Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Gatekeeper's Manifesto

by R.S. Mellette

In May of this year, founder Jeff Bezos told the New York Times, “I see the elimination of gatekeepers everywhere.”

As co-Director of the Dances With Films festival, I am somewhat of a gatekeeper myself, and I can tell Mr. Bezos, the world is not ready for raw art.  Without gatekeepers, there is nothing to tell the consumer, "This product is good; that one is a waste of time," and believe me, the majority of unfiltered art is horrid.  Much of it is so bad it's painful to experience.  With leisure time at a premium, there is a tremendous value in the consumer being able to shop from behind well-kept gates, buying only what has been keeper-approved.

As an writer, I've also run into some gatekeepers I'd like to kill.  Generally, these fall under the heading of those who use the phrase, "People don't like..."

Believe it or not, it is not a gatekeeper's job to guess what people will like—or even, what they will buy.  This concept flies in the face of what every gatekeeper thinks their job is, so I'll say it again.

It is not a gatekeeper's job to guess what people will like—or even, what they will buy. 

Marketing executives, who have somehow become the biggest gatekeepers of them all, like to think they believe this manifesto.  They rush around with spreadsheets of sales figures on works that are "like the product we're considering" (aka "comps") to predict—not guess—exactly how much people will like this new product and how many they will buy.  Often, they are quite accurate.

But it's still just a guess, and it doesn't address products for which comps are hard to find.  It only works for established customers, and doesn't consider new ones.

So what if we take out the idea of what other people like or don't like entirely?  What if gatekeepers all followed the three rules of criticism: 1) Are the Artist's objectives clear? 2) Does the Artist achieve those objectives? 3) Does the Artist do this in a way that I like?

Yes, rule number three goes against the marketing idea so many MBA's learn in college that "your opinion doesn't matter."  I say it does, and here are the numbers to back me up:

According to the US census, there are about 314 million people in the country right now.   So let's say you, as a gatekeeper, are an average member of that population.  That means you're in a group of about 157 million people.

No?  Since you're a gatekeeper that means you probably went to college, you read more than the average person, might have traveled more, etc.  Okay, so let's err on the conservative side and say you represent, not 50% of the population ... and not 25% ... let's say you share just 1% of the same taste and sense of quality as the rest of people you grew up with, went to church with and hang out with.

That leaves 3 million customers who will like the same stuff you do. 

Of course, not all 3 million are reachable and not all of them are going to buy whatever it is you're selling, but in this model, they are interested.  So let's say only 10% of them are buyers.

That's 300,000 in sales.  Is that good?  Noah Lukeman writes extensively on the subject of book sales, so an educated person's answer would be, "maybe."  But here's a quote from his calculations I find interesting.
It is easy to gauge if a book is a huge failure, selling only 100 copies, or if it is a huge success, selling 100,000 hardcovers—but what if it falls into that gray area? What if it sells 7,000 hardcovers? Or 11,000 trade paperbacks?

By those standards, one tenth of those potential buyers would be a good hit for a first time author.

So, without regard to what people may or may not like, if a company can sell to one tenth, of one tenth, of one percent of the population, or .01 percent, then they are doing well. 

Now let's look at the gate keeping process for books.

LEVEL ONE—The Author.  If an author is good—which is a big assumption—they have slaved away to create the best work possible.  This means they've had beta readers.  They've done workshops.  They might have hired editors.  They have created to the best of their ability a finished product, which they submit to:

LEVEL TWO—The Agent.  This is the front line.  The agent faces pure raw art.  Mike Rowe should do an episode of Dirty Jobs on the muck they have to slog through to find a single gem.  I know from working with the film festival, that finding those gems is as exciting for the agent as it is for the people who created them.  Together with the author(s), the agent will polish the work for presentation to:

LEVEL THREE—The Editor.  An editor is not looking for a diamond in the rough, but a diamond among other precious stones.  If the agent and author have done their jobs, then any one of the works submitted to an editor should be able to find a market (see the numbers above).  In theory, an editor should then be choosing, not so much the books that are of the best quality—since they are all gems—but the books that best fit into the entire piece of jewelry the imprint is creating.  Here is where it is important for the imprint to have good internal communications.  If the editor isn't sure what pieces they are looking for, then how can they make an informed decision?  Once the editor has found a manuscript, then he or she will work with the author and agent to present it to:

LEVEL FOUR—Acquisitions.  Mathematically speaking, at this point a blind monkey could pull the submissions from a hat and have the same chances of finding a successful book.  I don't mean that figuratively.  I can't remember where I read the article, but someone ran the numbers and found that random selection of projects submitted to a Hollywood Studio would be as successful, if not more so, than choices made by the executives.  Acquisitions often means a committee of people, usually dominated by:

LEVEL FIVE—Marketing.  Imagine an executive walking into his boss's office and saying, "I am not good enough to do my job, so you should make it easier for me."  Sounds ridiculous, but that's what marketing has been doing for years.  "We can't sell that," they say.  Or, "there isn't a market for that." 

And people believe them.  The gem that has been vetted and polished by the author, the agent, the editor, and presumably the editor's boss is tossed aside because someone says they can't find a market for it.  Out of 314 million possible customers in the United States alone, they can't find a market?  Out of 7 billion people on the planet, they can't find a market for something that every gatekeeper before them has said is a quality product?

What happened to a salesman's pride?  What happened to the salesperson who would say, "I can sell shoes to a snake?" 

Moreover, what happened to the boss who would tell the sales department, "this is the product we're making, now go sell it." What happened to the boss who would fire someone who said, "I can't do my job"?

So is Mr. Bezos right?  Will we see the day when all gatekeepers are as unemployed as the writers they reject?  I don't think so.  I certainly hope not.  But some of them should be told, "Thank you, but step away from the gate.  Your job is inside."

R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.


Jeremy Bates said...

As someone who was once involved with a major film festival, I often wondered about the gatekeepers. Some of the crappiest films made it into the fest, while others that were done well were not.

I knew the two main people who were responsible for reviewing both features and shorts and I am confident when I say there was definitely some favoritism and some politics involved.

It really sicken me at times.

JeffO said...

THAT is an interesting take on the situation.

Bezos has an interest in pushing this 'eliminate the gatekeepers' agenda. When all the gatekeepers are gone, guess who will be holding all the keys? Then we'll be slaves to the Keymaster instead of the Gatekeepers.

RSMellette said...

Jeremy, yeah, that happens. If you read my blog for Dances With Films, you'll see that we do not politics - or, as little as is humanly possible.

There are a lot of factors that come into the final selections, world premiere status and local filmmakers key among them. You'll see in my blog how painful it is to make decisions about who is in and who isn't. Some of my favorite movies have not gotten into the festival, and that sucks, but I know why so that makes it a little better.

Chihuahua Zero said...

Great article! You put quite a lot of effort into it, especially with the "gate keeping process" session and the calculations.

However, I'm having trouble figuring out what I should be taking away from this. What's the main idea of this post?

RSMellette said...

This is just part of the on-going discussion in the entertainment industry as a whole about the role of gatekeepers. Some, like the President of Amazon, say they are not needed at all.

I say ... what I said above. We definitely need a system for sorting the wheat from the chaff, but maybe not so many filters.

Jean Oram said...

Yeah, what IS up with marketing anyway?

There is a place for gatekeepers. And the way the world is changing, there will continue to be a place. Things are just going to have to change a lot in order for them to keep up with those individuals who have passion and drive and a vision on how to make it through the indie route. If they want to stay afloat and make a profit.

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