Could Tipping Your Favorite Filmmakers be the Wave of the Future?

Could Tipping Your Favorite Filmmakers be the Wave of the Future?

Feb 16, 2012

cash tip jarThe Internet has changed the way many of us think about consuming media– From the advent and proliferation of digital piracy and the rise of online retailers to crowd-funded entertainment ventures, the web has certainly made things that seemed like science fiction just a few decades ago real.

With this growth comes growing pains – such as piracy, old media clinging to outdated distribution models, and the feeling that online media should somehow be “cheaper” than traditional forms of entertainment. That lower price thing is great for consumers, but not so hot for artists who hope to live off the proceeds generated from their creative endeavors.

Blogger Chris Dorr has come up with an interesting idea to help support filmmakers who’re struggling to create art that entertains us and manage to eat a few times a day, and he’s shared it over at Tribeca Film’s Future of Film blog.

Dorr’s idea is that it would be great if film fans could “tip” their favorite artists in much the same way we tip a good waiter or waitress at the end of the meal. No, this doesn’t mean that movies will come with mail-in prepaid envelopes for viewers to stuff their cash in after the credits roll, but instead utilizes the all-encompassing reach of Netflix.

The author approaches his tipping idea in two different ways. In both, he posits that Netflix would provide viewers with a list of everything they’ve watched over the course of the past month – and viewers would select five standout directors, editors, actors, whatever – and those five individuals would receive a tip for their work.

In the first scenario, Dorr imagines that Netflix would be generous enough to kick in the tips from the fees they already collect from subscribers. His example uses $.50 a month. Sounds cool on paper, but there’s no real incentive for Netflix to do this, even before they stumbled last year. That’s $.50 off every subscriber, which adds up to a significant chunk of change given that they have over 20 million members.

The second, and more likely to fly, idea says that subscribers could pay extra, with the money designated to go to the artists and not to anyone else. Dorr says he’d gladly pay an extra buck a month if he knew that money was going directly to artists he wanted to support.

To promote growth of the program, supporters would have their selections broadcast across social media venues and Netflix would make all the voting data available to show people what subscribers think is truly noteworthy content. For its troubles, Netflix would get a 5% handling fee on the money.

The idea is intriguing – but seems highly unlikely to actually work.

While we’ve seen things like Kickstarter campaigns take off and Louis CK sell a comedy special directly to fans through downloads, we’ve also seen people pirate modestly-priced game bundles and music releases that featured “name your cost” pricing. If people are willing to steal things they could have bought for a penny, it seems safe to assume that most of us aren’t going to pay an extra dollar a month to support artists through Netflix or any other Internet site. That’s not to say that everyone is a Scrooge who wants things for free, but a lot of people do.

The second issue is Netflix itself. As mentioned earlier, there’s no way the rental giant is going to kick in subscriber funds to the cause. Netflix is facing new competition from both Dish TV/Blockbuster and Redbox/Verizon on top of having to renegotiate streaming rights with Hollywood – who’s raised the price of access to their vaults significantly. Netflix is already in a precarious financial spot.

Plus, since not every movie is even available on Netflix in the first place, the number of people you could support is severely limited and constantly changing. What about theatrical films? What about films that never make it to streaming? There are a lot of hurdles in using Netflix or any other site as the voting location. 

That being said, the idea of supporting artists directly does have some merits – it gives money directly to artists, for starters. It also potentially rewards good work with the incentive of bonus money. It’s not unlike the old patron system in the Renaissance and that worked out fairly well in its day. We certainly got some great art of out that. Perhaps the best way to handle it right now is to make it so consumers can subscribe to the work of their favorite filmmakers, and for a fee (that goes directly to the filmmaker), they are provided with a certain amount of that filmmaker's content, a la Joe Swanberg's model.

Dorr acknowledges that he doesn’t have all the answers and that he’s unsure if this is truly viable – but you have to give him credit: at least he’s trying to come up with a solution. The real message here is clear: the winds of change are blowing, and anyone who creates art and entertainment is going to need to continue to think outside of the box as paradigms shift. 

[via @edward_burns]

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