A fan of Old Jews Telling Jokes once sent us an email saying he loved the videos but he couldn't figure out how to print them out and needed our help. How adorably incorrect! Laughter, long sigh. But deep down, this fan's sentiment is not entirely ridiculous.* A lot of what we see on the Internet is digital publication; usually we can print it out. This notion underlies my grand unified theory of Internet video: treat it like publishing, not film or television, and this will become a viable industry.
Much of the film and television business is based on risk management. Will this show work? Maybe! So why make it? Because it's based on this book that sold a million copies and it stars Brad Pitt and it's a murder mystery and we know that murder mysteries are SO HOT right now, especially with teen girls in suburban neighborhoods. Every brand, talent and genre has a particular following, and we have a vague sense of how big that following is and who is in it. And the marketing people in Hollywood, they're brilliant. They know exactly how to reach these audience pools and how much money to spend doing so. All things considered, if there's a pretty good shot people will watch a show, and the projected audience is big enough to justify the cost, the project's a go.
We've figured out a few things about Internet video, but so far not enough to justify anything but the smallest risk. We know what the big genres are: technology, gossip, cute things, mommy issues, how-to, awesome, what the fuck-and porn. We know that everything works better with a dash of funny. We're pretty sure we need to make peace with advertising, though we have great hope for direct sales. We are mostly clueless when it comes to marketing. We have trouble reaching people.
This is where my publishing theory comes in-regarding online publishing, that is. (Just to be clear, we ain't printing no videos.*) It's easy to find the exact size of a blog's readership-there's a stats page somewhere that tells you. If an editor posts a video to her site, some percentage of her audience will click on it. If you can estimate the traffic, you can estimate how many ad impressions will be delivered and you can estimate revenue. If you can estimate revenue, you can gauge how much to spend on production. You can manage your risk.
The editor provides both marketing and distribution. These two functions do not overlap in film or television. The closest you get is seeing the one-sheets in the theater lobby advertising the movies playing at that theater. But online these can be the same thing. Here's a video I recommend you watch (promotion), and you click on it (delivery).
Let's imagine a website with one million unique viewers per week. Its editor, through years of applying the human skill of pattern recognition, knows that 2% of her audience will watch a video she posts. That's 20,000 people. Now assume an eCPM [effective cost per thousand impressions] of $15 for all the ads in the video stream, and boom, you know with a certain level of certainty that this one video will gross at least $300 in revenue.
You laugh. But that $300 of expected income is the kernel of an industry, because it is predictable. Get your production costs below $300 per episode there's a good chance you'll make a profit. (Hint: you'll need to shoot in bulk.)
And play with the variables. Plenty of websites have more than 1 million uniques a week. When they're that size they have robust ad sales teams that can get a higher eCPM. And if the show is, you know, actually good, then the percentage of the audience who clicks "play" might be higher.
Then factor in the banner ads that surround a video player widget and the social media aspect of a thousand editors of personal blogs and Twitter feeds and emails spreading the links and embedding the video elsewhere and all that is upside and pretty soon there's a BONANZA.
Okay, so I'm floating up in the clouds now. But you know what else floats around in the clouds? Moisture. Little molecules of water just hovering around in the sky. If you introduce a single speck of dust up there a few water molecules stick to it and then more will stick to those and suddenly you have a raindrop that brings the whole thing back to earth. (This dust is called "cloud condensation nuclei." I learned it on Wikipedia.) The millions of people who spend inordinate amounts of time on the Internet are the water molecules in this metaphor. The iota of predictability that an editor can bring to the equation is the speck of dust, the condensation nuclei.
The only way this works is if the editor commits to embed every episode in a series and to a schedule. The only way she'll do that is if she loves the show. Her publisher isn't going to make her do it, and the scent of bonanza picked up by the trained nose of the ad sales team will not factor into her decision (that would be unethical). But if she loves the show, and she kicks it to her publisher to hammer out a deal and then over to the ad sales team who sells the shit out of it? Condensation might happen.
So what makes an editor fall in love with a show? Ask her! And pay close attention to her voice, as expressed on her site. Video production is a collaborative art form, and the editor will, one way or another, have a say in the creative. She's the gatekeeper to an audience. If your key don't fit, the door won't open.
Now, a confession. I've been trying to do this for two years, pitching independent video series to blog networks and other publications as if they were distributors, and I haven't got it to work yet. Not in any formal manner, at least. There are probably a ton of reasons for this, not the least of which is that online publishers and Hollywood producers speak two different languages. ("Editor" means something totally different in Hollywood!)
But I've seen signs enough to believe that this is doable and that it can work. The point of writing this is the hope that it finds someone who has done it successfully, or that it infects someone's thinking enough to try it on their own. There's a saying in Hollywood that nobody wants to be first, but everybody wants to be second. You there, take this idea, make it work, then shoot me an email. I will gladly follow in your footsteps.
*It seems pretty likely that the fan wanted to print out transcripts of the videos, and to this end we recommend he purchase Old Jews Telling Jokes, the book, which is coming this fall from Villard!