I look at things like composition. But as far as really going to photographers’ shows, I’m remarkably isolated. I spend a lot of time on the street, just photographing what I see … I love Dave LaChapelle, I love looking at his work, looking at how he composes things. Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier. When I find somebody I like, I’ll go through and look at all of their photographs, but I feel like I’m a very out on the streets kind of photographer, as opposed to being in a gallery.
Julia: When you start your day, what inspires you to go out and take pictures?
Brandon: I managed to create my own niche here, where I basically have a large following that tunes in to see where I’ve been and what I’ve done that day. It’s a lot of freedom. Every day is different. I just walk around the streets of New York, anything that catches my eye, I explore, anyone who looks interesting, I talk to. And I just document it. I feel that if there’s any reason I’ve been able to carve out my own space in photography, it’s not necessarily because of my photographic skills, even though I’ve worked hard to cultivate those. It’s the interactions that I’m having what these people, and the difficulty of approaching random strangers on the street.
Julia: Do you consider yourself an artist?
Brandon: Oh yeah. You know, I consider myself and I consider a lot of people artists. I create. I write. I work hard, posing the shots that I take. It’s not just finding the person and taking the photo. Most of my shots now, I’m finding an interesting person and then I’m asking them to cooperate with me in some way. I’m looking around the streets, I’m looking at their colors, I’m looking at the lighting, and I’m really building these shots.
Julia: Is the city itself an inspiration to you?
Brandon: Everything you see around you has sprung out of a human mind, so yeah, I mean, in that way then yes, everything around you is art. I use the street a lot in my composition because it’s what I have. I don’t have a gallery. I don’t build sets. I don’t have a studio. So in a very basic way, I use the city, and I use the streets in everything that I produce.
Julia: Do you have any thoughts on how you mold desire and make people want what you create?
Brandon: I think it’s something beyond the aesthetic of the photographs. The growth rate of “Humans of New York” is astounding. We’re doubling in size every two and a half months, and I think it’s beyond the aesthetic of the photographs. It has something to do with the interactions between the people, the kind of natural fear that people have at approaching strangers, and the delight they take when somebody does this for them — establishes this relationship and photographs this relationship. I don’t view my photographs as photographs of people. It’s more of a photograph of an interaction with a stranger, and I think the power is in that interaction.
Julia: Are there any lessons you’ve learned from talking to so many strangers?
Brandon: I really think it has to do with energy. When I first started, I was starting to look for the right thing to say to people. I would try to explain to them what I was doing — I run a photo blog, I do street portraits, I am creating a photographic census. And now I just ask them, “Do you mind if I take your photo?” It really has nothing to do with the words I speak. It has everything to do with how calm I am, how assured I am in what I am doing. It’s all in tone, in how you present yourself.
Julia: Is this affected your other interactions in life — going out to a restaurant, going to a party?
Brandon: It’s had to, right? I’ve stopped thousands of random strangers and just interacted with them. Even if I can’t put my finger on it, it’s had to have had an impact on my everyday interactions with other people.
Julia: Are there any strategies you use to try to drive traffic to your blog or has it all be organic?
Brandon: The blogs that have 3,000 or fewer followers encompass the lion’s share of all the blogs out there. And then there are a few that have managed to break out of that distribution and that’s when they really take off. The hardest part is pushing yourself through that noise at the very beginning, because there are so many people who are competing for people’s attention. At the beginning, that’s when it takes the hardest work, and that’s when you’re getting the least feedback and the least amount of reward for your efforts. I took 1,600 portraits before anybody was paying attention.
Julia: How do you measure your success?
Brandon: The main metric I use to measure my following is Facebook … I think the day of a personal blog is coming to an end as it exists outside of Facebook. People are now using their Facebook pages as an appendage to their main site, and I think that’s a mistake. The previous mold of what a personal blog is: you build a blog and you try to drive people to it in order to generate ad revenue. I think that thinking is outdated. I think right now, you have to use Facebook, you have to negate your desire to get short-term revenue out of what you are doing, and you have to use Facebook to build a brand, and turn that brand into revenue because Facebook is so good at spreading things. If you ignore Facebook, or only use Facebook to try to drive people to your website, that results in a dead Facebook page — and Facebook is the number one way of spreading to other people.
Julia: So you put every picture you take up on Facebook?
Brandon: I started out with Facebook just being kind of an appendage, and then I realized: this is where the growth is coming from. And now most of my energy is dedicated to growing that Facebook page.
Julia: Is there any strategy you’ve noticed that really doesn’t work for attracting people?
Brandon: The bottom line is this: it’s hard. Everyone has a chance of being discovered by social media. And that is both a blessing and a curse — a blessing because everybody’s got a shot, a curse because now everybody’s trying, so there’s a lot of noise out there. You really have to get something unique, and you have to believe in your vision because you can’t be counting on immediate feedback. The first few months are really tough because you're working for no money, not getting much feedback, and people think you're crazy. You really need to get around one thousand followers or so before you start growing significantly. And those first thousand are the toughest to get. That first batch of followers gives you a credibility, which incentivizes other people to give your work the time of day. Once you start getting to two or three thousand, things start to snowball if you have good content. Humans of New York is reaching a tipping point right now — the growth in the last few weeks has just been nuts.
Julia: How many people do you have now?
Brandon: While we’re talking, it just went to 10,000. It’s gotten to the point where I’m putting on a few hundred new ones every day now … it’s all a result of the amount of people who comment and all the likes. I’m just shocked, to be honest, and I almost want to keep it a secret. I’m shocked at people’s strategies for Facebook. I feel like it’s extremely neglected. People view it as not having a lot of credibility and people want to have that short-term ad revenue, and I think that they are sacrificing enormous growth potential and brand awareness by chasing short-term ad revenue, and I think that’s a mistake.
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