Over the last ten years I managed to do something, that, with the benefit of hindsight, would appear to be somewhat remarkable.
I financed, produced, directed, marketed and distributed seven documentary films that treated the subject of sexuality in a way that is unprecedented in cinema. The briefest description I can offer is that these films offer a glimpse of “love, uncensored”; which is to say they show, in a tender and unflinching manner, what it looks like when two people who love each other make love; and then reveal through testimony why the couple feels the way they do about each other. Our couples were never asked to do anything that was not already a regular part of their own off-screen love life; only to share themselves with each other joyously, and allow us to bear witness. The response to these simple little films, so frank yet so gentle, has been no less remarkable.
Variously they have taken awards at international film festivals, played to standing-room-only houses, been seized by customs officials, banned by censorship authorities, stopped by the police, and described by the MPAA as “A great little film that really delivers. Exactly the kind of film the NC17 rating was made for.”
Even more remarkable, these films have provided my family a livelihood. Throughout the ups and downs of creating, marketing and distributing these films we’ve never gone hungry, we’ve never missed a mortgage payment, we’ve always had health insurance, we’ve never had to borrow money from friends or family. Some years we’ve even manage to save some money, or go on a vacation.
It’s been tough, but it’s been good tough, the kind of thing you look back on with pride.
One of the reasons it’s been tough is that the social and media landscape has changed a lot since we first began this work. There was a lot more openness to new ideas about sexuality in 2003 when we got our first major press mention (and inbound link!) from Richard Corliss at Time.com. Conversely, there was a lot less file sharing. As best as we’ve been able, we’ve tried to adapt to changing norms around sexuality on the internet, or attitudes about intellectual property.
Sometime in the last year I was reading yet another article preaching give-it-away-for-free (the it being your book, your record, your film – your whatever could be digitized) and then sell your true fans the very special limited edition, gold foil wrapped, signed collector’s edition, or if not that, a t-shirt or a stuffed animal or whatever. This approach has been proffered (time and time again) as the solution to a world that does not offer artists who work in easily replicated distribution mediums a way to exchange their work for money with those who wish to pay for it without making it freely available to those who wish to enjoy it but do not wish to pay for it.
As I was reading this it hit me; this is not an especially “low-impact” approach to making a living as an artist.
The low-impact approach would be to make the creative work once, and then distribute it in as small a foot-print form factor as possible, with protectable digital distribution being near ideal.
What is not ideal is turning songs or novels or movies into loss-leader for more crap — t-shirts, collectors edition box sets, and whatnot. Putting “Comstock Films” or “Helvetica” or “NIN” or whatever on a t-shirt and selling it for $19.95 is not value added, and it’s not a real substitute for compensating artists for their investment of time and money.
At best it’s an ugly kludge that ought to be a source of deep shame to anyone who claims to care about the real possibilities that digitized culture offers, and doubly so if you claim to care about leaving a smaller foot print on a planet increasingly strained by the crush of humanity.
But we don’t have protectable digital distribution, and I don’t expect we ever will. It’s unfashionable, reviled by the digital cognoscenti; and even if it weren’t I not even sure it’s possible.
For a while I thought about four-walling. That’s what my hero Bruce Brown did, traveling from town to town, putting up posters, renting out halls, and hoping enough people would come to the show to make it worthwhile. But I’m in my 40s, I have two young children I adore, and the thought of being on the road, touring touring touring, away from my kids, sleeping in hotels instead of sleeping in my own bed with my wife is not especially appealing.
For a brief time I thought about making a road show out of my film history/media studies work, the work that I drew from during my stint last year as a guest-blogger for James Fallows, and I got a good response from the universities I approached. But again, that would mean too much time away from my family, too much time on airplanes and in motels, and not enough time with the people and things I love. And the film history/media studies puts the talking ahead of the doing. Don’t get me wrong, I like talking, but I like doing more.
This left me in a pickle.
I have been making a living with words and pictures since I was 19 years old. I have never been paid to do anything else.
Until this last Summer.
The parameters were simple. Whatever was next had to be something that could not be digitized. Yes, I know, according to the digerati, all those people downloading our films weren’t going to buy them anyway, so that was no money lost. I don’t care. I made those movies with my own two hands. I wrote checks to pay for film-stock and equipment rental and to pay my crew union rates. I didn’t do that so people could watch my films for free. I did it to put a roof over my children’s head and food on our table. And because of that, I get a little upset at the fact that people can decide whether or not they want to pay to see our films.
And I’m not especially comforted by the idea that our livelihood is just unfortunate collateral damage of a technology that allows the flowering of mash-up culture. In all the tens of thousands of times our films have been downloaded, no one’s ever mashed up anything. No new culture, no new commentary. Just people riding the bus for free because it’s easy enough not to pay.
So it couldn’t be something digitizable.
It also had to be something that couldn’t be toured. I’m too old for that. I like being with my family too much. So whatever it was had to be something so special that people would come to me instead of waiting for me to come to them.
So what did I do? I started taking people sailing. Aside from meeting the above criteria, it has a few other really wonderful characteristics.
To start with, it has relatively high financial barriers to entry.
You’ve got to have a boat. Kaching. You’d be stupid not to have insurance. Kaching. You need to put the boat somewhere for the Winter. Kaching. And on and on and on.
Do these cost eat into profits? Of course. But even more importantly they keep the hobbiest and the dilettantes out. It’s hard enough to make a living competing against other professionals, but it’s damn near impossible when everyone wants to be a filmmaker (or journalist, or coder, or whatever) and all they need is an iPhone and an iMac to do it!
It also has legal barriers to entry. If you want to take people on a boat for money, you have to have a US Coast Guard Captain’s License.
In some ways this is pretty funny, because if you just want to drive yourself and your friend around on a boat, you don’t need anything. You can pretty much buy a boat, jump in and go; good luck and God bless. You can even rent a boat, filled with your friends, and go on your merry way. The high seas (or your local bay) are the last vestige of a liberty we probably never really had. You want to be a libertarian. Get a boat!
But if you want to be a captain for hire, it gets complicated. There are classes you have to take, tests you have to pass. You have to show that you have been on boats long enough to (hopefully) have some clue about what you’re doing. You have to take a physical and get your eye sight checked. You have to pee in a cup to show your don’t get high.
Maybe to some people this sounds like a big hassle but for me it’s a big blessing. After two decades of hearing Steve Jobs say “Now anyone can…” it’s nice to be doing something where Uncle Sam is telling other people “Oh no you can’t. You can’t unless you do this and this and this and this and this.”
So that’s what I did last Summer. (And since I’ve mentioned the small footprint thing, let me add that I managed to do nearly 100 sailing trips on about 12 gallons of diesel.)
And it’s what I’m going to do next Summer.