OK, let’s begin by establishing some things.
Currently, by the standards of independent (actually independent) filmmaking, I’m fucking Steven Spielberg. I’ve made two films, BBS and GET LAMP, which are not even films – one is a box-set miniseries and the other is actually three documentaries combined with a coin. They’re films++, a reflection of various childhood influences which I will go into shortly. The two films have grossed (versus netted) six figures apiece. I am my own distributor. I am my own agent. I am my own packaging and art director. My subjects are specific and niche and in both cases, the films stand as the defacto baselines of the cinematic meditations on the subject. I am, by most standards, a wild success. Therefore, if I’m saying anything now, I’m saying it within the guise of the guy who has actually succeeded at making independent films.
And let me make clear, independent using the word independent and not the bullshit term Independent which means “we want to be just like Hollywood but Hollywood won’t return our calls so we’ll just be assholes by our own selves and WOO HOO HOLLYWOOD CALLED SEE YOU SUCKERS”. I’m afraid to coin a new term for people who are making films who are not part of some vast Hollywood-wannabe network, because then that will be used. So I’m saying I’m that independent where you are literally just some person with a camera and a computer. And you make a movie or something. That one.
Here, then, are my predictions for the coming years:
- It will be strange to buy physical media for your entertainment by 2013. Strange like buying a CRT TV for your house, or buying vinyl records. You will do it, because you’re of a certain type, but you will be in a fun little minority and it will be an effort to acquire the physical media. Right now, it’s just annoying. Within a few years, it’ll be pretty strange. Eventually it will be totally weird.
- There will be a relatively small number of networks for distributing entertainment media to stuff. Probably not more than a dozen, and #11 and #12 will be like visiting the Mojave Phone Booth.
- These networks, by and large, are going to fuck the media creator, hard. I mean, really, really hard. Left with boxer shorts in mouth up against a dumpster hard.
- To survive, films that are not locked into these networks in some way are going to be even more pathetic and desperate than they are.
Let me quickly jump back to how I make films, which are a very specific way and which either gives me some authority or diminishes it, depending on your point of view.
I make extremely geeky films that take years to craft that attempt to be exhaustive, human-oriented narratives brought out of countless interviews of technically-astute people. Not content to merely assign a bunch of pre-fitted spoken narrative from an announcer over slowly-moving slides, I attempt to bring in the voices and the accompanying material a sense of what caused this event or subject to happen. I leverage current technical limitations to make very large bodies of work, in the multiples of hours in length, and provide them as a finished, massive package which itself is an integration of the values and themes of the subject.
That has the potential to sound like crap to people, but it’s what I’d put at the bottom of some statement when I was required to make a statement. Now let’s rip it apart.
Because I have a strong sense of wanting a range of voices, that means I have to travel and interview those voices, i.e. people. Because I want to integrate all their speaking in a way that makes sense, it ends up being many months of editing (BBS was roughly 10, GET LAMP roughly 9) to get things to just “work” like they do. And because I have some sort of weird attitude about craft, the packaging for these finished works is borderline insane in terms of quality.
When the price of the most recent film, GET LAMP, came out ($40, plus shipping), a wide variety of people responded negatively. I’ve saved a few for your edutainment.
- “45 dollars? What if you just want to see the documentary, not experience it and get all sorts of swag? To someone who is just interested in documentaries about gaming, and not specifically text based adventures and ridiculous swag, this is sort of a slap in the face.”
- “That is great, but what an evil price tag. It is likely to eat me.”
- “it’s a ridiculous price point, basically begging people to pirate it”
- “I have no idea who this dude is – I’d probably give it a shot for 4/5 bucks for an online rental but at $40, I won’t even consider it and will have forgotten it exists by tomorrow, which is a shame”
- “I can appreciate attention to detail but who would want to watch something that long? On a subject like BBSs and Text based games? Guy needs to hire an editor to reign that shit in”
- “$45 = blow me”
- “Ouch. Geez. I was really excited about this, but not really $45 excited. Maybe in a year or so they’ll release a coin-less cheapy edition.”
- “I might be willing to pay a small fee for a downloadable version, but $40 is kind of insane.”
I have to point out these are real, from forums, and every single one was written with absolutely no knowledge of what the final product would be; they came out months before the movie was ever released.
Instead of coming into their homes at night to strangle them (and at least three have double-bolted windows, so what’s the point), I’m mostly bringing up this collection of saucy quotes to point out what’s going on here: the film, the idea of film, is rapidly becoming devalued. Not just devalued; decimated.
A lot of people talk about Netflix like it’s the natural place for this to all end up. If they don’t want a copy of BBS to pay for and watch, they’ll just “wait for it to come out on Netflix”. After watching dozens of people say this, along with accompanying language, I’ve determined a lot of people don’t understand what Netflix is anymore. They think it’s some sort of iTunes. It’s not iTunes. iTunes is a whole different set of problems, but iTunes works by a royalty system – Netflix most certainly does not, unless you’re in such a huge position as a film library that Netflix has nervously sent some people over to your office to negotiate with you. Netflix is not sending anybody over to the TEXTFILES.COM offices to negotiate with me.
Should BBS ever end up on Netflix, I will get $40 for each copy they buy, and then I will never see money from it again. That people would think that a $9.99/month fee to Netflix (now less than that for a streaming-only license) is somehow imbued with royalties, that somehow that tenner gets split among the dozens of films you watch that month, strikes to me at the heart of what’s going on – a greater and greater insulation of cost versus value.
I am at this point convinced that a large amount of audience have little or no idea of what it costs to make a film. I’ve encountered folks who literally think the cost is the physical media of printing the DVD and the packaging, and if they download a copy at zero, my costs are therefore zero, and we’re quits. I’ve been informed what my movie should cost and the next set of calculations are based on that should. And I’ve encountered a lot of strange ideas over what exactly constitutes a fair price – and the crime I am committing not holding to it.
And can you blame people, when movies are available for $2 or a game goes on sale for $1 or entire albums are handed away for free? It’s nice and all, and the buffet is delicious, but the result is that an actual piece of work that represents years of effort ends up providing a ball-smack-level of sticker shock.
So the two solutions are obvious. Make no profit, or make shittier movies.
Here’s a good place as any to give you this letter. It was sent to me; not written as a “open letter” or as a thinly-veiled reference to me or on some message board deep out of site behind a registration-only wall. This was written specifically to me as the filmmaker.
Just thought I would shoot you an email letting you know in my opinion 45 dollars is way too much money. You know this will be up on TPB with high rez scans of all the feelies and crystal clear copies of the films within the month. You even have an account on there, so you know it will happen. I love Infocom games, and I love text adventures, and this documentary sounds amazing. Yet being a young kid on my way off to college I have no way to justify buying this product for 45 dollars. I’m really sorry, but I felt since I cannot afford to monetarily reimburse you, I would express my appreciation and thanks at you creating such a labor of love. Hopefully one day I will see it (it hasnt been seeded just yet) but until then, thank you very much and hopefully there are more deep pocketed IF fans out there than cheap college bound kids. My recommendation is that you make just the film a free download, provided you donate at least 5/10 dollars through paypal, and then leave the “deluxe elven quality” package at 45 dollars (one in which no grues were harmed in the process of filming of course). I, being as cheap as I am, would even donate and I feel that a lot more people would too. Look around for articles about your film and the comments invariably say that 45 bucks is too much. For a documentary about a genre of gaming in which the only simple and complete way to get copies, of more than the most mainstream of titles and in modern day formats, is through pirating the Unofficial IF collection you must know most of your audience today will be familiar with torrenting. I really hope you make some money off this and I really cant wait to see it, but for $45 dollars I will wait. Best of luck and sorry to chew your ear off!
You’ve got to really put this one up on the lift and root around under it to see where it is coming from and where it’s trying to take me. Again, this was sent directly to me, an education from someone half my age explaining how the world works; he felt I needed to understand this, this idea of what things really “cost”. His business model, a sort of begging freemium, is well established and predates him by a while, but his interest in me going that way is by explaining to me, in no uncertain terms, that not only should I do it this way, that if I don’t, I will be pirated. (As a side note, a high-res scan of the gold coin is not yet as good as the gold coin, but he seems to think otherwise.)
I am less specifically interested in the kid himself than what he represents – an idea that things are inevitable, that films of a specific quality just happen, that they should all go to a $5/$10 optional payment, and it will all work out, like a game of Super Mario Brothers. That in a world where you “will” end up on The Pirate Bay, that people will gravitate towards payment regardless, and not just consider your work a part of the background, another thing to play for 15 minutes until moving onto the next shiny button. I think he’s right that I am going to encounter more and more of his type, who do not just consider these works to be side-effects of the ecosystem of technology, but not, in the greater sense, worth any more than anything else. A movie as ringtone; a song as system beep; a book as forum post.
We did this already. His name was Roger Corman.
Roger Corman made (and makes) shit films. They are shit. They are truly, honestly, shit. That they occasionally are not shit is mostly a result of several factors not related to the making of the movie. Any aspects in which they are not shit, such as the director or the actors or crew, quickly abscond to greener, non-shit pastures as soon as is feasible. He was/is a leg up into a tough industry, but a could-die-anytime car is a leg up into moving to a new city, and not what you want to be driving around once you’re in that city. So again… shit.
But what they also were are cheap. Super cheap. Cheap cheeeeaaapppppp, re-use paper plates and wash plastic cutlery cheap. Films shot in 2-3 days. Shot for less than fifty thousand dollars. One of my favorite Corman tricks is to place a camera in an open space and film four scenes, one after another, by turning the camera 90 degrees between takes. You end up, inevitably, with four different backgrounds and the setup time is trivial. You get things done in 12 hours that used to take five days.
This is an environment where great stuff can happen, to be sure, but it is also a place where you are guaranteed a lot of excruciatingly awful stuff will happen. But goddamn, that stuff is cheap. Sell that for five bucks a head and you’ll not lose a dime.
What I’m saying is, if you degrade the meaning of media to the point that you expect, nay feel the need to write the filmmaker should he decide to charge for his work, you will get Roger Corman. You will not get me. If you get someone like me, you will get one film out of them, one that cost them a lot of money but which they are very proud of. But they won’t be able to go another round – there’s no money to do it with.
If I sound like the cantankerous old guy in this entry, I’m sorry. I go out of my way to be upbeat about the whole thing, about all the good stuff done and when amazing things happen and when I see brilliant work out there. I’ll bring you news of cool stuff where the cost is free to you; just go watch this short documentary film. It’s great! It’s beautiful! And it’s free!
But it’s 8 minutes long. It has one person talking. It brings in absolutely no money for the creators, and it may or may not ever have a follow-up. It certainly has little chance of ever seeing a DVD, or getting subtitles, or bonus features provided for you.
But it’s free.
Welcome to the future.
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