Neal Edelstein: Fine-tuning a new storytelling and distribution mechanism
by Heather Courtney Quinn
Neal was a producer on Mulholland Drive, The Straight Story and The Ring. Most recently he started Hooked Digital Media where he just launched the popular Haunting Melissa app that combines Hollywood horror filmmaking, long-form structure and the unique distribution offered by the popularity of personal tablets.
Neal and I go way back. He actually gave me my first job in the entertainment industry when I was 20. I worked for him in college as a production assistant on commercials and music videos while he was working as a production coordinator for The Artists Company. I went down to Santa Monica to visit him at his new offices off of the Third Street Promenade and got a chance to catch up with him about what he is doing now.
Heather Courtney Quinn: What inspired you to tell the Haunting Melissa story digitally?
Neal Edelstein: I’ve always wanted to tell stories in different ways. But when I held that ipad for the first time, I had that rare, inspirational lightning bolt of “here’s a huge opportunity.” As a film producer, you always have that instinctual bent of having to be on the look out for content. You’re always open to … where’s the next great story coming from? How can I get the rights to this? How can I turn this article into a movie? How can I develop this? You are holding a backlit window in your hands with so much power … that can deliver video and sound. How do you harness this thing to deliver entertainment to people? I’ve always been interested in technology, as it applies to filmmaking. From the itunes store all the way to delivery onto a device … 100% total control to create something and deliver it. And, that’s what we always fight for, right? If you’re a film producer, director, writer, actor … what do you want? Power and control to be able to tell your story in the purest sense.
HCQ: In your own words, tell me what it is that you are doing … it’s not a television show and it’s not exactly a movie …
NE: I don’t have a sexy term for it … like “appisode” … which I don’t really like. It’s longer than a film, but different from TV because it is more sporadic and the segments are different lengths so it really is a new form of storytelling that is driven by push technology. The fact that I can directly grab you through your device and say, “hey, here’s a new piece of content” makes scheduling moot. It’s not about people having to tune in at a specific time … and granted … we don’t do that anyway because of DVRs, Netflix and Amazon. But, it’s that instant gratification of getting directly to people. It is film storytelling that could go on forever because it is a live thing that you can update and change (which you have to — you’re always working on the development of the application).
HCQ: This is exciting because you have more access to your viewers, right? So you can in real time tell how many people are viewing your show, who’s downloading more and how your audience is building …
NE: The data that you collect is incredible. We can start monitoring people’s viewing behavior and then change in real time (if we choose) how we distribute that content. As we gather data and we go to deliver content in the future, we can adjust the schedule and finesse our programming to work for previous behavior. We can do it per individual, locally or globally. It’s not like you distribute a movie and you bet it all on that one day. This is more of a television model. The goal is to create a better experience for the audience and fine-tune that experience.
HCQ: Do your numbers rival a television network?
NE: It’s getting there … not towards network programming, but we are getting near cable numbers. We’re much further ahead than we thought we’d be. We’ve done no marketing — purely launched on positioning by Apple and publicity. We will ultimately be in the millions of downloads, no question. We’ve been holding out our marketing campaign until the Fall when kids get back in school. Globally, we can see the growth. It is important for our investor to make their money back, but that’s not our primary goal. For us, it’s about fine-tuning this really powerful application/distribution mechanism to continue to get the content out.
HCQ: Seeing as this was your directing debut, are you creatively looking to do more of that or are you more focused on the bigger picture of this company?
NE: I loved directing. I would love to do it again and I would love to direct a feature. But right now, in this space, there’s so much exciting stuff going on … you’re really more than a director … you’ve got to be like a creative director in an ad agency, you have to do graphic design, you have to know software development, you have to be able to think outside of the box, you have to think about distribution. It’s an unbelievable experience because you are doing a little bit of everything. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done.
HCQ: So what keeps you up at night?
NE: What used to keep me up was the technology failing and the application crashing. We’ve gotten through all of that now, but you just don’t know until you get the app out into the world and there’s hundreds and thousands of people kicking that app … then you find the bugs. What keeps me up now is growing the company and making the right creative decisions in a sequel or with other properties. And, then creating that one thing that you don’t see that would be a great idea, inside your application that would help drive it. It’s not the known, it’s hopefully finding the unknown.
HCQ: So how do you relax?
NE: I do transcendental meditation, which is one key thing. You have a mantra that is your own and it is just great for calming your mind. I walk a lot, try to exercise and to read.
HCQ: What book are you reading right now?
NE: I have a book about the director, Victor Fleming, on my night stand. I also just downloaded a book about the making of The Searchers, which is a John Ford film.
HCQ: What kind of entertainment do you consume?
NE: I watched House of Cards recently, which I really liked. I have been watching a ton of stuff on Youtube about Steve Jobs. I think I was in shock that he died and now am going back and looking at everything about him. I am watching Game of Thrones and I love it. I saw The Conjuring … thought it was incredible and so well done. It’s an instant classic horror film. Music is Jazz … Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley. Also Waylon Jennings, The Who …. Pete Townshend is a definite inspiration.
HCQ: What’s your biggest vice?
NE: Definitely too much coffee.
HCQ: What was your best Hollywood moment?
NE: When The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive got into Cannes. To go to Cannes with the first two movies I produced … that was the pinnacle right there.
HCQ: What’s your philosophy for choosing a project?
NE: My philosophy is really just finding things that inspire you. Then, after that, can you get this made? I love every genre movie. I would make a musical if I could. I just love the process and telling stories. But you got to get an audience to see the movie or you don’t have a chance. You have to have that instinct that you think you know what people want to see.
HCQ: What would your message to the world be?
NE: Storytelling and creativity spread freedom and prosperity. If you can make people laugh or feel emotional through watching a movie, you can reach people. To me, more art, more creativity, more movies, more TV are better for the world. Watch more movies!!Tags: Haunting Melissa, Hollywood, Mulholland Drive, Neal Edelstein, Producer, Storyteller, The Straight Story