Saturday, April 14, 2007

Writers, Gatekeepers and Distribution

This will probably be the last post for about a week due to several competing obligations. However, there are some things I'd like to point out that are worth reading.

Evan Gore left a comment on my entry on character sympathy that led me to the Animation Writer's Blog which he contributes to. You're undoubtedly aware of John K's stance on animation writers and this blog represents the response of some writers.

That blog led me to, the site of writers Andrew Nicholls and Darryl Vickers, who have written for live action and animated TV. There are two things there very much worth reading about the interference that TV writers regularly suffer from those above them in the hierarchy. The short article (a downloadable pdf file) is "The Nevermending Story." The other piece is a 288 page book (also a downloadable pdf) called Valuable Lessons, chronicling their careers and which unfortunately degenerates into a torrent of stupidities that have rained down on their heads. These writers are obviously far better than the work that they're allowed to do and while my experience in TV is tiny compared to theirs, what happened to them rings true to me.

Finally, the ever-useful Scott Kirsner points to this article in Variety about a feature producer working to distribute purely through the internet. There's no question that it isn't a mature distribution medium yet, but the existing alternative is hardly an alternative at all.
"We knew we didn't have the quality to stand up to a theatrical release," Nelson says. "But we got five offers from DVD distributors." Nelson, however, was shocked by the deal terms, which were typical: No advance without a star or a decent budget. No piece of the backend. The distributor hangs on to its rights for seven to 10 years. And when they sell the DVD on the Internet via Amazon or Netflix, the distrib takes 25% of the gross and subtracts all expenses, including replicating and supplying DVDs and marketing. (Netflix won't take any films without a distributor.)

Nelson was amazed, too, by the distributors' lack of accountability. "They send quarterly reports by country," she says, "But they don't tell you how many units they sold. They don't keep track by film. They don't have systems or bookkeeping capabilities. There's no such thing as making money. What you get upfront is what you are going to see."
I keep saying this and you're probably sick of reading it. Under the old system, before the internet, distribution was scarce. This led to gatekeepers who sifted through thousands of potential projects and picked the ones that they thought would sell. Inevitably, they picked material that had already sold or resembled material that had already sold. The good thing about this system was that the gatekeepers had money, so if you were picked, you were financed. The bad thing about this system is that they controlled content, so they could warp your project into whatever they thought the market wanted.

Now, distribution is essentially free. Every blog, webpage or posted video has a potential audience of billions of people. The new problems are financing your work and figuring out ways to earn money from it. People in media like prose and comics have it fairly easy, in that they can create for pennies. Animation takes more time and effort than other media, which means more of an up front investment and somebody's got to pay the bills while the work is being created.

On the income side, once again other media have it easier than animation. Musicians have figured out that if they give away their music online, they can still make money from concert appearances and merchandising. Unfortunately, nobody's lining up for tickets to see animators talk about their work, so giving away your animation isn't viable.

Charging for downloads seems to be the best possibility at the moment (though merchandising is viable depending on the property).

The point is, given the long odds of getting a gatekeeper to take your project, given the stupidity that gatekeepers inflict on creative people, and given how questionable the accounting practices of the entertainment business are, I don't feel the old system is worth pursuing. Feel free to disagree. While the internet isn't a mature business model yet, this is one case where I think it's better to go with the devil you don't know than the devil you do.

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