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or: Can independent filmmakers make money on the Internet?

The music labels are in a bit a quandary. Prince is giving away his music. Nine Inch Nails tells their fans to steal. Radiohead wants you to pick your own price for their new independently produced album, In Rainbows. Madonna is ditching her record label for a concert promoter. The music labels derive their income from representing talent. Apparently, big name musical talent no longer requires representation. Like I said, quandary.

John Coulton (or JoCo, as folks on teh neterwebs like to call him; typing is hard) isn’t big name talent, at least, not in the way the artists I mentioned above are. The rich and famous can afford to take the risk of cutting out the middle man because, well, they’re already rich and famous. If they try something that flops, no big deal. And the odds of flopping are lower because folks already know their names. But Coulton, an erstwhile software developer has successfully done what few others in the music industry have, namely he’s made a name for himself in music with nothing more than wild creativity and an Internet connection.

From September 05 to September 06, Coulton’s thing a week podcast released one new free song per week. On his site he states that the project was:

[A]n attempt to keep the creative juices flowing as freely as possible, and a way for me to push myself to take risks, work quickly and trust in the creative process. It was also a stunt designed to get people to notice me.

He got noticed. Once, on a trip to Seattle, Coulton unexpectedly found his Saturday night open. He mentioned the opening on his blog, and told his fans that if they could find him a venue, he’d play a show.

Before I’d done that (podcast), when I’d do a show — and it was almost always a New York show — it’d be four friends who’d come out and a couple people who had seen me from other work that I’d done and maybe a couple strangers. But never big crowds. And certainly it would have been impossible for me to go to another city and draw an audience.

The impromptu Seattle show drew 80 people, and Coulton had never been there before. Things had changed.

JoCo releases all his tunes (not just the free ones; he offers many for sale through his site) under a creative commons license that allows fans to share and remix his stuff, as long as it’s for non-commercial use, and they attribute him. The resulting fan creations run the gamut from music videos, to card games. With his name still attached. I don’t know what the marketing geniuses at the record labels call that sort of thing (actually, I think piracy is the term), but ‘free publicity’ doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

Coulton uses eventful.com to decide where he should perform. Eventful users can ‘demand’ a Coulton performance, that is, request that he come to town and play a set. Once demand somewhere reaches a critical mass, he books a venue there and lets his fans know when and where he’ll be playing. This way, he doesn’t have to play empty houses. His fans have already told him they’d be there.

In giving away music, letting fans ‘play’ with it, and having them determine his showtimes, Coulton has forged an entirely new business model for musicians. One that’s not dependent on a label to promote him. His fans do it for him. By many measures, he’s successful. He’s not a super-star like Prince or Madonna (he still has to use two names), but Coulton has carved out a comfortable niche on the music industry success scale somewhere between the Billboard Top 40 and starving artist.

No one is doing this in the movie business

It may be that the cost of entry is still too high. Putting together a camera kit, lighting kit, audio kit, hard drives/backup and editing suite can cost as much as $60,000¹. That’s orders of magnitude cheaper than what large productions use, but still beyond the reach of your average Joe with the next Big Idea™. That figure doesn’t include fees paid to crew or actors. Nor does it cover a plan for marketing and distribution. Let’s not forget that the movie business is, in fact, a business. I can make a movie for WAAAAY cheaper than the studios, but the margin between what it costs to make and profitability is rather large without marketing and distribution; in other words, without the help of the studios. Even if you have noble artistic flimmaking motives, you’re in it to make money, or you’re not in it for long.
Say you and I actually make a movie. We’ve sunk the negative cost². Hopefully we can get our Spice Girls Spy Movie into hot festivals which, in turn, will get it in front of the people who can spend the money on marketing and distribution. Odds are low. Film festivals like Sundance or Toronto receive thousands of entries a year, and show only and handful. And even if you get accepted, there’re no guarantees anyone’ll buy your film.

On the Internet, no one can hear you scream

Do we turn to the webernets? Bandwidth is expensive when we’re talking gigabytes per flick. We could host the thing on YouTube, but there goes the picture quality (why did we spend all that money on a RED ONE?), and how do you make a profit? We could host it for free, and hope that folks would click on the ads surrounding it, but you and I both know that clickthrough rates on web ads aren’t enough to cover our bandwidth costs. We could set up an online store and charge people $x to download it, where x would cover the cost of hosting and bandwidth, but we still haven’t figured out how to recover the negative cost.

And forget about actually getting people to your site. On the Internet you’re virtual needle in a Mount Everest-sized haystack. Or, as Seth Godin said, “No one cares about you. Almost no one knows you exist.”³ Why in the world is someone going to even pay you $x when they’ve never even heard of you? A bet on getting DiggDotted is as good as one on the festivals. And in the meantime, you slowly leak money to your host.

In short, we still haven’t come up with a workable business model that doesn’t rely on the crapshoot of getting into a big film festival or bleeding yourself to death on the internet.

So, great blog brain, what’s the solution? Will there be any JoCo’s of the film industry? Are there already, and I just don’t know about it?

Notes:

  1. This number came together when I investigated actually buying all that hardware. The reason being, that I’d to think I could start a small production company to make my own films, ala Robert Rodriguez. I’m not sure what it would cost to rent this stuff.
  2. Negative cost is an industry term to describe the cost of actually making a movie. In other words, the cost to the producers from blank slate to master negative. Other costs are marketing and distributing, either of which costs a very not-insignificant pile of moolah.
  3. Who’s There, p.5
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