Tuesday, May 12, 2009

monetizing "Sita Sings the Blues"

Over on Cartoon Brew there's an interesting, intelligent and civil debate regarding Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues- and specifically the challenges of making any money from a feature film that is given away freely via a Creative Commons license.

Copyright is at a crossroads. The very foundation of its power has been destroyed- namely, the ability to control when, where and how a work of art is experienced by the public. The crack in the armor of copyright has existed for decades. People have been making bootleg VHS tapes or DVDs of movies and cassette tapes and CDs of music for 30 years. But the internet has taken this crack and blown it wide open into a massive gaping wound. People now have a cheap and worldwide distribution channel to send those copies - at high quality- all around the world with a few simple clicks. Pandora's box is open. As a broadcast and distribution system the internet is over 15 years old and still nobody has found a way to successfully tame this beast. By now it is beyond control. Tip at those windmills all you want, Don Quixote. They will not fall. Content will find it's way 'out there' no matter what. From the perspective of building an audience and a following you couldn't ask for a better scenario. From the perspective of making money, you couldn't ask for a worse one.

There are probably a billion internet users in the world- all consuming media and just about all of them doing so for free. The internet has tattooed the idea onto the cultural subconscious that media is free for the taking and requires no tangible expression of value in return. We can try to find a way to change this (and lots and lots of folks are really trying), but I'm about 97% convinced that it is a lost cause.

So what's left? The business model for creatives in an online world consists of a few loosely connected constructs. Selling artifacts of the creation, selling some kind of a personal experience or relationship with the creator and basically relying on the charitable kindness of strangers. Will this be enough? Ancillary merchandise is indeed a money maker, but is it a core money maker? Is it enough to keep the business moving forward as an uninterrupted going concern, making new works of art and being a viable entity in the marketplace? I have my doubts. If this were a viable core business model then Disney would issue free admission to every movie they make and set up toy stands and trinket carts in the lobby and pay the theater owners from those proceeds.

Currently the most common (and successful) business model comes in the form of parlaying our personal reputations as creators into something people really value (ie: PAY FOR), while we make our art in our spare time. Nina's monetary success or failure with SSTB is a very big test case. The real litmus test for me will not be if she makes a nominal profit from SSTB. The real test will be whether or not the funds from SSTB will afford her the opportunity to make another film in the near future, and then another after that. The world is a better place when Nina Paley is making films, not when she's doing 'other things' to pay the bills. I'm pretty sure she believes the same. I spend the bulk of my time running a teaching business for animation, and precious little of it actually animating or creating new films. 15 years ago as an aspiring animated filmmaker I worked a day job and animated on my films at night. Today I still work a day job and animate at night. I just like my day job better now, that's all. ;) However my concern is that the internet will reduce filmmakers, artists and creators to perpetual hobbyist status. We'll all end up virtual street performers, our PayPal Donate buttons the digital equivalent of a hat on the sidewalk.


Dennis S said...

Amazing coincidence. I just downloaded Sita Sings The Blues this morning and finished watching it. I really enjoyed it. And one of the first things that entered my mind is, "Can an artist really survive or even thrive the way that Nina Paley is going?"

As a professional animator/independent animated filmmaker, I'm always torn between working to make a living and creating animation that I really am personally invested in. The truth is I'm far from convinced that Nina Paley and others like her are going to be successful.

But one can always hope...

MikeBelanger said...

You realize Creative Commons isn't about 'free' as in 'free of charge' necessarily. Its about balancing the rights of the creator and consumer.

This means a balance of proprietorship as well as free stuff. You still charge people to see Sita in a theatre, or buy a DVD. There's
also merchandise opportunities as well, not just a paypal button.

Keith Lango said...

Creative Commons is like ice-cream. It comes in a lot of flavors. If you read on Nina's site you'll see that she is releasing the film absolutely free. As in no control whatsoever over anybody monetizing, adapting, altering or copying it. If I wanted to I could make and sell a Sita DVD. Or I could make a Sita children's book and sell it. Or I could make Sita edible undies and sell them. Or I could make my own short film using her Indian shadow puppets and sell those. Or I could set up a screening of Sita in some theater, hire traditional Indian dancers and a band and have a cultural night and charge admission. All without giving her a single dime. Anything. If you read her site you'll see the way she's going about it is wide, wide open.

billburgNYC said...

The last two sentences of this post give form to some nebulous thoughts I've been trying to articulate to myself for some time, without success. With all the amazing opportunities the internet brings for animators, I wonder whether an economic mechanism will exist to foster the creation of the kind of labor-intensive films that gave us Hollywood animation's golden age. To be certain, the fact that technology has allowed Nina Paley to create and distribute this highly personal work virtually single-handedly is cause for celebration. Yet I wonder whether we will see a future where the economy of creation and distribution is such as to make creating something like "Dumbo" all but impossible.

Thanks for the great post, Keith. I really like reading these "business" posts, though you and Mayerson are among the few I know about writing them.

Brian Roberts said...

The topics you're discussing in this post weigh on me more and more every day.

Part of me wants to say "They were convinced in the 50's that Movies were going to go away because of TV, and they were wrong, so you're wrong too. Mass Media distrib. as we know it will continue to flourish and thrive" But I think that's a foolhardy excuse not to face facts.

I look to the comic industry as a bit of a guide... More creators creating more content for less financial reward as the segments fracture further and further.

I think there will continue to be 'massive' entertainment, that appeals to a broad-based audience made on a very high budget (Things like Kung Fu Panda, Lost, Dark Knight, etc etc.) but more and more, as you say, filmmakers and animators will end up as hobbyists.

Honestly, in the face of both this and a trend in the 'middle ground' of mass media away from concerns such as quality (of performance, artistry, etc.) I believe the best thing for 'artists' such as us, if we want to continue creating our art, is to prepare ourselves (and our families) to live lives economically well below 'normal'.

For many of us the choice will be to either work a full time job doing something else and create at night (And frankly, raising three kids my life is pretty full even when I'm NOT creating at night) OR to order our lives and finances so we can support ourselves on a part-time income and spend the rest of the 'work day' creating.

If you happen to strike it rich on one of your creations, GREAT! But You shouldn't plan your life around it, and I don't think we should sit around waiting for someone to plop a million bucks and a distribution deal in our lap before we make a single finished frame of film.

Gary said...

Simple lesson for the Lone Animator: Don't use other people's music in your "masterpiece". You can't afford it.

That's a lame move anyways.

Are you aware that a revolution similar to that which has occured with animation has also occured with music, that one person who knows what he's doing can compose, orchestrate, mix, and record music which, if done well, can be indistinguishable from a live orchestra? Or a big band? Or a jazz combo? There are various sampled audio packages that make this possible. Garritan Personal Orchestra, for example, or the Jazz and Big Band package. Either costs $199.00. Go listen at www.garritan.com

So make your own damn music. Can't?Then go over to the music department at your local University and get permission to post a notice saying, "Animator seeks composer for film score". Don't you think it would be a lot more fun and rewarding to work with a musical collaborator than to lift music out of your CD collection?

MikeBelanger said...

You answered your own question Keith!

Creative Commons comes in many flavors. SSTB imho, didn't choose the best flavor, and doesn't represent the future of every indie/small animator out there. While I think SSTB is a remarkable achievement, I doubt its sustainability.

Elephant's Dream/BBB are a little better in terms of a business model, imho. Everyone working on that were compensated and supported, and the movie's demands benefited the entire Blender community. They still used Creative-commons licensing.

Anonymous said...

I'm worried with the thought of, will more and more people stop going to the theaters and stay home and watch the boot legged digital copy on their giant cheap HD flat screen t.v.?