Sustainability During Revolution
I’ve been having alot of conversations recently (on the conference circuit and online) about sustainability, especially with a community who’s revolution is just starting to happen: the community of independent filmmakers who’ve been sitting behind the last stranglehold of distribution left of digital goods. Many of those brightest thinkers are rediscovering many of issues we’ve been talking about for years, which brings me from my blogging hole to start thinking about a new issue: what do we as experienced online publishers of one type or another have to share with a new kind of revolutionary?
In March I made yet another sorjourn down to Austin, Texas for SXSW — my first year was 1988 (when my career was in music), I had a film there in 2001, and this year I was sitting on a panel on the interactive side fascinating called “Cluetrain: Seven Years Later” with Doc Searls, Heather Armstrong and Henry Copeland. It has become one of those rare events where the interactive and filmic communities that I’m a part of really intersect and have the chance to cross-fertilize, and never has that rubbing together become more interesting than now.
The “Cluetrain” panel was at a bloody early hour of the morning, but it didn’t stop it from being occassionally fiery. Doc, after describing good online marketers as “arsonists,” went on to predict “an explosion in independent filmmaking you can’t imagine” as the next territory of what a 14-year anniversery of Cluetrain panel might cover. As you can imagine, my eyes popped out of my head. The panel covered a lot of territory (and you’ll have to wait until June 8th to be able to download the podcast), but one of the interesting strands was about sustainability.
I asked the audience how many of them had business plans that culminated in exit strategies of “and we’ll get acquired by X” or “and we’ll go public”. Not a single hand went up — whether that’s a sign that people were too shy to admit such a Web 1.0 business model or if it really was an irrelevant question to them (“What’s your exit strategy for your blog?”) could be up for debate, but I remember a day when hands would have shot up enthusiastically around the room. When I asked the question, “How many of you are looking for ways to make your projects or companies sustainable,” those hands went shooting up again.
Sadly, if you walked across the hallway to the filmmaker sessions people were still crowding into panels on “How to get your film acquired” instead of “blogging and filmmaking”. My collegues in filmmed entertainment are still mired, for the most part, in the kind of Web 1.0 business models that come with having huge corporate gatekeepers of distribution. Not all of them, mind you: there’s a growing wave of “new independents” that have essentially grown up with the Web (and if there is one thing that the Internet is good for it is opening up chains of distribution from the hands of gatekeepers.) Most of them are also a generation younger: I regularly cringe now when some bright filmmaker tells me they were 16 when we launched indieWIRE (or that they were 12 the first year I went to SXSW.)
ReveNews has become nearly as ancient … not as old as indieWIRE, but older than Cluetrain. When I first started writing it in 1998, it was essentially a working notebook on sustainability models for online publishers from having our arms deep in it as brand publishers. It started with observations like, “Wow, we’re making the equivalent of $74 CPM on revenue-sharing banners? What does this mean to us as sustainable publishers?” It has led, over the years, in a myriad of directions, but sustainability (of business models, of marketing models and during the dark times even industry models) has been one of those ongoing threads of this community.
A new revolution (heck, several at the same time, but let’s focus one at a time) is getting ready to break out around the last distribution bottleneck that the Internet hasn’t yet warped, mutated, blown out and deconstructed. In many ways (for me, at least) the last eleven years have been about preparing for this particular storm. In 1997 I sat on a panel at the Sundance Film Festival that seems amusingly dated today called “The Internet for Filmmakers”. Filmmakers wanted to hear that the Internet would free them from distribution, and I was the geek having to explain to them that 28.8 modems weren’t quite ready yet to distribute films. “It will be at least another decade before we’re ready for that, but that day is coming,” I raved like so many other wide-eyed early advocates of the digital revolution.
What we … the Web … have been learning collectively for that last decade is how to meet the challenges that come with being responsible for your own distribution and sustainability. How do I attract an audience? How do I generate revenue to sustain production? How do I sell downloads? DVDs? What can I give away for free that others have to charge for? Some of the most interesting people asking themselves those questions these days are filmmakers: they are starting to talk about sustainability and learning to think like marketers.
How does a revolution incorporate sustainability into its core identity?