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The importance of framing

July 12, 2011

Also more cynically referred to as “spin,” framing “defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others.” (via Wikipedia)

Framing can be used for both honest and dishonest purposes — the aforementioned, more dishonest form of “spin,” for example, is often used to obscure negative information by attempting to portray it as somehow positive. But it’s also important to consider the framing of even a positive statement, lest it come out unclear or appear to be negative.

Case in point, the recent announcement by Indy Mogul that they will be discontinuing their popular series of Backyard FX (BFX) videos. For those who aren’t familiar, the BFX videos show low/no budget filmmakers how to get cool props and effects into their films on the cheap. As a sort of sister project, BFX would also release a short film they’d produced to showcase the prop/effect in action.

The series has been popular with its target demographic, putting clever and inspirational techniques into the hands of people without a lot of disposable income. So you might imagine that the announcement that Indy Mogul would be discontinuing this series was not met with a positive reaction, and you’d be right. Outrage and proclamations that Indy Mogul has “just lost a subscriber” fill the comments.

But here’s the weird thing. Indy Mogul isn’t actually ending BFX. It’s what they said, but it isn’t what they meant, not really.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s the announcement:

Now, maybe I’m misinterpreting what they’ve said, but it seems to me that the only thing they’re actually retiring here is the Backyard FX label. Backyard FX was about teaching amateur and aspiring filmmakers how to get the most bang for their buck, and showing them the final product in a short film. This new thing that they’ve announced will be… showing amateur and aspiring filmmakers how to get the most bang for their buck, by showing all the nuts and bolts of the production of a short film.

The only thing that’s changed here — again, correct me if I’m wrong — is the order of operations. Before they’d make a prop or effect and then shoot a little film to show it in action. Now they’ll be supporting indie directors to help them make their own, original creative projects, and use those projects as case studies for how to get a lot of production value on a tiny budget. This is better. This will get the viewers’ creative juices flowing, to see these principles in action on a variety of projects. This is a natural next step for Indy Mogul and the Backyard FX fanbase. BFX is expanding, evolving, advancing.

But the BFX fanbase didn’t hear any of that. Because the Indy Mogul folks led the announcement saying “We’re ending BFX,” and at that point those fans stopped listening.

In the indie world — and frankly, even in the professional one — it’s not enough to know how to write a script or make a film. You’ve got to be able to sell it. You have to convince people that they want what you’re offering. And you’ve got to be able to frame your pitch properly. A lot of indie folks don’t seem to think about this. They seem to figure that they don’t need “spin” because they’re not trying to hide a crappy product behind a bunch of hand-waving — they’ve got a good product that ought to practically sell itself. But nothing sells itself. You’ve got to prime your listener, to make them understand why what you’re offering is desirable.

Do it well — look, for example, to Apple, whose every product announcement is a master class in framing — and your audience will fall all over themselves with desire, begging you to sell them your product. Do it poorly, and even if it’s exactly what they’ve always wanted, you’ll lose them long before you get the opportunity to tell them so.

I hope that this misstep won’t hurt Indy Mogul in the long run. But should many of their subscribers follow through on their threat to unsubscribe — after IM spent years accumulating their subscriber base, after they probably decided to take this next step precisely because they reached what they felt was a critical mass of subscribers — this could prove to be a catastrophic mistake that was easily avoidable, if they’d just given some more thought to the way they framed the announcement.

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