Friday, September 18, 2009

Docunomics, Part Three

Many years ago, I took an unexpected trip to Las Vegas. No big deal, since I lived in California and visited Vegas often. (I think we had a new friend who had never been, so we piled in the car around sunset and planned to stay overnight.)

In an effort to be cheap -- I was in college -- I decided to play a nickel video poker machine. I tried it a few times, and realized after a few hands that it was broken: it was paying back my bet on a tie, when it should have kept my nickel. That was the built in house advantage, and somehow the machine was broken and not taking that advantage. I stopped when I realized this, did some quick math and quickly understood there was a tiny but real angle there. I couldn't lose if I played a certain system.

At the same time, though, it was tiny advantage. If everything ran in a normal way, even betting five nickels each round, I could expect to win an extra nickel every few hands.

So I played for hours, and that's what happened: each hour, I made about $3. After a couple of hours, I realized it was ridiculous: this was less than minimum wage. Still, with five nickels in the machine, I was eligible for a huge jackpot if I happened to draw one of those extremely rare hands. So I played, realizing my earnings were small, but that I couldn't lose and had hope of hitting a big win.

My friends busy elsewhere, I played about 5 hours, and made about $15. Never hit a big jackpot.

I keep thinking of that night as I read people speculating on the future of documentary. Often, in discussions, my students tell me they want to see films on their computer, not on television. When I point out that online video distribution doesn't pay much per view -- one calculation on some venues is about 2-cents-per-view on short films, 10-cents per view on features -- and ask them how filmmakers will make money, they say that the films will just have to be very popular.

Fair enough. But 100,000 views -- kinda popular for a documentary -- at 2-cents-per view is $2,000. Not exactly vast riches, if that's over one year. One million views? Rare, but plausible, like a jackpot. $20,000. More substantial, a good addition to a day job, but not 10% of a realistic film budget for many documentary filmmakers.

So, who knows how this will all develop. I think, though, that it is important to run the numbers when people keep telling me the current collapsing distribution model will just move online. It will, of course, but if the scale is off -- the equivalent of $3-per-hour pay -- making a living from it might be rarer than it is now.

On that note, let's revisit the how the Doc Challenge DVD is doing at Amazon. (It includes one of our short films.)

In May, it was ranked #48,323 in sales in Movies and TV, moving up to #35,590 in June. Great. A "long-tail" dream come true, as it slowly climbs to the top of the list.

Maybe not. Just checked: it's down to #137,717.

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