Editor's Note: This article was originally posted as a four-part series on Hope For Film.
By Jim Cummings
In 2011, a speaker at a reputable film festival said to an audience of filmmakers, “the best part about making movies today is that anyone can make movies, and the worst part is also that anyone can make movies.” I turned to inspect the audience because I wondered, as I do still, to whom he was speaking? How could it ever be good for artisans that everyone can make art? What realtor or travel agent is thrilled by new advancements in global connectivity and the democratization of their work? We are all the victims of an imploding digital revolution and although many seem confused about what this means for our future, and the pursuit of film as a career, I’d like to be honest about my experiences in the economics of art, where we seem to be heading, and how we might survive the fallout.
Our first short film was seen by over a million people in 140 counties. We recently completed our first feature, screened it at notable film festivals, were approached by distributors, made the front pages of highly trafficked news and video sharing sites, and we are considered successful by many of our peers. In any other industry similar signs might indicate success, but we still have yet to make a dollar from our artwork. Our degrees have cost us 90 thousands dollars a piece, and we have spent the last 4 years in debt for our decision to pursue this craft. Can you imagine if I told you that this was our experience in becoming carpenters? And yet, we are surrounded by a culture that relentlessly encourages a pursuit of the Arts.
The truth is that every year millions of students are graduating off of a cliff, looking for jobs that do not exist, and relying upon paychecks that are becoming increasingly rare. Members of the EU met last week to discuss Europe’s youth unemployment epidemic, what to do with this “lost generation”, and how to fix it.
But there is no fixing it, and here is why:
The invention of the typewriter revolutionized the written word. Schools were founded to teach typing, jobs became plentiful, and an industry was created. People’s livelihoods were founded upon operating these machines and then the American Typewriter was released and it became cheap and easy to type and the entire industry, many years after it’s creation, imploded. Although typing has never been more popular, can you imagine paying someone to type for you? Having devoted their lives to this job, what should the typists do now? You can be certain that people are asking themselves these very questions with respect to the digital revolution, their future livelihoods were based upon technologies that are now or are soon to be outdated, and they worry that they are as well. The modern typewriters are among us, they are digital photo and video cameras, digital music, video, and photo editing software, as well as all other modern technology that makes something we used to pay people for, easier and more accessible, or in other words, 'less work'. Video production, like typing, has the same future.
This happens naturally. Moore’s law is the mathematic observation that our technological capabilities double roughly every 18 months, which means that we can always expect exponential advancements in industries until nearly all jobs are replaced by technology. In the film industry, with cameras becoming cheaper and easier to use, we can expect that video will only become more democratized until every person in every country is able to participate, adding to the already staggering 24 hours of footage that is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Although this is very promising for the diversity of art on this planet, and is no doubt a global good, it is not promising for anyone that expects to feed their children through a career in film. Jobs are disappearing because the gap between the professional and the average consumer is getting smaller, faster, every day.
Many believe that our governments are in charge of creating jobs, as if that’s their job, or as if they have influence over technological advancements that naturally delete them. As of 2013, the Golden Gate Bridge has no tollbooth operators, they were replaced by a digital camera and online payment system. There is less traffic, shorter commutes, and less tollbooth operators to breathe our exhaust all day. Should our government rehire these people? Should they also hire workers to fan the exhaust out of the tollbooths? It would certainly create more jobs, but the truth is that that job is now unnecessary, and so are the workers, and so will we be.
The Jobs section of Linkedin.com is extremely helpful when it comes to building an online resume and submitting to new jobs. The website creators have built in a helpful feature that displays the number of other applicants, giving you an idea of the job’s popularity and your chances of being hired. Job listings in video production throughout the US have by and large the highest number of applicants ranging from 200 to 600 applications per position. This is due to the modern availability of digital video cameras and the growing surplus of workers who are able to fill these positions. Filmmakers’ chances of finding work online are smaller than workers’ in any other industry.
Unemployed, I once explained the shortcomings of the digital revolution to my parents as follows: you’re to imagine yourself fresh out of law school, having just passed the bar exam, and working as a clerk of court to pay off exorbitant student loans. You are now to imagine that the laws have changed so there is no need to pass the Bar and people are able to practice in your state from all over the world. “Could you go on being a lawyer?” I asked.
My father, always thinking, replied "what if you could get Beyoncé to perform a striptease online, and promote it, and charge people a thousand dollars to watch it. Surely that would sell." My mother eyed him from the passenger seat,
"Why would anyone pay for something that will be online tomorrow for free?"
THE PROBLEM WITH PIRACY
The amount of digital piracy in a country is correlated to the average internet speed. It would be very time consuming to download Avatar on a dial-up modem, so many in El Salvador will have to buy a hard copy, but Americans often watch movies online for free simply by googling the movie’s title followed by the word “streaming”. As if this isn’t already easy enough, advancements in internet speeds will only make watching movies for free easier, or in my opinion, ubiquitous.
In 2010, a filmmaker friend of mine raised 125,000 dollars from family and friends for a feature film. He submitted it to festivals, received glowing reviews from hundreds of media outlets including Indiewire and Variety, and premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. A reliable distributor bought the film, promising a small theatrical release and contractually guaranteed revenue from future sales. Again, this sounds a great deal like success and many filmmakers dream of being in this position; a Hollywood deal, signs of interest, and the potential for financial return and future projects. Months later however, the distributor released the film for sale on iTunes and within days the movie was popping up on free streaming websites like putlocker.com. Within 1 month the film had countless views and it still lives illegally online for free. Many filmmakers suffer this fate, unable to recoup their investment because of the nature of the internet. This is not solely a failure in business, this is a failure to understand the value of art in the digital age. If all that it takes to separate a filmmaker from revenue are the odds against one person uploading a copy of their movie to the internet, then the future of film is only growing more unpromising.
Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Steven Soderberg have recently spoken at engagements about the terrible state of the film industry, (we can only wonder who guards their piles of money when they climb down from them to speak) and yet none of these successful businessmen enlightened the world to the obvious fact: that it is not the film industry that is collapsing, but the value of video, that overwhelming supply has devalued it as a whole, that cameras in every phone will only further push it off the cliff, that people are becoming less likely to pay for moving images in a rectangle, and that there is no stopping it.
How should we cope with this future?
THE DREAMER’S DISEASE
Many of our peers seem to have rifts in their thinking about the digital revolution, that our future is uncertain, but that considering the negatives might distract from the steadfast pursuit of our work and thus lessen our chances of success. Does considering the reality of our own deaths prevent us from pursuing our lives or living them to the fullest? Of course not, so let's stop deceiving ourselves that the death of the industry is not a real problem that deserves real answers.
Here is one:
There are many new ways to make money as an independent artist, but it is unlikely that we will make it from our future audiences. In the last year, new ways to approach releasing videos online have made it easier for artists to screen their work for free and still receive adequate funding. The show South Park has been pirated and streamed illegally online for years. South Park did not ignore this, they recognized the problem, created their own streaming site, and partnered with companies like Jack In The Box to stream in HD for free, provided that commercials played throughout the episodes. They weakened the blow of the pirates, made sure that their fans had incentive to visit their site, and all it took was speaking with outside parties for financing. Why can’t we do this?
It would be terrible if commercials plagued feature films, but they may not have to. Videos appear online as a thumbnail of the uploader's choice and when it is shared that thumbnail appears on websites and facebook pages. Even without watching the video, this rectangle that filmmakers design appears to anyone that happens upon it. The number of times that the frame appears far outnumbers its views and that data is made available on Vimeo.com. This seems to be an untapped resource for artists to partner with companies and feature advertising of their choice. It is a simple method that can actually lift artists out of debt, excite modern viewers, beat the pirates, and allow us to interact directly with our audience and financiers, and it is as easy as a phone call to a PR department.
Here is another:
The comedian Louis C.K. terminated his relationship with ticketmaster because it repeatedly overcharged audiences for shows. He began selling tickets through his website at the constant price of 45 dollars, even on show nights. He did this to attack ticketmaster, the scalpers, and to ensure fairness for his audiences. This has become a new ideal, to change the system on our own, but this method is only possible for established artists. Louis C.K. has 2.5 million twitter followers, which may indicate why this business model is working so well for him. If he tweets, ‘Buy tickets for my New York show here…’ he has a much better likelihood of a sell-out crowd than most of us.
There is a mutual benefit to making art this way, building your own art community for reciprocal gain, and it is far more achievable than wasting our time hoping for a movie deal. There is solid ground following in these footsteps; work on smaller projects, build a following, run a fundraiser for your next piece, and most importantly use the technology to put money into your pocket, not vice versa.
Should schools still charge so much for things that you can learn on youtube for free? Will anyone be able to in 20 years? When the time comes for my generation to send their children to college, what will they think about the value of an arts education? How can we construct the landscape of the internet to better guarantee opportunities for artists? The current atmosphere is bound to negatively effect future generations, and we owe it to them to fix these problems now.
It would seem that the answers are simple, unique media encryption needs to be implemented on iTunes and Youtube so artists can hold their thieves accountable, Netflix needs to allow users to submit films instead of just distributors, movie theaters need to allow the moviegoers to choose what is playing (not the corporations), and the Academy Awards need to allow for the consideration of films that premiere online. These changes seem obvious, but they can only be made from the top.
If we do nothing and continue to gamble our time and money while dreaming of a viable future, we will only lessen our likelihoods of success and become even larger victims of these pyramid schemes. We cannot allow the industrialization of art to make so much from us when they contribute so little. It is time to rebel, to release films for free and to seek our own monetization. We have arrived at the Gold Rush to find the mines emptied, now is the time to circle the wagons and to fight for it.