Charting The Wrong Course Through Digital Waters
I just returned from a great weekend in Virginia (everyone should spend time in a house built 50 years before the revolution sometime) and on the drive back I listened to the fascinating breakfast conversation at SXSW between producer Ted Hope, filmmaker Lance Weiler, conference organizer and producer Liz Rosenthal, technologist Brian Chirls, outreach guru Caitlin Boyle, filmmaker Brett Gaylor, producer and Filmmaker Mag editor Scott Macaulay, and journalist & film technologist Scott Kirsner. All are very smart people and the conversation is definitely worth a listen (the audio quality is not great but it’s worth soldiering through).
As I listened to them wrestle with questions relating to finding revenue in a digital age, I got the sense that there was a battle that had been fought and had already been lost. The battle was over payments for content. The semi-consensus view, and one I know Lance in particular espouses, is that the days of people paying directly for content (or at least paying up front) are rapidly disappearing and we should step forward into a share economy (I’m not sure that Scott was totally in agreement, but I don’t won’t to put words in anyone’s mouths). There was much discussion of putting your work out for free and then asking for contributions from consumers and this model, I feel, is akin to going back to the shareware model on computers.
Software started as free and then (as is mentioned in passing during the audio, interestingly enough) became a product to be paid for. Through that transition emerged a third tier of software – the product of independent software developers – that was Shareware. Shareware came in a few different varieties:
- Freeware: Software that was freely distributed and free to be passed around.
- Shareware: Software that was freely distributed but, if you chose to use it, you were asked to pay (on the honor system) a small amount to the creator
- Crippleware: Software that was freely distributed but was limited in its features and, if you wanted to unlock the full features, you paid the creator
This system has some analogies to the ideas being explored by a lot of people in the transmedia world, notably in Brett Gaylor’s “RIP: A Remix Manifesto”. We’ve seen variations of Freeware & Shareware espoused through Creative Commons and even Crippleware from people like Nine Inch Nails with their (ok, “his”) release of Ghosts with higher audio quality and greater numbers of tracks being reserved for paying customers.
What interested me though, was that noone looked at the iTunes App Store as an example of how to bring payments back into the system.
Recently one of the most successful developers of Shareware for the Mac, Pangea Software, announced they were abandoning shareware development in favor of the App Store after the staggering success they’ve found on the pay-to-use platform. Numerous independent developers have had similar success. (Full disclosure and self-promotion, I have two Apps on the store now and more coming) I believe that there are several take-aways we can gain from the App Store example:
- One: When offered a seamless way to pay and affordable, quality content to buy, people will pay for content.
- Two: A seamless system of purchase & usage is vital to a financial model. The App Store only works because of it’s seamless integration with the iPhone. This is the same lesson the record companies failed to learn and why they were crushed by the iTunes music store.
- Three: The consumer must remain conditioned to pay for content. One of the biggest threats to payments for content is that consumers begin to assume content is free. Does this mean legally hunting them down? NO! The RIAA has done a terrible job on that front. What it means is keeping people aware that they can get more reliable content, at better quality, and be more supportive of the creators by paying a small amount.
- Four: We need to coalesce the online market. The single greatest obstacle we have right now is, ironically, the sheer multiplicity of options for where to view content. The App Store works because there is only one. If there were fifty, each with different content, it would be less successful. Blockbuster worked this way when we were bricks & mortar bound. Netflix worked this way when we were DVD-bound. Now we need a new solution. This doesn’t mean there needs to be only one online exhibitor (for why I say exhibitor and not distributor please visit this article on the Filmmaker Magazine blog) but, rather, we need consolidated places to find the content. There are some efforts underway to do just that including SpeedCine and the UK Film Council’s Find Any Film but these are just the beginning.
- Five: Lastly, and this relates directly to point #2 above, we need to have better ways to move our media around. The tyranny of a particular box as viewing platform undercuts any efforts to simplify the process. Boxee and the Apple TV are both good moves in that direction but Boxee is in a tough fight. The studios decided to hamstring Boxee by forcing HULU to pull its content (a move that even HULU thought was wrong) in a ridiculously narrow-minded attempt to keep control of content (and an approach to DRM that is deeply reminiscent of the RIAA’s moronic and self-destructive resistance to iTunes). Until filmed content can seamlessly move from computer monitor to TV screen and back we are going to be behind the eight-ball, as it were.
These are a lot of things to ask but, if it means that content creators can be paid for their work then it is worth it. We need to embrace and fight for the technological innovations that can support our need to support ourselves. While releasing media for free and asking for contributions may work on a micro-scale and/or for the few, amazingly talented promoter/marketers like Lance and Arin, but for many talented filmmakers, it’s not their best skill and they should still be able to make amazing work, pay back their supporters, and earn a living. I do not believe that throwing in the towel and saying we live in a Pirate Bay world now and that we should give up on paid content is the right attitude and doing so will potentially hamstring future generations of content creators in their endeavors to make lives from their work.