Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lazy Sunday # 107: Hot Docs

I’ve always believed that the most logical way to make money from the internet is to give away content for free. While I’m sure that doesn’t make sense to an economist, we’ve repeatedly witnessed the proof.

From bands who’ve launched lucrative careers from a MySpace site to unknown authors with self-printed books to established comedy icons like Monty Python, they all have discovered that, like the least attractive cheerleader on the Pep Squad, if you give it away you can become very popular.

In the case of the Pythons, they resisted advice from their video distributor who wanted to take down content and perhaps even sue all the fans who had posted grainy versions of their old routines on Youtube.

Instead, opting to “give the fans what they want”, the group made their entire library available in crisp HD and optimal sound.

The cash sales of their DVDs rose by an astonishing 23,000 % !!!

What the purveyors and enablers of the Mainstream Media conglomerates, attempting to monetize the internet by requiring Artists to provide content cheaper or free or in a format that only serves their own wholly-owned narrow self-promotional niche, fail to recognize is that you don’t have to make money off every single download, page hit or video link to succeed.

This new media reaches such an exponentially large audience compared to what they have traditionally served, that there are eager consumers far beyond any marketing and distribution models they’ve previously depended upon.

One afternoon earlier this week, a local sports call-in show I’m addicted to fielded calls from Scotland, France and some nameless place in Alaska from fans of the 2nd worst hockey team in the NHL. Two of them made their calls while wearing treasured Toronto Maple Leaf jerseys and had never even set foot in the country, let alone the home arena.

None of the callers had local access to Leaf broadcasts, admitting that they watched Pirate streams or downloaded bittorrent files of the games. Yet they had purchased sweaters and memorabilia.

Maybe the team had lost 2 or 3 cents in revenue by not having these guys as TV viewers. But they made several hundred dollars because somebody liked what they saw and wanted it to be part of their lives.

Hulk Hogan tells a story of realizing early in his career that he was making more money selling “Hulkster” T-shirts out of his van than he was being paid by wrestling promoters to fight. He readily admits that he could have wrestled for free and still earned more than everybody else on the bill combined.

What we’ve got here is not a new phenomena. Little Richard and Bill Haley sold 45’s and autographed 8x10 glossies after their shows. Sometimes it was the only real money they saw from their music after the record companies, management and promoters had taken their piece.

And now, more and more people with a library of product, often product considered without much value, are discovering that by giving it away its value is increasing.

Last year, the National Film Board of Canada made 500 films from its 70 year library available on the net. Everything from Oscar winning shorts to rare historical documentaries to feature films could be accessed and downloaded free via its Screening Room.

That initiative was followed up by an iPhone app which brought this ever increasing menu (now well over 1500 films) to mobile devices. All still free. In fact, if you go to the NFB online store, they’ll even mail you 3D glasses free of charge, so you can watch the 3D material that recently debuted on the site.

Has that hurt profit margins at the NFB? No.

Almost 4 Million video views have taken place since the Screening Room was launched, a third of them from outside Canada. Sales of their DVDs and other offerings have also increased exponentially. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve also seen a growing worldwide interest in the filmmakers who are now reaching a wider audience.

Two years ago, I wrote about Media Guru Rishad Tobaccowala, including one of his most prescient quotes about social networking sites, "Obscurity is the new poverty."

For people hoping to earn money from the internet --- that concept can be expanded to “Accessibility equals relevance”.

People only pay to own what is relevant to their lives. So not everybody who test drives a Toyota or gets a free taste at the Liquor store will follow through with a purchase. But those who do in the internet realm number far more than corporate bean counters seem willing to acknowledge. It’s a crowd which should not be dissuaded by having to pay to discover if the content really matters to them in the first place.

This week, we added a new free library of relevant films. Hot Docs, an initiative of Heritage Canada, offers not only free streaming of scores of the country’s best documentaries but also provides access to additional material to enhance the viewing experience.

One of the best I’ve found so far is “Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel” which chronicles the five year transformation of a downtown Toronto flophouse into one of the city’s trendiest Artist hangouts, exploring all the social and moral issues all of that brings to the surface.

Hot Docs is yet another example of how the distribution barriers between Artists and their audiences are crumbling. It also clearly exhibits the fact that we don’t have to bind ourselves to flailing business models in order to earn a living wage from what we do.

The future is a bright place than it first might appear. Enjoy your Sunday.


Michael said...

I agree. This does appear to be the best model for making money from the internet/new media...... but bring it up in a public discussion just makes content creators foam at the mouth...... I think this has a lot to do with how we create in Canada.... The examples you mention are either producers that have already been paid for their work and are monetizing their back catalogue..... or folks keen to get their careers started, and seeing that giving their work away for free can create the market for future work...... The Canadian system most of us know is to apply for the Canada/Arts Council grant, or Telefilm/HGF/CTF funding before getting down to the creating.... Many would argue that they have spent too many years convincing bureaucrats, broadcasters and producers that they should be paid a fair wage, to suddenly adopt this new give-away model...... but for many production companies with 10+ year old programming that is no longer selling to broadcasters, or languishing on their company website..... this would be a smart way to generate interest and possibly income from past success, without really hurting their bottom line.

Anemone said...

I'm curious as to how this might apply to spec script writers. I've been tempted for some time now to excerpt/serialize some of my more original spec scripts on the internet to see if I can build an audience, but my friends initially advised me not to, because of concerns around plagiarism. Are there situations in which this would definitely NOT be a good idea? I do want to see this stuff filmed at some point, and I'm not sure if this would help or hurt.