Funding cross platform content in 2014

The crows. CC license from Moses Namkung.

The crowd. CC license from Moses Namkung.

One of the things I’ve been most curious about as I’ve seen the rise of cross platform content, transmedia practices and the need to cater for an increasingly active audience over the past few years, is the urgent need for projects to achieve financial sustainability. Coming from the world of television, I believe the chances of you getting to do what you want to do are far greater if you can point to financially succesful projects as examples of your skill.

Now, there are a lot of different ways to go about this. We tested some during the production of the music show ”The Mill Sessions” a couple of years back, where we created different cuts for different buyers. A longer HD version for the telecom operator with the IPTV service that was looking to move into music. A shorter SD version for the free-to-air TV channel that could sell ads around the content. Music videos cut from the material sold to the artists’ record companies. The DVD/Bluray rights sold to yet another buyer. And everything was backed up by the transmedia script that resulted in shareable material on social media, in meaningful interaction with the audience and in a frame for the whole show, where artists as well as the production crew and the audience could all fit in and see the same content in the same light. Unfortunately, the financing chain was only as strong as its weakest link, which lead to difficulties in the long run when policy changes and restructuring had their impact on the different distribution partners.

Another interesting example is ”Nightvision”, a mystery horror thing created by Play This Next. I spoke to Kevin Moss and asked him how he had approached the project:

Q: What was your initial approach to Nightvision, with regards to financing and financial sustainability? What approaches did you consider?

A: We saw Nightvision as an experiment from the get go. We’ve been working on several longer term projects and just wanted to get something ‘out there’.

I wanted to create something manageable, in a way comparable to a short-film, as a way to test and play with a couple of structural ideas I had.

We’re very aware that we want to have as much control over our projects as possible so we also wanted to test a ticketed event as a possible way to get a return. I saw this as a win-win because by creating a time-boxed experience that was replayed it made a massive difference to how I approached the structure of the piece. Artistically this was very liberating.

We were going to self-fund the project but we made the decision quite early that we wanted a known cast to be involved. I think this really made a difference, allowing the audience to give the project their sense of disbelief a little easier. A small but interesting point. Plus also the added confidence when it came to handing over cash!

So we turned to crowd funding. We approached this as though we were just selling advanced tickets. It turned out to be much harder than we imagined, much. We should have planned much more than we did. We chose the wrong platform too (this was pre-kickstarter in the UK) Getting a little bit of twitter support from Kevin Smith and Neil Gaiman certainly helped us turn a corner.  We also managed to secure a little bit of commercial R&D money which also helped.

Q: How has the uptake been, and what do you feel are the key findings you bring with you to other projects from Nightvision?

A: The intention of the project was to prove that we could sell tickets and we did that! We’ve done pretty much no marketing and we’re happy with the amount of tickets we sold. I think limiting this amount of tickets help build a little bit of exclusivity (with the added bonus of making it easier to manage, though we think we could handle a much bigger crowd)

We are now looking at different ways to market the project and the most cost effective way to do it. For example: how would it work within the festival circuit and how would we run it globally rather than just on GMT.

Key findings: people loved the challenging nature of the project, the fact they had to be involved, actively find content and make decisions about where to follow the story. For me this was really pleasing. “Why isn’t TV more like this?” was one of my favourite comments.

Backstory is vital (not events but character motivation). The 24hrs before the project are really important. The audience that enjoys it the most are the people who follow the characters on Twitter beforehand and dig into some of the supporting websites. We saw that people were doing this on their commute home, getting ready for the event in the evening.

That said, we were keen to make sure that the backstory didn’t sprawl, that it felt contained and manageable, that was important.

People are always late. We told people to turn up for 9, they turned up at 9.10. We built into the story a 15min window and told people to arrive at 8.45pm. This worked better.

We built the experience for desktop/laptops, clearly people wanted and expected to play using their tablets. This think this is exciting and certainly going to be using this in future productions.

Nightvision is actually quite linear. The audience can find the story through various feeds and in a slightly different order, but it is actually designed to be linear. Even so we were surprised by how people approach the experience. Some people used multiple devices. Some one told me they played across three devices (and thought that was amazing!) Some people used Twitter as an anchor and some people used the footage. This is brilliant and as we expected/hoped. In future projects we will build more data analysis into them so we can adapt and optimize the story.

We created a space with in the story that allowed the audience to go back and look again at the footage. The project is intentionally fast and furious (getting this pace right took a lot of tweaking.) To begin we had a very final ending, with all the content being deleted. We thought this was a very clever piece of storytelling, but it turned out people were just really annoyed by us doing that. When we left the content up for 1/2hr and built this into the story it made a massive difference. People pieced it back together. There is always a 20min lull (which is very scary) where after the event there is a virtual silence, then people start to chat about the event.

Choose the right medium for the story. We started with the story playing out on Facebook. We did two beta performances on Facebook and it just felt wrong; the UX experience was not quite right. Swapping to Twitter took some time and effort but it was really really worth it.

Q: If someone else were to set out to do what you did and produce and distribute in a similar fashion, what would be your advice?

  • Don’t make it too big.
  • BUT make it big enough, people are going to be paying for it, remember!
  • Control your audience’s expectations and don’t design a million things. It’s very easy to want to make EVERYTHING. Question every piece of content and what it does for the story and the characters. Be minimal.
  • Be bold and trust your audience. Don’t dumb it down for the sake of it. Simple is important, but that doesn’t mean dumb.
  • Don’t be held back by code, we built the whole project with no code on existing platforms.
  • Fast prototype. Try not to write a script but write a prototype. Then get people to click around as quickly as you can.
  • Selling tickets is always going to be tough. Make sure people feel it is an event.
  • ALWAYS be truthful to the story. Don’t make false hacks to get people to interact. Don’t be scared of the audience lurking. Lurkers are really important; design to put lurkers on the edge of becoming active. Finding that balance is the sweet spot.
  • Distribution is exactly that. Try and find time-saving ways to do it. We’ve got some great ideas on how to distribute Nightvision but the reality of doing it is very time consuming. This is a real trade off and worth thinking through.
  • Listen to your audience, but try to make informed artistic decisions. Stand behind your artistic vision.

Finally, a creator who’s tried the crowdfunding route is Andrea Phillips, who has been very open with the results of her project “Lucy Smokeheart”, initiated last year. On her blog she tells the story of the project, what the results have been and what conclusions she’s drawn. But why crowdfunding?

A: I love crowdfunding. A lot. It’s best for projects looking for modest amounts of seed capital, by creators with some existing track record and an audience, and for daring indie projects that wouldn’t be an easy sell to an investor, a TV network, a publisher, etc. If you’re looking for a lot of money and/or you don’t have an audience to begin with, crowdfunding probably isn’t going to work for you.

It’s a bit ugly to say it, but in a sense crowdfunding is monetizing your social capital. You’re turning relationships and goodwill into money. That’s why an otherwise interesting project asking for a huge sum of money or a person making their very first project ever are going to have trouble hitting a goal; the success of a crowdfunding campaign is usually determined long before the campaign launches.

I also think crowdfunding is an incredible way to check the pulse of public opinion to see if a project is worth doing or not. If there’s not a minimum interest to even fund the project, it’s better to know before you’ve spent time and money building something nobody even wants.

Q: With “Lucy” you’ve been very open with all the data so far, and it’s a very interesting read – what have been as you expected it, and what has not?

A: I came into all of this not really knowing what to expect, to be honest. What I’m finding is a sort of middling success; it’s not money to retire on, but it’s a respectable amount of money to have earned for a work of this nature. But I’m wired to expect extremes, so I half-anticipated total failure to begin with — I genuinely wasn’t sure Lucy Smokeheart would fund at all — and on the other hand I half-expected wild success, so the ongoing small sales numbers of the ebooks are a little bit depressing. You start trying to find patterns to what’s working and what isn’t, when there simply isn’t enough data.

The pleasant reality is that there is plenty of space for working creators to craft modest successes for themselves. I’ve reached the goal I set for myself: earning about as much money as a similar work would earn selling to a genre publisher. The project has done what I set out to do. And I’m finding, to my surprise, that it’s starting to open doors for me as well. I can’t talk a lot about it just now, but there’s been interest in expanding Lucy’s story and world onto other platforms as well.

Q: It would seem to me that the solo route is as challenging as ever, however many self-publishing tools and social media channels there are. What’s your opinion?

A: In some ways it’s easier, in some ways it’s just as hard as it ever was.

The main disadvantage to self-publishing has traditionally been lack of distribution, followed by lack of credibility. In the olden days, when you published through a vanity press, it was because you weren’t good enough to get a real publishing deal. But now we’re seeing the financial incentives flip, and traditional publishing is increasingly looking like a devil’s bargain — the author gets such a tiny share of the profits. And so we’re seeing incredible works published through Amazon KDP, through Smashwords and the like, where millions and millions of readers can find your work, and it’s increasingly obvious that it is not, in fact, the sole path for those who aren’t good enough to make it through the gatekeepers.

On the other hand, while distribution is much simpler now, we still have the problem of obscurity. Promoting your work and getting a reader to take a chance is really hard. This isn’t unique to self-publishers; it’s the same problem facing midlist authors forever, too. But as the crowd of potential books expands away from the physical, we simultaneously have access to an exponentially growing amount of new books by self-published and traditional authors alike, and a growing backlist of all the other written works now being converted to digital formats.

Readers have so much choice now. It’s a great to be a reader; there’s never been a better time. The jury is still out on whether this is a good time to be a writer, though. Ask me again in five years!

 

To conclude, I think we’ll be seeing a lot of interesting examples of how to fund different projects and make them financially sustainable. Some will flop – hell, most will probably flop – but even so, we’ll have some very interesting examples to look at. The crowd, the audience, will become increasingly involved, for good and for bad. Traditional ad revenue will shrink, while interactive, experimental brand integration will be a new playground for creators to get creative on. If you have some good examples, do share them in the comments!

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