Making a living from your creative work

Filed as Features, Multimedia on May 2, 2007 10:00 am

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I often write about interesting social media tools and sites. In the age of user-gen and social networks, there is no shortage of places where people can express themselves. As media creation and consumption patterns change how are writers, directors, musicians, and actors going to sustain themselves? Will it be possible for content creators to bypass the traditional distribution system all together? Could they make a living with their creative efforts by harnessing the power of the internet?

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Pulling back the curtain
I’ve been making films for the last sixteen years and I’ve seen too many content creators never see a return on their hard work. A little over six months ago I founded a “social open source” project called the Workbook, with the goal of providing a comprehensive resource for content creators. The hope is that over time content creators will contribute their how to’s, war stories, contracts, and other information that will help to stimulate an open market for content distribution and debate.

The same old problem
The other day I was contacted by a filmmaker who was considering a deal with a major distributor. The deal had a low six figure advance and required that the filmmaker give away all rights for upwards of twenty years. The contract specified that the distributor would retain all; theatrical, TV, DVD, foreign, digital, merchandising, and sequel rights.

The filmmaker was also given a ten page document of deliverables which they is responsible for. Delivery is a process that can be costly and time consuming. On average it is not uncommon for the delivery of an independent motion picture to cost about 20,000 to 40,000 dollars.

This often includes:
• Errors & 0missions insurance – in the event that someone sues you the distributor will be protected.
• Film and video transfer costs.
• Audio transfers and the need to separate tracks for foreign sales.
• Long form contracts with cast and crew which can mount into large legal fees.

So the catch is, not only do you do all the work but these costs come out of your pocket. But what is even more upsetting is that the filmmaker, in almost all cases, will never see any money past the advance. The distributor on the other hand, recoups the advance and all their manufacturing, and distribution fees off the top.

On the bright side, these unfair issues of the traditional system are actually assisting content creators to look for alternate paths. The promise of the internet as a tool for distribution and audience cultivation offers the hope of sustainability. For example I make a living from self distributing my films (The Last Broadcast, Head Trauma) and the internet has been at the center of my efforts since 1996.

Over time a listing of venues that book truly independent work grows, thanks to the help of the workbook community
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Giving it away (a possible path)
I was approached by a publisher to write a book about DIY (do it yourself) filmmaking and distribution. The advance was modest and there was talk of more than one book. At first I was excited at the prospect of being published but after attending a conference in Montreal called Digimart, I was introduced to the concept of setting things free. I met a number of people from the open source community and we had interesting discussions about releasing work under a creative commons license. This inspired me to start the Workbook Project.

The results of that decision have been amazing. First and foremost it feels good to give something back to the community. The audience for the Workbook Project has been growing steadily since last November and the project has been getting submissions from other content creators wanting to share their experiences. The Workbook has lead to a number of speaking, consulting and sponsorship opportunities. In the six months since I started the project, I have made more than the book advance that I was offered.

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