Figuring out how to transform the free online content that we produce (almost on a daily basis) into currency that can someday pay the bills isn't just a growing concern--it's an indie industry-felt dilemma. Yet, for the longest time, I've been insisting that my peers continue to make work (mostly digital shorts, blog entries, images, RSS Feeds, etc.) and just put that content out there--for free. I still feel this is a vital behavioral-business model.
Other indie digital filmmakers have actually asked me, "Yes, but how do I make money with my short film?"
My answer usually is, "Well, that's a tough question. First of all: Who are you? Do you have a following? Is your work actually good ("good" meaning it's content that is engaging, interesting or of some niche value)?"
I think those questions need to be answered first before any artist makes the leap from 'independent creator' to 'financially successful creator.' Today's new media landscape provides a sometimes-impossible-to-navigate terrain where your content can easily be overlooked. But don't be scared. Good content will always reign (and be of historical or sociological value). Our first--and perhaps most important--set of tasks is to curate our own content, make it accessible and continue to build audiences.
In his piece "In The Digital Era Free Is Easy, So How Do You Persuade People To Pay" Cory Doctorow brought up some good fundamentals to employ:
"If your strategy is to convince the public that the "real item" is reliable and the unauthorised ones are dodgy, then you must do everything in your power to increase the reliability of the real item, otherwise word will get around and the campaign will fail."
That "real item" that Doctorow is referring to can be your labor of love digital short film. It can also be that incubating idea your trying to fund on IndieGoGo or Kickstarter. Whatever it is, it is wholly unique and emblematic of you the artist. Which brings us to my earlier question: "Who are you?"
The answer to that question is built upon the very practice of producing free content on the web. With every image, word and piece of sound, you're telling a narrative about you the artist. There is tremendous value in that.
If you can bring yourself up to believing that there is a worthwhile value in building your public image and engaged audience, then Doctorow's reasoning begins to feel more tangible:
"Buy this because you're supporting something worthwhile.
This is the proposition made by indie artists and it's one reason so many major entertainment companies hive off "indie" labels, imprints and brands. Supporting the arts feels genuinely good – knowing that your money is going to someone who made some work that moved you and entertained you. This may be the most powerful motivator of all, but it's also the trickiest.
For this to be really effective, the customer needs to have a sense of the person or people behind the work. That means this proposition favours artists with highly visible, personal public profiles, and not every artist has it in them to hang out there in the world with their audience. Some people are just shy. Some are worse than shy – some artists have negative charisma, and every time they appear in public (physically or virtually), they reduce the business case for buying their works."
For our arena, negative charisma is the offspring of an indie filmmaker's inability to embrace change. Connectivity is everything, so that curtain of mystery you may want to depend on might be your Achilles' heel. When it comes to the Internet, there is nothing wrong with being an open book. The more accessible your work is--heck, the more accessible you the artist are--the greater the value your content can attain.
Think about the last piece of work that you purchased. Was it from an artist you had no idea of? Or was it from someone whose work/image/persona/philosophy has already engaged you?
Outside of tapping into niche channels hosted by appropriate content curators (for example, experimental filmmakers might want to look into having their work hosted on Bad Lit: The Journal Of Underground Film), it's still up to us--the independent content creators--to continue to produce selected pieces of free content with the aims of building an audience that finds our work valuable. So when the time comes for our work to be given that platform of mass or mainstream exposure (iTunes downloads, VOD deals, etc.), our audience will be there, happy to purchase the content and sustain the desired business model we hope to reach.
Note: Storify is now open to public, so I suggest you add this platform to your pool of resources of storytelling and online visibility. There are lots of way to get creative with this tool. Remember: Get your work out there!