Enigmatic, fascinating and armed for success. Image: Salvador Dali's Rinocerante, Marbella, Spain, © Manuel González Olaechea y Franco. Used under Creative Commons 3.0 license.
I’d like to share with you five things I’ve learned about the content business that took me a long time to understand. Repeated patterns, slowly emerging truths.
1. Money is a layered, subtle medium.
Despite the convention that says money is all the same – interchangeable and anonymous – the truth is money comes attached to people and they are varied and far from anonymous.
At one end of the spectrum, people fear risk and want their money back as soon as possible, with interest. At the other, people will bet on two flies crawling up a wall for the random chance of a win.
Some will give their money for things we barely stop to count, like the opportunity to be part of a meaningful project, and perhaps walk the red carpet.
Because money comes in these different forms, financing a project is about dividing its risks and rewards into different shaped parcels and matching them to the people investing.
It’s like carving the family roast, making sure people get the cuts they want.
It’s subtle and layered and, well, creative.
2. Choosing what to make can be foundational.
I’ve watched a lot of projects come into the world. Some of them got made. Most didn’t.
What’s striking about the process is the magical thinking that often accompanies it.
Someone reads a book and thinks that would make a great movie.
They dream a story and mistake the dream’s portentousness for evidence of its filmic potential.
Or they witnessed something when they were young and think because it’s stayed with them it will interest other people too.
They don’t interrogate the idea, because that would interrupt the magic. They don’t ask other people what they think. Instead they jump to a commitment – this is what I’m going to make.
Will it work out? Almost certainly not. In the US, fewer than 1 in 100 movie scripts get made. And yet they all get written.
There is another way. Creators can be strategic about what they choose to make. Instinctual still, but also careful, analytical, rational. Looking for the reach and depth of a truly great story.
And strategic choices can be foundational. Think of Kennedy Miller and Mad Max, CJZ and Bondi Rescue, Jungle and No Activity. Projects that helped launch their makers, creatively or financially or both.
3. The fundamental art is persuasion.
For a long time people believed that creative work was essentially solitary, a person in a room with a blank canvas.
Now we understand that authorship is an enterprise, the work of many, with leaders yes, but also collaborators, workers and investors. Not to mention the ghosts of everyone who went before.
Furthermore every work is an innovation that brings something new into the world. So the people and money to make it must be assembled from scratch.
From this it follows that the fundamental art of the creator is persuasion.
They have to persuade their collaborators to join them, the people with the money to part with it, the gatekeepers to give them access to audiences, and audiences to give their attention, their money – and maybe their love.
4. The audience is the asset.
It is part of the ordinary paranoia of creators to jealously guard their best ideas. From their lawyers, they learn to think of these ideas as intellectual property. And since property is an asset, their ideas must be their core assets.
Except they’re not. Most ideas have no realisable value at all. Even when fully realised – as a book, a movie or a song – they’re worth just 10 cents in the retail dollar, the benchmark royalty rate.
The truly valuable thing is not the idea itself but the attention it gets, the water cooler conversations it sparks, the brain space, the love.
The audience is where the money comes from and therefore the core asset of the business. Increasingly, it’s an asset that creators can mediate for themselves, with fewer middlemen and fewer deductions.
5. Actually, we’re good at this.
People who do creative work are constantly being told, directly and indirectly, that they’re no good at business. Their head is in the clouds. They’re looking at things the wrong way.
They hear it so often they internalise it.
But if you study the way creative people actually do business, you’ll see something quite different.
You’ll see ingenious structures, clever processes, and brilliant innovations. Not randomly occurring but built into the very architecture of creative industries.
Things like the movie greenlight process which, on analysis, turns out to be an extraordinary instantiation of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ – a near optimal solution to the problem of decision-making under uncertainty.
Or the way power is shared between a producer and director (or the artistic director and general manager of a theatre company) – a governance innovation that elevates the creative to the same level as the managerial. A truly radical move!
Other industries could learn from us.
We’re better than we think.
David Court runs the Compton School, Australia’s first dedicated business school for creative people. He will be leading Compton’s 3-2-1 series of workshops in Melbourne from December to May 2018. 3-2-1 is a partnership with Film Victoria.
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