Thursday, May 25, 2006

Get Out of the Kitchen

Yesterday, I made a comparison between broadcasters and the customers in a restaurant. However, the analogy is flawed. Customers in restaurants are ordering food for themselves, but movie studios and broadcasters are not the end users. They are buying to resell to millions of customers. As a result, they are not ordering based on their own tastes, but what they believe other people will want.

The problem is that they really have no clue. If you go to the movies or watch television you know this intuitively, but a new book by Bill Carter called Desperate Networks provides hard evidence that the highly paid executives in TV are no better at picking hits than anyone who can toss a coin.

You want proof? All the U.S. networks turned down American Idol. It got on Fox because Rupert Murdoch's daughter saw the British version of the show and advised her father to buy it. This was after Fox had turned it down.

ABC rejected Survivor and CSI. NBC turned down Desperate Housewives. Fox turned down Friends. CBS turned down Survivor and only relented when the producers were able to find enough sponsors to finance the show. Of course, we'll never know how many hit shows never made it to air because everyone rejected them.

Failures like Fired Up, Built to Last, Men Behaving Badly, Jenny, Conrad Bloom, The Apprentice with Martha Stewart, Mr. Personality, Coupling, Whoopi, Boomtown, Father of the Pride, and The Rebel Billionaire were put on the air. In fact, the majority of new series don't make it to a second season and the majority of feature films lose money, which is why I say that choosing projects by tossing a coin would produce better results. Over the long term, you'd have a 50% success rate.

So what does this mean for creative people? It means that there's no relationship between your project's value and how it is judged by media companies. Only the audience can decide. Therefore, the best approach is figuring out how to bypass the media companies and go directly to the audience.

Doing it with the web or self-publishing is easy. The hard part is supporting yourself while you develop a point of view and a body of work. However, nobody can mess with your work (and it's a guarantee that media companies will mess with it), and if you can build an audience large enough to support yourself, you're free to do the work you want to do. Bill Plympton, JibJab and Michel Gagne are doing it and should serve as an inspiration to us all.

The restaurant analogy devalues what we do. As cooks, we're just there to take orders from people with questionable taste. I think it's time to get out of the kitchen.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,
great blog and I am glad that someone in our industry is tackling the matter of intellectual property and selling your creation.
My experience in getting a series optioned and seeing it go unsigned, even though we had international broadcasters and co-producers on board, and to have the deal foiled from inside the production company that optioned it, left me reeling.
We learn our craft and get years of experience in our trade and when we try to get our own ideas across, we figure out we had better learn to play golf and shmooze with the right people, because none of the animation experience matters. Though the experience left me quite cynical about, trying to get a project out through my own means is just unrealistic since I have no trust fund to carry this project and pay the bills at the same time.
Meanwhile that great experienced animation legend Paris Hilton is getting her own animated series out there.
Is anyone getting a clue yet?

Mark Mayerson said...

The problem is that we have no leverage. Companies have all the money and all we have are ideas. I think that by going directly to the audience, we can create leverage if we prove there is a demand for our work. Like her or not, there's a proven demand for Paris Hilton.

JibJab is using their mailing list and number of website hits to convince movie studios and networks to finance their projects. JibJab brings their ideas and their audience to the table, and the larger companies want that audience.

I wonder if we shouldn't all be creating films under a minute long and creating as many as we can. They'd be relatively fast and cheap to produce, and if any of them caught on with audiences, we'd be able to leverage their popularity into bigger projects. I might be wrong, but I think we'd get more creative respect if we had a hit on our resumes.