The ‘New Age Of Curation’ Interviews: Twitch’s Todd Brown

My original post about what I opted to call ‘the new age of curation’ sparked a lot of really interesting discussion, both in the comments and separately.

In particular, game designer and Lost Garden blogger Daniel Cook composed a very thoughtful response over on Google+ which laid things out in infinitely more clinical, less fuzzy style.

Along the way, it uncovered some truths I was perhaps hiding from myself – that it’s ambient word of mouth, rather than any particular outlet, that really makes a piece of media blow up in today’s market.

However, in my reply to Daniel I think I inadvertently coined a phrase – ‘prince maker’ – that applies quite well to some of today’s most interesting niche blogs.

No one media outlet or blog is able to singlehandedly ‘break’ something into a media phenomenon nowadays. But with the kingmakers gone, there sure are a lot of websites – in video games, music, film, and beyond – which can provide a spark that helps fan the flames of notoriety.

And the best of these niche sites provide curation that can help illuminate art you would _never_ be able to find otherwise. So I’ll be conducting a short series interviewing some of the princemakers I admire the most, starting with Todd Brown of excellent ‘international, independent and cult film’ website Twitch.

I’ve been dipping into the site – which has regular columns on larger sites like Ain’t It Cool News – for a good few years now, and I think it exemplifies the curation and tastemaking that allow us all to find and enjoy the art that we all enjoy, day to day.

Simon: What I’m really looking at in these series of articles is the importance of curation in today’s world, where there’s a near-infinite number of choices, whatever media you consume (movies, books, video games, etc.) What was the original reason and context for setting up Twitch?

Todd: I grew up within the ‘zine culture in the 80s and early 90s and have been writing about media – dominantly music at first, now film – for twenty years. Which makes me feel old now that I’ve typed it, but it’s true. At this stage of my life it’s become a reflex, really.

I started Twitch after leaving a film site run by a friend as it became clear we had diverging tastes. There was no real goal to it other than just writing about things I found interesting and I honestly thought the ceiling on potential readership would be very low. I’ve been pleasantly surprised otherwise.

Simon: How has the change in online availability of films helped your site? My impression has been that it’s a lot easier to see a lot of them via VOD, streaming, etc now – has that made it easier or harder to get your job done?

Todd: There’s no more availability now than there was ten or fifteen years ago, it’s just changed formats. VOD is replacing DVD the same way DVD replaced VHS, not augmenting it. And the restrictions on what’s available legally are just as strict now as they ever were.

Simon: Accordingly, it’s become even easier to pirate media, thanks to increasing bandwidth for everyone. How bad do you think this problem is for the kind of films you talk about – and what should be done about it?

Todd: Piracy is an enormous problem for films, particularly indies and international films. I know for at least one major company they don’t hit break even on the physical costs of making and marketing DVDs until they sell 15K units, and that’s before you factor in the cost of acquiring rights.

If the total audience for a title is in the 30 – 50k unit range, which is pretty generous for many foreign films, and say ten to fifteen thousand of those download it illegally instead of buying it the distributor has just been put in an automatic money losing position if they try to release the film. Piracy is directly responsible for the shrinking pool of titles available by legal means.

Simon: Equally, it looks to me that, since you founded the site in 2004, a lot of regional film festivals have got better at showcasing less well-known, non-North America or otherwise ‘genre’ films. Do you feel like online buzz from sites like Twitch helps to influence the people who program these festivals, or vice versa (or both!)?

Todd: There’s definitely been a change in festival programming and the types of films and events other sites cover since Twitch launched. We were one of the first to cover international sales markets, for instance, and now that’s pretty standard, at least the AFM is.

I don’t know if it’s a direct causal relationship but I know a lot of programmers read Twitch because they’re friends and colleagues of mine. We share information all the time.

Simon: How have your readers of Twitch grown in size and demographics over time, and do you feel like your message and goal for the site changed as you reached a larger audience?

Todd: Readership has definitely grown but I think our demographics have stayed pretty much the same. Mostly late high school aged and higher readers, a lot of well educated folks, a surprising percentage of industry types. It’s always been that way.

What I try to do is be smart about the big Hollywood coverage we do, both in terms of what we cover and how, and use the big names to pull in new audiences for the smaller and international stuff. It’s been a guiding principal of mine from day one that film is film and all film should be considered on an equal playing field, which is why I’ve always chosen NOT to focus Twitch on any particular genre, type or language of film.

We cover it all and we cover it side by side because a small film from Asia or Europe is just as important and valid to us as a big film from Hollywood and vice versa.

Simon: I’ve noticed that you’ve also partnered with big sites like AICN to help get the word out there – explain how that happened, and why you wanted to do that?

Todd: The Aint It Cool thing happened because I work with Harry Knowles at Fantastic Fest and it seemed like a logical thing that would be good for both of us. It gave his readers a taste of something exotic without Harry needing to cultivate someone with that range of knowledge and contacts in house and it gave me access to a large readership who may not know about what we do at Twitch. Win-win.

Simon: Have there been particular favorite ‘success stories’ on Twitch in terms of film-makers, sectors of the industry, or films that you feel like you’ve really managed to publicize or evangelize?

Todd: Yeah, lots. We led the charge with Nacho Vigalondo’s TIME CRIMES, last year’s hit TROLL HUNTER, this year’s HEADHUNTERS, the whole Sushi Typhoon phenomenon and others.

We’ve had our share of things that we had high expectations for that ended up being not so good but we’ve been ahead of the curve on a lot of really good stuff and I’m proud of that.

Simon: Why do you and your team curate? What’s in it for you? Were you born to do it? Why do you enjoy it?

Todd: I do it because I love it, basically. I’ve never made a living directly from Twitch and don’t know if I ever really will. Certainly not a living that matches up with the amount of time I put into it – the economics of online are shitty.

But Twitch HAS opened a lot of other doors for me that have let me quit my day job and make my living off of film related stuff full time, so that’s definitely a perk. I get paid to play, basically.

[Todd is director of international programming at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, a programmer at Fantasia, and a partner at production and sales company XYZ Films, where he’s executive producer on The Raid, among other things. Thanks again to him for taking time to do this interview.]

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