20 February, 2013

Practical Distributism and the Zombie Apocolypse

This article was originally published by
on 20 February, 2013

Our critics often confront distributists about how Distributism could work, while our readers also want to know how they can start to employ distributist principles today. Yes, we need to point out the problems of the socialist and capitalist systems, but we won’t be taken seriously if we cannot give examples of distributist principles in action. Fortunately, those who would not describe themselves as distributists, who probably have never even heard of Distributism, are already doing things in ways that would, for the most part, fit right in with Distributism.

In the modern age, much of our entertainment, movies and video series, is expensive to make. The need for studios, sets, costumes, special lighting, high quality cameras and microphones, props, computer graphics, special effects, food and catering, insurance, etc., means having to raise substantial amounts of money, especially if the producers, performers, and crew want to earn a living at it. While the entertainment media establishment will sometimes produce good shows, the existence of a large and loyal group of fans does not guarantee a show’s longevity. The science fiction series, Firefly, for example, reached nearly five million viewers per episode, but was still canceled after airing only eleven of the fourteen episodes produced.

While not a geographically local group, the digital entertainment community is a close-knit group with common interests which the modern digital age has made possible. If Distributism is going to be relevant in the modern age, we should consider the needs of these communities when articulating our positions. What is the answer when millions of loyal followers are not considered profitable enough for the corporate establishment to keep a show running? Could independently produced shows, which would be more consistent with distributist principles, be the answer? Even these typically have to go through the same financial model run by the established media. Is there a better way to finance independent productions? Is there an example out there consistent with Distributism?

Enter Zombie Orpheus Entertainment.

Zombie Orpheus Entertainment (ZOE) originated from the team at Dead Gentlemen Productions after their experience with trying to produce and distribute independent movies. They might not be distributists, but they have seen the problems the concentrated control of productive capital has wrought on their own industry. As producer/director Ben Dobyns describes it, the established distribution system for Hollywood is broken because it struggles to maintain elements of a distribution model set up during its heyday rather than update that model to meet the realities of the modern world. It can only maintain these elements in the modern digital age by creating an artificial scarcity of product in order to keep unit prices high enough to support the existing system.

One of the methods of maintaining this outdated distribution model is Digital Rights Management (DRM), which is the tool used to artificially create scarcity for digital media. Unfortunately, DRM is essentially structured to treat fans like criminals. In the digital age, fans download content to find what they like. According to Dobyns, studies show that those who download the most content are also the biggest buyers of that content. While some have no intention of paying, many are merely using modern technology to discover what they want to buy. When they find something they like, they want to buy it and share it with friends, who are also potential customers. The reason they are willing to buy what they like is because they want more of it, and they know that supporting its creators is the way to get more. The biggest fans, those who are actually spending money on productions, end up being the targets of legal action. In other words, DRM attacks a willing (and free) advertisement network of likely customers.

Another production challenge is that, in order to maximize profits, movie and television studios target people in certain demographics. This, Dobyns points out, “typically means playing to the lowest common denominator” of the target group. Writer/director Matt Vancil agrees, adding, “you may have to change your property to fit a certain place. I pitched a sci-fi show, that I’m eventually going to be writing as a novel, to a number of places with an Emmy winner on my side, and we had to tailor it to every place that we took it. We would emphasize slightly different things. SyFy wants this, ABC Family wants this, CW’s looking for this, the Cartoon Network is looking for this, and by the end of it, while I would have certainly jumped over the moon with joy if we’d gotten it picked up, if it had been picked up, it wouldn’t have been the show that I was working on and that I really wanted to see.”

The high distribution costs built into the system, in turn, lead to further difficulties for independent film producers trying to get their projects funded. In researching how to finance independent films, Dobyns discovered that the prevailing model is configured so that it is unlikely investors will ever get back their investment. Naturally, this can make it difficult to convince investors to back independent productions. Vancil, explains that, from an investor’s perspective, a film can be a pretty risky venture. Investors understandably want a return on their investment. They are investing in shows as their means of making money. Additionally, the investment isn’t just the production budget. Vancil points out that you typically have to spend your production budget again in marketing. If you spend one million making the movie, and your return is one million and a half, the movie can still be a failure because you haven’t made back what you’ve spent in marketing. “If you’re in a region that has investors who have been burned before,” he says, “they’re going to be less likely to want to invest again.” Writer/producer Ben Bays says, “The biggest challenge with corporate productions is just getting a foot in the door. If you are lucky enough to get your project funded, it then becomes about maximizing the return of that investment.”

Since the prevailing model, which was essentially the only model, is designed in a way that works against the independent producer, a new model was needed for independent productions, one that did not have the attitude that fans are merely resources to be financially strip mined and then cast aside to move on to the next demographic. Realizing that fans are out there who willingly support shows they like, ZOE was established to let them do just that. Rather than rely on corporate sponsors, the fans themselves support the shows through direct contributions. Instead of focusing on the number of units (DVDs) sold, ZOE focuses on maximizing the fan community by doing things that are anathema to the capitalist mentality in the film industry.

Their content is available for free on the internet. Yes, they do sell DVDs, but the fans don’t have to buy one in order to see their productions. The features are released under a non-commercial creative commons license. Through this, ZOE encourages the fans to download, copy, distribute, show, and even make their own fanart and content based on ZOE’s shows, as long as they do not make a profit doing so. Bays says, “There is no massive marketing machine available to self-funded productions, so to encourage sharing the content, free of charge, helps to expand the audience and awareness.” ZOE views their fan base as a relatively small, but tight, community, and treat them as you would expect a local shop owner would treat customers who are also friends and neighbors. The motto for this model is “Fan Supported / Creator Distributed ,” and ZOE is committed enough to this idea that they made the logo they created for this model, as well as ZOE’s business plan, available for anyone who wants to adopt it.

On the production side of their community, ZOE has built up its own resources and makes them available to the various production companies that have joined them. Bays, who produces the show, Aidan 5, says, “ZOE has given us access to their promotional/product infrastructure that Aidan 5 would have had to create from scratch. And when you’re throwing everything you have into just getting the show made, you don’t have time for much else. ZOE was a critical partnership in that regard.” Rather than ZOE taking a cut for producing DVDs, it is treated as a cooperative operation among the various production companies in their community. This maximizes the per-unit savings and return for all of these producers. Distributists may see in this some elements of a guild structure. Actor Jesse Lee Keeter says, “I make a web series called &@ (“And At”) and [ZOE] donated equipment, time, expertise and actors.” “We can also represent one another at conventions and festivals where we all can’t attend at once,” says Vancil, “Unlike in television, we’re not competing. That’s the beautiful thing about the web as a distribution media, there is no point ever where an episode of JourneyQuest and an episode of &@ will be screening at the same time and competing for viewers.”

Vancil says, “A really freeing thing about writing and producing something that’s native to the internet, is you don’t have the same sort of time and series restrictions that television and features have. What I mean by that is, a feature is anything over eighty minutes, going up to two, maybe three, hours, though your average movie is about 140 minutes. It’s hard to tell a really complete story in that amount of time. For a series for television, you either write 44 minute episodes for an hour, or you write 22 minute episodes for sitcoms, that have set breaks for commercials at different lengths. These are all sort of restrictions on the type of story telling. Even the number of episodes per season, do you have six, do you have twelve, do you have twenty-four? What’s freeing about writing internet native media is that the show can be exactly long as it needs to be, and exactly as many episodes as it needs to be. I’m not going to have to crunch down to try and fit too much into too few episodes, or feel like I have to drag it out and pad it because I have to fill twenty-some episodes.”

Can this actually work? Has Zombie Orpheus Entertainment devised a business model where independently produced arts can rise up from the graveyard in which the Hollywood system would bury them? Several shows have self-produced their first seasons, or at least a number of episodes, to present to fans in hopes of getting the funds to produce more seasons and episodes. While it is true that the funding they receive has not yet eliminated the need for those involved to have other sources of income, the answer to the question lies in the ability to actually get the fans to contribute enough to continue the projects. Does this model actually provide their customers – the fans – with what they want?

Up to now, many projects released through the ZOE model have been funded by campaigns through the Kickstarter web site. Kickstarter is a service where companies can raise startup funds for business projects. A target goal is set and people pledge contributions through the site, but no pledges are actually collected from the contributors until and unless the total pledged reaches the target goal. While not every ZOE project has met its target, many have received some pretty impressive support.  Glitch requested $5,500 to complete its first season and raised $9,737. Aidan 5 requested $7,000 to produce its second season and raised $8,299. Chop Socky Boom  requested $12,000 and raised $14,625. Transolar Galactica requested $30,000 and raised $30,885. JourneyQuest, Season Two  requested $60,000 and raised $113,028. The Gamers: Hands of Fate requested $320,000 and raised $405,916.

The day episode one of JourneyQuest was released for free on the internet, fans started asking how they could contribute money to keep the show going. Within a few hours of the last episode of season two being released, fans were ready to start contributing toward season three. “We were overwhelmed by the fan response,” says Bays regarding Aidan 5, “We reached our goal in half the time with a little extra for good measure. We were truly blown away.”

Clearly, the fans are willing to support shows they like. How much does an individual fan need to contribute to keep a show going, and how do they choose which shows to support? Actress Jen Page says, “Choose wisely. Support what you love and don’t give more than you can. The system should be based on a whole bunch of people giving just a little bit of money.” Dobyns wants the model to be one where “fans don’t feel like they have to give until it hurts” to make sure a show they love will continue.

“How things are changing with ZOE and the fan supported model,” explains Vancil, “is we can raise a budget that only has to be its budget. Because that money that comes in through fan support is not an investment, we’re not in the hole, we don’t have to repay all of that before we can start to make a profit. Wrapped into the budget are all of the rewards [from the Kickstarter campaign], so by the time the movie is done, the first sale of a piece of merchandise to a person who didn’t back the campaign is profit that can go back in the company for developing new projects. Also, the investment that fans make is completely different from the investment that investors make. Their investment is emotional, rather than financial. They’re not investing because they expect to make money off of it, they’re investing because they expect to enjoy it.” “Even though ZOE is fan funded,” says Keeter, “the people they hire [fore crew] are professionals, so everything is run [on the set] the way it should be. I think ZOE draws a lot of artists and professionals to them because the energy is so great. It’s always positive. Everybody wants to be there.”

In Dead Gentlemen Productions’ upcoming feature, The Gamers: Hands of Fate, part of the film takes place at a gaming convention. ZOE coordinated with a major convention, GenCon, to film there, but more scenes were needed, so ZOE held a convention of its own (ZOECon) to complete the filming. I spoke with some of the fans who attended and their response was unanimous. They are very enthusiastic. They are excited that they actually have a say in deciding whether or not a show they want is continued. They love the shows, they want them to continue, and they want to support them. They also appreciate that the cast, crew, and producers of independent films are much more open and approachable when met in public or at conventions. “Building relationships with our fan base is more crucial than them giving us money,” says Dobyns. “One thing I explain to new people when they’re getting involved with the company is, when someone contributes ten bucks to a show, the money they gave us is the second most important thing that happened. The most important thing is they now have an emotional investment in our success.”

“Fans apologize sometimes because they can’t afford to contribute,” says Dobyns, “and my answer is always, you’re a fan, you love what we’re doing, that’s the most important part. Be a fan, let people know, introduce other people to it, be excited about what we’re doing, and participate in the community.” The reason the fans are excited is because they have been frustrated at seeing their favorite shows on the networks getting canceled despite their desire and willingness to support them. This model gives them a real voice in what shows are available. It allows them to participate in a different way than in the media industry. Dobyns believes that “the more people practice working together to achieve common goals, the more likely it is that, when new goals come forward, they’ll see that as a reasonable method to achieve them.” ZOE’s business plan is not specific to the fantasy and science fiction genre. It could work for dramas, serials, westerns, religious shows, mysteries, and any other type of show because they all have fans who want to support the shows they like.

Clearly, like Distributism, the ZOE model was founded from a particular point of view, but, also like Distributism, you don’t have to agree with all aspects of that view to see the wisdom in it. “The reason this works,” Dobyns points out, “is because fans of all stripes, regardless of what they believe about politics or economics, think that the stories we are telling are worth supporting. The theory is all secondary to the community that we built. My hope is that the community will continue to transcend my personal perspective on politics and the rest of it.”

“The difference in doing it with [ZOE's] model,” says Vancil, “is you’re vetting your ideas, not to a studio, but to people who will watch and enjoy the show. If they like it, great, you go and you make exactly what you promised to. There’s no studio that has the power to cancel us. We can keep telling a show as long as there’s funding for it. That’s the caveat, though, if we don’t tell a good show, or if we veer off, the fans have the power to cancel us. Which, we think, is how it should be.” “When people feel moved to contribute,” says Emilie Rommel Shimkus, “they are also often moved to tell the interwebs all about it, which is awesome. Especially working with a genre show like JourneyQuest, you get the chance to be in front of so many people who might never have otherwise heard of you. They read a blog, a tweet, or a status update, listen to a podcast, and hopefully they’re interested, like the performance, and are moved to see what else you’re working on.” ZOE’s business model is not limited to internet video series, but could work for independent music productions and possibly other venues.

What about the actors who participate in this community? While ZOE’s movies are only one venue in which they pursue their careers, they also see a benefit to ZOE’s model. Christian Doyle says, “It’s exciting that the fans are able to get what they want, and we can continue to produce it because they get to determine that.” Anne Kennedy Brady says, “JourneyQuest was the first time I’ve worked under the fan-supported model. In film, it’s easy to feel disconnected from your audience. ZOE does a great job of involving their audience in every possible way. When we finished season one, no one really knew how it would be received. What was amazing, coming back as an actor in season two, is that I knew people really cared about the story, they were interested in the work we were doing.” Jesse Lee Keeter  says, “With everything I do outside of ZOE, I don’t know who watches it. I don’t even know who they are marketing it for. With ZOE productions, because of the Kickstarter rewards, I got to be in scenes with some of the fans, and that’s great.” Emilie Rommel Shimkus says, “It’s terrific to be a telling a story you already know people want to hear–they’ve already bought their tickets [by contributing to the show]. I get a little extra charge to push myself in my work, seeing all those individual names listed as contributors, knowing each person is hoping for and has already decided that we are the ones to give them something great.” Trin Miller says, “I want to be a part of telling good stories, to create things that bring people joy, make them think, make them feel. I think [the fan supported model] makes it much easier for actors and fans to directly interact, which can certainly foster a sense of community and a general sense of ‘we’re all in this together.’” Jen Page says that fan funding “allows projects [that otherwise might not have seen the light of day] to get financed outside of large studio investment.” Christian Doyle says, “there are lots of shows out there, just find what you like, share it, and support it.”

What about the future of this model? ZOE was founded with a long-term plan, and Dobyns is leading a phased approach to what he hopes will be a sustainable business model for independent productions in the future. As good as Kickstarter is for raising funds to launch a business project, a long term plan to sustain a business needs to be based on a more stable form of revenue than sporadic injections from Kickstarter campaigns. While truly appreciative of any contribution from their fans, ZOE understands that a model where some fans post, only somewhat jokingly, that their contribution means they will only be eating oatmeal that month is not a long-term solution. In “Phase Two,” ZOE wants to modify the fan contribution model to a flat subscription. Instead of individuals getting greater rewards for greater contributions, all subscribers will get rewards for every 250 subscribers who sign up. For the cost of a couple of lattes per month, subscribers will get access to updates on their private Wiki and, as their numbers increase, they will receive ZOE merchandise for being supporters. These target levels of subscribers will also secure the funding for projects, like the JourneyQuest role playing game, and other projects for all of the producers in the ZOE community. There will continue to be individual campaigns for projects, but without the Kickstarter-style rewards system for individuals that can result in some people giving more than they can truly afford. Producer members will also have a flat fee to access whatever ZOE resources they need for their projects. Eventually, Dobyns says, they would like to release their content straight to public domain, but that will have wait until the time is right. He is being very careful and deliberate in moving forward with their plan, working out difficulties as they go, to ensure the overall success of the effort.

The folks at Zombie Orpheus Entertainment may not be distributists, but they have devised a business model to serve their community’s needs that is, in my opinion, very compatible with Distributism. It is a model that places the good of the community as a whole over greater profits for the few. It is a model where different producers of the same type of product work in cooperation toward a common goal, and share resources for the benefit of all. It is a model that is carefully thought out so that it can survive the current economic climate without abandoning core principles. It is a model that, I think, distributists should study, promote, and, where applicable, adopt.

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