Cinematech’s Scott Kirsner shares some thoughts from an online indy-film distributor, Filmbaby.com. Interesting reading, especially the revelation that their top selling film is a 20 year old 16 minute documentary that already had a strong underground cult following- and it’s still only moved 8000 units or so. My short take; online distribution is still a very unchartered bit of water for filmmakers. I’d sum it up as pretty much a “beer money” proposition. It’s better than letting the films sit idle, but you’re not gonna get much more than “beer money” from the deal. It just hasn’t broken into a place where it can be a highly profitable means of building revenue for filmmakers (especially for animators who’s cost of production is usually orders of magnitude higher than your typical digi-video hound). I wonder if it will? For musicians or audio recordings online digital distribution seems to be a bit more solid with the iPod and iTunes driving the market. Two years after its release the video iPod hasn’t kicked online distribution of video or film in the fanny as much as some had hoped, I don’t think. Unless a work is available on iTunes or it’s distributed by a traditional distribution company (via Netflix, et al.) it pretty much falls between the cracks. Fine if your digital film cost you 2 weekends and $1,000 to make with a Sony-cam. Not so fine if it took you 2 years of nights and weekends crafting full art and animation to flesh out that funny idea. The lotto mentality still applies to online distribution of animation- hope to get lucky and make something that just happens to resonate with the public and maybe you can make a few thousand bucks. In that paradigm production value has a highly risky return on investment component. Cheaper Flash product that relies more on verbal humor or extremely crude humor is a less expensive approach (and thus it has lower risks and will continue to dominate the online animated world). Even Jibjab’s famously popular musical riffs, while they hold a higher humor level than the shock-jock mindset, are still pretty low on the animation production value. They (wisely, it seems) put their money into different emphases. Same with Homestar Runner. The persistent theme so far in online distribution is that higher animation production values rarely translate into higher film views and thus, higher revenues. It seems that even advertisers and sponsors have figured this out as well. Why pay a lot for high quality production value in animation if cheap but verbally funny gets you the same amount of notice? By all appearances in the online world a funny 3 minute short film lovingly lit, professionally acted, shot on film, edited on an Avid and scored by professional composer has zero competitive advantage over a grainy 30 second mini-DV cam video of a kid crashing his skateboard on Ebaum’s World. Absolutely none. There’s next to no pay-off for visually rich online content right now.
The really scary idea: the price structure for online content has solidified at a position only slightly above free and it’s only going to go down from there. Those who would make content for this medium will need to find a way to get their production costs down to as close to zero as possible. In that world I think puppetry is a better online product than animation.