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Monday, February 09, 2009

Big vs. Small: Who's Better Positioned Right Now?

A lot of times when I've written about some interesting little Internet experiment that has generated $50,000 or $100,000 for the creative person behind it, someone will e-mail me to ask, "Yeah, OK, but how does that support the media industry? A movie studio can't pay its security guards for a week on that kind of money."

Good point.

I'm very confident about digital media's ability to support individual creators, doing the kind of work they want to do, often on tightly-constrained budgets. (Constraints = inventiveness, right?)

I'm less confident that it will support the same gargantuan, diversified companies that raked in the big bucks in the days when there were only four TV networks, six movies released every weekend, a dozen important records issued on Tuesday.

This David Carr column from today's NY Times is worth a read, because it highlights this issue: the wind is right now at the little guy's back. The piece focuses on the music industry, but it could very well be about movies or book publishing, or any other media endeavor.

One example it cites of an individual artist figuring out a way to get by in this new environment is Jill Sobule. I've been a fan of hers since the mid-1990s, and I had a chance to interview her for my forthcoming book.

Here's an excerpt from the Times story:

    After listening to her fans, she came up with an updated version of the Medici model. To raise the $75,000 she needed for an album, she set up a Web site — — in which her fans would serve as patrons for her next record in return for various rewards.

    Ten bucks earned them a digital download of the record, $50 an advance copy and a thank you in the liner notes, while $1,000 got them a personalized theme song written by the artist. Three people who paid $5,000 had Ms. Sobule play at their house. The person who gave $10,000 sang on the record.

    If it sounds cheesy, like a virtual Tupperware party, consider that the record was produced by Don Was, who has produced Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The sessions, recorded in Hollywood at Henson Recording Studios, were available for streaming and comment on Ms. Sobule’s Web site before she chose the final songs. (One listener’s verdict? More cowbell, please.)

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  • The idea is a good one. The movie studios are too top heavy. Basing their basic economic model on the opening weekend gross is little better than shooting craps in Vegas.

    But $50k-$100k does not really fly for filmmakers and this is how it differs from indie musicians - the number of people involved in the content creation. An indie album might have up to a dozen people involved. Last indie feature film (budget $75k) I produced had over three times that. None of the talent was pulling a wage from it. They were volunteering for the experience. Most of use waived our normal fees just to see the project get completed. My friends who do horror movies work with similar budgets. Most of their cast works for peanuts which they didn't mind until these guys sold one of their movies for $250k.

    What I'm trying to say is that making a film is also a job...not just an adventure in artmaking. If you don't pay the people involved, you are diminishing the importance of their contribution.

    I remember my friends and I at film school estimating the in-kind of "El Mariachi". It ended up being around $500k not including Sony's $250k rebuild of the soundtrack.

    I'm not saying you can't be a one person or two person show and make a movie that shows a profit at $50k, but for the most part, this kind of return on investment is screwing somebody out of a living wage.

    By Blogger GBH, at 11:05 AM  

  • Great article, I think your insights are spot on. GBH brings up a good point about needing larger budgets for films then music, but the concept is still the same. Small nimble studios should be able to outmaneuver the big guns. When it comes to films, it may be harder for a single person to replicate what's going on in the music industry, but I also think that online video is changing what it means to be a filmmaker. With a Flip video camera and a little creativity, a single individual could easily create lots of shorter clips that can collectively produce more revenue then a single film. It's not easy to turn it into a business, but at least that opportunity exists now.

    By Blogger Davis Freeberg, at 1:09 PM  

  • The living wage argument is not really relevant to a film that makes $50K - $100K - yes, of course not too many people can get paid a lot of $s from that amount. However, the next time that filmmaker makes a movie, he/she can probably assume that their new movie might also make similar kind of money & spend accordingly - maybe spend like $25K - $40K making the movie, pay everyone who works on the movie something - at that budget level it would be a part time, project based employment thing for everyone in the cast & crew. Anyway, you build from early earnings & try to get to a point where you can spend $100K-$200K or more when you make the movie - paying everyone a "living wage" for the time that they work on the movie.

    Movies are ABSOLUTELY art projects. Anyone who does not think so just desparately wants to make Hollywood money - and that's totally cool too, but, as many people who are not making H-wood money knows, tought to do. But, from a purely creative standpoint, movies are art - & if people choose to make them even if they don't make any money from it, that's totally cool.

    Bottom line, in my opinion, a small flick being able to turn a $50K profit is awesome. A great starting point. Most small businesses in America would love a $50K - $100K profit from just one of their projects (well, at least most small businesses that I know - including the one that employs me).

    - Sujewa

    By Blogger Sujewa Ekanayake, at 1:25 PM  

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