Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stumbling Around in the Dark

Even before the current economic situation, certain media industries were in trouble. In particular, TV and newspapers had both been losing their audience. The current downturn is probably going to accelerate that.

There is the sense that anything that can be reduced to digital bits has changed in some fundamental ways. Here's Virgina Hefernon of the N.Y. Times on how writing for print is not just writing.
Does anyone still believe that the forms of movies, television, magazines and newspapers might exist independently of their rapidly changing modes of distribution? The thought has become unsustainable. Take magazine writing. In school or on the job, magazine writers never learn anything so broad as to “tell great stories” or “make arresting images.” You don’t study the ancient art of storytelling. You learn to produce certain numbers and styles and forms of words and images. You learn to be succinct when a publication loses ad pages. You learn to dilate when an “article” is understood mostly as a delivery vehicle for pictures of a sexy celebrity. The words stack up under certain kinds of headlines that also adhere to strict conventions as to size and tone, and eventually they appear alongside certain kinds of photos and illustrations with certain kinds of captions on pages of certain dimensions that are often shared with advertisements. Just as shooting film for a Hollywood movie is never just filming and acting in a TV ad is never just acting, writing for a magazine is never just writing.
Chris Anderson, author of The Long Tail, is currently writing a book about the free economy. That's where people and companies give things away but still manage to make money by selling something that relates to the give-away. You can find an entire series of articles by Anderson here.

Kevin Kelly has an essay called "Better Than Free." You can read it here or download an updated pdf of it here. His premise is:
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff that can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things that can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?
He lists eight "generatives" that can't be copied: immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and findability. I don't want to explain them all here, but some of them possibly relate to animation on the web.

Immediacy means that if you have a release that's in demand, you can charge people for the right to see it early before releasing the free version at a later time. It might simply come down to putting it on a password protected site and emailing your paying customers the password before releasing it to the world at large at a later date.

Personalization is what JibJab is doing with their E-cards. By allowing users to put their own photos into the JibJab animation, they are offering something that becomes to unique to each buyer.

Embodiment is selling a higher quality copy of what is available for free. It's the equivalent of putting a low rez version of your animation online and then selling higher quality copies. This would also include merchandise that isn't digital, like T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Patronage is asking people to contribute financially to the creation of your work. It's the digital equivalent of a tip jar, and many websites have buttons inviting users to feed the kitty. Advertising would also fit here, whether the advertiser desires the demographic that you attract or they just want their customers to know that they support something the customers value.

Kevin Kelly is also the author of the article "1000 True Fans" about how a creator might be able to survive economically with just 1000 people willing to financially support his or her work. Not everyone buys into this idea. You can read John Scalzi's rebuttal here. Kelly gives the matter further thought here.

Paul Graham has written an essay saying that technology start-ups are getting so inexpensive that they're no longer courting venture capital companies. They can start with overhead so low that they can move into profit quickly and once they're generating profit, there's no need to sell some of their companies to investors. This is in line with Ralph Bakshi talking about animators having an entire studio in a single computer and that it's far easier now to make an inexpensive film than it was. Lower overhead makes it less risky to try out new ideas, such as attempting to figure out how to work in the free economy.

Bob Jaques, an old friend of mine, visited Sheridan College recently and over dinner we were talking about how everyone expects material online to be free. He talked about how he thought animation was going to shorten to 30 seconds in order to work online. He may have a point. As Hefernon points out above, the medium makes a difference and the web seems to favour short material. The problem, which few have solved so far, is monetizing what you put online.

I don't have the answer. If I did, I'd be doing it. But as more people are investigating the idea of giving things away as the basis for their business, I'm watching closely. Other people are reminding everybody that start-up costs are lower than they used to be. Lots of people think that there's something out there and are trying to describe it, but so far nobody has really pinned it down. I expect the current economic situation to make the problems that some media are experiencing worse, but I also think that it's going to give birth to new business models and I hope at least one of them will work for animation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Comment 1) Bakshi's advice makes sense, but Bakshi himself seems to be having a hard time turning out product. I still read about Bakshi's current project, "The Last Days of Coney Island" (which may or may not be a sequel to "Heavy Traffic"), saying that the current release date planned is 2007. As if we haven't finished 2007!! Who out there had contact with Ralph Bakshi? He could straighten out this release date mess.

Comment 2) Currently, there have only been Disney mosaics and Lantz mosaics here. What does Hans Perk know about the Felix The Cat cartoons of the 1920s? Did multiple artists draw Felix and persons around him, or was it just Otto Mesmer animating?

(I'm curious because I have an extremely cheap DVD compilation of the Felix of the 20s, which fortunately includes "Felix in Hollywood", and I'd be interested to identify the people behind that work.)