Summer 2013

Out of the Box 

Longtime network executive Nancy Tellem, now president of entertainment and digital media for Microsoft, talks about the expanding Xbox entertainment platform and what that might mean for directors.

1. Most people think Xbox is just about games, but now you’re expanding into a broader entertainment platform.

Xbox was always primarily gaming, but this is the first year where users actually spent more time watching video than playing games. So my mission is to transition Xbox into an entertainment service. We already have over 160 apps in the United States, which gives us a tremendous amount of reach as far as the type of content we have. We also have thousands of TV and movie titles to rent or buy, like the iTunes model. On top of that we also have the technology that allows users to actually interact in real time [with the content].

2. In the past year you opened Microsoft Studios in Santa Monica. Is the content you’re producing going to be different from traditional content?

Our plans are to produce a whole range of content. We have a lot of sports offerings, as well as the interactivity that goes along with that. We’re also looking to do more live events. From a scripted standpoint, we’re looking at producing premium series. I would use Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or Breaking Bad as prototypes. We have an innovation lab where we can create chaptered features for our platform. We’ll do animation. And of course, unscripted, which is really a great opportunity for people who are watching from their living room to actually participate in the show itself. With scripted content, it takes a bit more time to develop and produce, but I think you’re going to see some original content from us hopefully by the end of the year. And we expect it to be supported by both advertising and subscriptions.

3. Will the scripted content have interactive elements that are not available on TV or cable?

Definitely. What’s happening now is that viewers have the opportunity to watch shows and then look at other elements after they watch the program on their PC or tablet. Here, this is all going to be an integrated experience: you can sit passively and watch a program, or, like most of our audience, you can do a lot of things all at once. You have the ability to build second-screen experiences that are synched to what you’re watching.

4. What kind of creative opportunities do you see this type of programming offering directors?

The idea is that the creators and directors in the community approach this with a very different model. Most of our audience skews younger, ages 14 to 40, and 48 percent female. And because this is a unique platform, if someone does have a vision, we function very differently than a traditional media company, without the hierarchy that exists there. We’re a very small operation, and we’re really here to execute the creator’s vision. We believe that while content can live on Xbox, it can also live off of Xbox, so we embrace the whole domestic and international distribution models.

5. What skills are you looking for from directors that are different from what might be required for more traditional content?

Producing and directing content for Xbox is no different from producing or directing on any other platform. The only difference is perhaps in the way in which storytelling is executed, [keeping in mind] how the audience can interact with the content. I don’t know if many directors actually understand the technology well enough to be armed with that, so that’s what we’re here for. But all the technology we offer is not meaningful unless you produce great content. That’s what we want directors and writers to bring us. As I meet more and more with directors, writers, and producers, the idea is to open their eyes to where they can go creatively.

6. Bottom line, is there going to be more work for directors because of this?

Absolutely. We’re planning a very robust slate of production and I view this as a great opportunity that gives everyone yet another platform to execute his or her vision. The other thing is that our platform is not limited by time periods—it’s not limited by days. So ultimately, the hope is that whatever project we produce will find its place on our platform. I’ve been through way too many years of pilots being thrown aside [at the networks]; there’s been so much waste. We are looking to use this process not only as a way to evaluate the project itself within the terms of a TV series, but also by putting it on our platform, so we can get real input from our audience and be able to develop the ideas even with much more refined information.

7. On the gaming side, what kind of opportunities does Xbox present for directors?

What I’m realizing is that there is so much alignment between the creative process of gaming and normal feature or television production. I know that people who are building these games are reaching out to the Hollywood community to get support for story narrative and for direction assistance. With the type of technology we’re seeing in game production, there’s a lot of crossover that we can bring to more traditional television content.

8. Do you think we’re going to see more original programming from developing platforms like Xbox and Netflix?

Well, definitely from Xbox. We are focused on not only finding the best content produced by others, but we are dedicated to producing original content in all genres. House of Cards and Arrested Development were big steps forward for Netflix and I suspect they’ll do more original programming because everyone’s looking to differentiate themselves. Certainly, original programming is one way to do so.

9. How does the growth of Xbox and other new platforms like it affect the traditional TV model?

I think we’re just augmenting distribution as opposed to cannibalizing it. As I look at who’s watching Xbox at this point, they are primarily people who I would call ‘cord-cutters’ or ‘cord-nevers’; they would not be watching broadcast networks or cable channels. I think it’s an opportunity to work with the traditional media companies to get an entirely different audience than they would have otherwise.

10. As someone who has come out of network television, how would you assess the state of broadcast TV today?

I think there are bigger concerns that may be affecting future business models than new platforms producing original content. It’s more about distribution, the demand from the consumer: where they want to watch content, and when they want to watch it. When you look at this next generation of TV viewers, there’s an awful lot of content to access, and people find entertainment in many ways that are different from traditional film and television. But content-wise, I think the business is still very healthy. There’s an unbelievable amount of talent, including directors, and it’s really showing in the kind of television you’re seeing both in network television and cable. When you look at the broadcast-cable business right now, in terms of content, I think it’s an incredibly vibrant and exciting time. The fun part about it for the directors and talent is that there are now many more places they can go to exercise their creative vision.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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