Something has been bugging me for the past few months, and it seems like every one or two weeks a new piece of news pops up that makes me think about it even more.
I wrote a long post back in March titled “Thinking About the Entertainment Distribution Channel of the Future” in which I semi-ranted about how broken down and kinda boring traditional television and film has become. There are a large number of notable exceptions (don’t think I dislike the medium as a whole, because that’s not true), but a significant chunk of what I skip through on my TV or don’t bother paying to see in theaters is junk: plain and simple. That show called Hoarders. Cake Boss. “Reality” TV in general. Random, cringe-inducing comedies or dramas. You know what kind of junk is out there, and it seems to me like the amount of junky media far exceeds the amount of good media.
And you know why all of this junk exists? Because it’s popular, shocking, controversial, and easy to sell through the usual channels: theaters and cable subscriptions. The stuff that’s on TV is the stuff that “we” want to watch. It’s the stuff “we” find entertaining, interesting, and mind-numbing when we come home from work. The sad part is that, for a significant chunk of the population, “we” is not “me”. Me? Can’t stand it, throw it away, I don’t want to bother.
Where can I get “me” content easily and skip the stuff that “we” (the majority) choose to fill our heads with?
The Internet: The Physical Media Killer
The Internet. The magical fiber optic cable in the cloud that gives us everything from Nyan Cat to PBS’ Off Book Series (which is really great, by the way). The tech industry/media seems to agree on this point: the internet is someday going to dramatically change the entertainment industry. It changed music, it changed books, it changed news(papers), it’s going to change movies and television. Why wouldn’t it? It has to, right? It already changed everything else, and now we’re approaching internet speeds that make video distribution channels like Netflix possible. Something big is on the way, even though we don’t totally know what yet.
But here’s the problem: the internet is scary. It’s scary for the the old TV/Movie makers because it’s where piracy happens. They’ve been losing money in physical disc sales for many years thanks to the internet (just like music) and they don’t want to embrace it. Fine.
It’s also a scary place for the average internet user. Sure, you can download Game of Thrones somewhere (famously, it’s not available for purchase/viewing online), but your cable provider may monitor you and mail you a warning, or cut off your internet entirely (for now, at least). You also don’t get to pay the people who make the shows/movies that you like (which you should do) if you choose that route. It’s not good for anyone in the relationship except teenagers with enough time to bother learning how to pirate safely.
And, I would argue, it’s a scary place for Independent film/show-makers as well. Not scary like “oh, I’m going to get hacked on the internet” – scary like “I’m not confident that I’d be able to build up a career selling what I make on the web.” Louis C.K. can sell un-DRM’d video of a performance online because he’s a big name in the industry. Some people pirated his video, yeah, but a lot of people bought it simply to stick it to traditional media and say, “hey, look, I’m buying this stand-up show for $5 on the internet and I feel good about it.” What Louis C.K. did was awesome, and the people who bought his video and felt good about it are awesome, but I’m not at all confident that this could work for a 1-hour video of Joe Sandman’s routine in a Bronx comedy club.
Napster wasn’t the right place for the music industry or Indies to thrive, and neither is the Pirate Bay for Movie Studios or Independent Filmmakers, Actors, and Boom Operators just out of college.
So here’s the question: am I crazy for thinking something in this equation needs to change? Just a little, maybe. Right now it’s super easy for lesser-known content-makers to publicize and get the word out about their new video/show/film/routine (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo are a powerful and popular combination) but very few can actually make a decent chunk of money to offset their production costs (both in resources and time). Will we eventually/inevitably see a better way for Indie content-makers to sell their work in the same way software developers do today thanks to the App Store?
Yup. Call me crazy, but I think so. Not everyone will make millions, and plenty of people will only make dimes, but I think a good chunk of people could make far more selling their work in a future Entertainment Store than they could through YouTube or Vimeo today.
Rumblings of the Future
Nothing I’ve read since I wrote that piece back in March has put a dent in this basic idea: content-makers need a better place to sell what they make via the web. It could be through the next Apple TV. Maybe the next Xbox. Maybe the Roku. Maybe all of them at the same time, like the way music or apps are distributed today. Whatever, doesn’t matter, as long as it’s easy for the typical Cake Boss-viewer to get to the things Indies make, we could see a dramatic change in what the average American watches on a day-to-day basis.
Here are just a few of the recent developments that have caught my eye, in mostly random order:
May 2nd: Amazon Studios asks filmmakers to submit scripts for comedies or children’s programming and potentially get $10,000 of funding to make it into a feature-length film. Apparently 7,000 scripts for movies have been submitted to Amazon since November 2010. That’s a lot of un-seen stories.
May 3rd: Discovery Channel buys Revision3 (an online video network, kinda like TWiT.TV) for about $30 million. A pretty interesting move since Revision3′s content is much less expensive to produce but also has far lower profit margins than Discovery’s cable programming.
May 23rd: Conan O’Brien discusses his new show’s embrace of the internet and social media, claiming that it has created a “symbiotic relationship” between him and his fans. He knows that a lot of people don’t watch his show at the usual time, and instead watch it later online, and that doesn’t bother him at all. The thing I take away from this is that, while Conan probably makes something off of content that’s watched online, that income is probably just a fraction of what the show earns through traditional media and commercials. The article mentions that the symbiotic relationship he’s building with his new audience is helping to drive more people to watch it live: where the bigger profit is.
It’s great that Conan is pioneering online content through Teamcoco.com, but I wish that facet of his show was more profitable. Making that content easily accessible from the couch (and not just via AirPlay) might make that happen.
April 13th: YouTube expands their Partner program (which lets you monetize your videos through advertising) to allow users with just one piece of qualifying content to become partnered. This means you don’t have to be extremely popular with hundreds of thousands of views before you have the ability to make money off of what you make. Indies are the ones being targeted with this change. From YouTube’s Creators Blog:
Some videos reach millions of viewers, while others satisfy the appetite of a precise, yet passionate audience…. Partners are already producing videos that draw large and loyal audiences while building careers for themselves. But we know that there are many more creators out there with talents to share, and we want to empower them to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.
April 10: YouTube’s Live Event streaming service (basically Ustream, but less popular) updates with the ability to monetize broadcasts via advertising or pay-to-view. It’s not open to anyone right now (only certain partners can use it), but it’s a step toward incentivizing new, original content. This won’t become popular soon, but eventually I bet we’ll be able to watch every thrilling second of Public Access TV streamed over the internet.
September 19th: Vimeo (which is more popular than YouTube among Indies, it seems) announces a plan to allow content creators to request donations from viewers (before, during, or after a video) or put up a paywall and let viewers buy/rent access to videos.
From The Verge:
By favoring a paid on-demand model instead of traditional advertising, Vimeo says that it is giving creators a chance to monetize their work regardless of viewership size. While video owners are certain to be thrilled by the prospect of new revenue streams, whether or not viewers will be willing to pay a premium for independent content remains to be seen.
They’re right: none of us know for sure whether this will work, but it seems like the industry is willing to try it. There will be some missteps, but I hope that companies like Vimeo don’t write off their (potentially) failed experiments by saying it’s not what people want: the mechanism and UI through which people access these videos is critically important. It needs to be accessible from the couch.
Oh, and an opportunity to monetize work regardless of viewership size sounds pretty spot on with what we’re discussing here. Mainstream is what’s on television: smaller but profitable niches belong to the web. An example? How about…
September 19th: Twitch.tv, a Ustream-like site with a focus on gaming, gets $15 million (in addition to the $8 million they got when they started out) to broaden their eSports live-streaming. They already get over 20 million unique viewers a month, and they’re likely to keep growing.
I liked Leo Laporte’s reaction to this on TWiT, Episode 372 at 1:20:27:
You know what Twitch TV is? You watch people play video games. Who would’ve thought? Who would’ve thought!?!
Exactly. Who would’ve thought? It’s a brand new form of media that only became possible within the last two years, and not something traditional TV studios could’ve come up with. If this kind of thing were easily streamable to your TV, I bet a good number of kids would be watching this instead of more traditional sports. Sports are sports, right? Who would’ve thought?
September 25th: One of YouTube’s original content channels is bought by ABC, and the show, “Recipe Rehab”, will expand to a 30-minute program. This isn’t exactly Indie, but this part from The Verge was interesting:
Everyday Health reportedly gets more than 30 million unique visitors to its various web properties every month, and the company hopes that its new broadcast presence will drive more visitors to its YouTube channel and vice-versa. However, an Everyday Health executive also said that it was “hard for us as a business to be YouTube-only.”
July 26th: Google opens up a studio in London for YouTube filmmakers, designed to help YouTube Creators make more professional videos. Watch the video below: it’s basically the next step for an Indie who wants to make really great things. The dialogue and wording they use is particularly interesting.
April 30th: The New York Times looks into 3 years of Kickstarter projects and finds that people pledged over $60 million for video and film/movie projects, twice as much as the product design category (which is what we mostly hear about through the tech media). Apparently, the average video project got $8,200 and there were over 7,000 of them. I’d say that’s not bad at all.
There’s another interesting point to make here about Kickstarter. Take this randomly selected project, “The Whole Gritty City”, for example. It’s raised $31,502 so far: way above the $20,000 goal they set. It’s a documentary about the New Orleans Marching Bands that participate in Mardi Gras Parades. Who would’ve thought?
Now, imagine if this film were done and finished and had 4/5 stars and 632 reviews in the Entertainment App Store. Would you (or a marching band-loving friend) buy or rent it for a few bucks after work one day? Maybe if a friend told you about it during lunch? Maybe if it was about space exploration, or a documentary on pyrotechnics instead of marching bands?
Well, it looks like at least a few people would, and that could mean the documentary filmmaker gets $100, $500, $1,000, or hopefully even far more for putting the time in to make it. Better than trying to get ad money on YouTube or Vimeo like they do today.
Not every film/show/documentary should be distributed this way: YouTube and Vimeo definitely have their important place as free video distributors like we discussed above (and previously), but I suspect that a lot of these kinds of projects have never been started or uploaded for the world to see simply because there was no way to be rewarded for the work that was put into them. Yeah, maybe a big-shot producer or movie studio would discover you and ask you to come to Hollywood, but there was no Plan B there: you either became famous or you didn’t.
Technology is Helping
Just in the last couple of weeks, two incredibly CGI-intensive short films have come from independent filmmakers you’ve probably never heard of. Here’s the first; Tears of Steel, a crowd-funded project from the Blender team in Amsterdam (Blender is what they used for all the crazy effects):
And here’s the second, Plurality:
These short films aren’t perfect, but there’s definitely a spark of something in them. They’re short, yeah, and their stories are a bit odd, sure, but they’re still very impressive. The people who made these have some serious skills, and with practice, I have no doubt that they could make content that blows away Extreme Couponing in entertainment value and Ghost Hunters in the special effects department (although that’s not very hard).
As technology (cameras, microphones, computers) becomes cheaper and more commonplace, the line between Indie quality and Professional quality will begin to blur, just as it has with software/apps and games.
The writers, directors, producers, and actors that make great films are already out there working at Best Buy, McDonald’s and Starbucks. What isn’t available right now is a way for them to make more than their minimum wages by working on the things they really love: writing, directing, acting, editing, and whatnot. Is it time for something like that to exist? Everything I’ve seen seems to indicate that it’s at least time to try it out.
Will television change in the next 10 years? Yes, that seems to be the majority opinion. Will independent filmmakers play a big part in that? I think so. Technology has finally leveled the playing field, letting us create and distribute professional-quality work through the internet without the corporate overhead. It happened to music, it happened to software, and we’re approaching the time it’ll happen to film and television.
I’m sick of reality TV and tired, old movie clichés. Give me a fascinating new story or a Mythbusters that explores science more deeply than what cable-subscribers care for.
I’d pay for those things. Would you?