Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Starting at the Bottom (And ending where?)

Last week, the NY Times ran an article by Brian Stelter on people who are now earning a living from their postings on YouTube.
For some, like Michael Buckley, the self-taught host of a celebrity chatter show, filming funny videos is now a full-time job.

Mr. Buckley quit his day job in September after his online profits had greatly surpassed his salary as an administrative assistant for a music promotion company. His thrice-a-week online show “is silly,” he said, but it has helped him escape his credit-card debt.

Mr. Buckley, 33, was the part-time host of a weekly show on a Connecticut public access channel in the summer of 2006 when his cousin started posting snippets of the show on YouTube. The comical rants about celebrities attracted online viewers, and before long Mr. Buckley was tailoring his segments, called “What the Buck?” for the Web. Mr. Buckley knew that the show was “only going to go so far on public access....”

Granted, building an audience online takes time. “I was spending 40 hours a week on YouTube for over a year before I made a dime,” Mr. Buckley said — but, at least in some cases, it is paying off.

Cory Williams, 27, a YouTube producer in California, agrees. Mr. Williams, known as smpfilms on YouTube, has been dreaming up online videos since 2005, and he said his big break came in September 2007 with a music video parody called “The Mean Kitty Song.” The video, which introduces Mr. Williams’ evil feline companion, has been viewed more than 15 million times. On a recent day, the video included an advertisement from Coca-Cola.

Mr. Williams, who counts about 180,000 subscribers to his videos, said he was earning $17,000 to $20,000 a month via YouTube. Half of the profits come from YouTube’s advertisements, and the other half come from sponsorships and product placements within his videos, a model that he has borrowed from traditional media.

On YouTube, it is evident that established media entities and the up-and-coming users are learning from each other. The amateur users are creating narrative arcs and once-a-week videos, enticing viewers to visit regularly. Some, like Mr. Williams, are also adding product-placement spots to their videos. Meanwhile, brand-name companies are embedding their videos on other sites, taking cues from users about online promotion. Mr. Walk calls it a subtle “cross-pollination” of ideas.
There are obvious lessons to be learned here, some of them from earlier media. Regular episodes are necessary. It's better to have a brand or niche so that viewers and advertisers can count on predictable content. Audiences respond to continuing characters, or in the case of Michael Buckley, a continuing host. All of the above are the norm in radio and television and have migrated to the web.

The article doesn't say if there are any animation creators making significant money from YouTube. As usual, the slow pace of animation production works against it in the mass media. However, there are ways around that. A collaboration or consortium approach would work. Either a group joins together to create shorts weekly or several get together and each take a month to create a short to be aired in successive weeks. Either approach allows people to have day jobs while getting their projects made.

There's momentum building for individuals and companies to earn significant money online. Scott Kirsner of Cinematech is writing a book about the people who have successfully built their businesses there. Animation will be included, as JibJab will be one of the companies covered.

Jack Shafer has an article in Slate about how digital media are undermining older media.

Perhaps the most prescient of all digital prophets was scholar W. Russell Neuman, whose 1991 book, The Future of the Mass Audience, saw how the Web would overturn the existing order before the public World Wide Web even existed. The media—newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, cable, motion pictures, games, music, books, newsletters—all resided in separate "unique, noncompetitive" analog silos. Translating and transmitting from one format to another was "an expensive, labor-intensive endeavor," Neuman writes.

By introducing these varied—and often monopolistic—media to a "single, universal, multipurpose network," the digital Web destroyed the old barriers and created new competitive pressures. For end users, viewing last night's Dave Letterman monologue or cruising Craigslist or scanning today's headlines or reading one's inbox or listening to the Timbaland/Cornell collaboration now happens inside the same space. In other words, CBS, the Times, Universal Music, Verizon, Blockbuster video, and anybody else who wants your media attention is fighting for your attention (mindshare and dollars) in the same kiosk.
This is why I think that pitching ideas to TV should be a thing of the past. I know from personal experience that the structure of broadcasting works against creators having control of their shows. Now, the economics of TV are getting increasingly bad. If the web is the "single, universal, multipurpose network," why not go there yourself instead of depending on someone else to take you there? That way, you're the one selling to the final customer instead of trying to satisfy gatekeepers who are likely to turn you down or twist your idea out of shape.

As the above articles show, there's no instant payday. It's going to take an investment of time and a certain amount of luck to produce something regularly that attracts an audience. However, those who succeed will own their creations and their audience.

Not only is the web a friendlier place for creators, it's making it harder for independents to sell to older markets without an already successful property. Michael Buckley now has a deal with HBO. What are the chances that would have happened if he had pitched them before his YouTube success? With the economics of older media on shakier ground (even before the current downturn), it's less likely they will take chances on unproven material. If the older media are getting harder to sell to and the economics of the web are getting better, I think creators should be taking the path of least resistance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While there is more freedom on the Internet to turn out your intended product unadulterated by bureaucracy, it's very hard to publicize it yourself without knowing the ins and outs of the forum website you choose. Oftentimes the best and funniest videos on YouTube don't make it to the website's headlines, which means few people end up knowing about it. Even as a super-easy global mainframe (or whatever the hell you call it from a sociological perspective), the amount of space for YouTube stars is as limited as the number of blockbusters at the cinema in one year's time.

I myself am the host of a very pompous, pointless blog (which I created out of supernatural boredom) that calls for ordinary web-surfers that are interested in animation to send me their own animation based on a shared concept for an animated feature.

However, I have no idea how to effectively publicize this blog, and could never seem to find instructions on how to do so.

It also doesn't help that I don't know how to post pictures (I had prepared some storyboards for a scene that the blog-following animators would've used for reference).

The main point is this: All I can do now is leave the blog alone and wait (until the end of time if necessary) until somebody actually finds the blogpage by accident and ordinary web-surfers finally finish the work for me, and I am perfectly aware that this will never happen. If you find my blog (called "The Big Webtoon Project"), you'll see what I mean.