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I joined a discussion on a mailing list today about the usefulness/likelihood/profitability of making documentaries (on the International Media Users Group IMUG list). Here’s what I had to say:
Would you hit the jackpot on sending your first program out and then getting $2000 per station x 300 stations? About as likely as winning the lottery. Again, the idea is to build your brand, develop your reputation, give the stations something to expect — some value that they’re investing in. Do you want to “Get Rich Quick” or do you want to “Make The World A Better Place and Still Afford To Eat”? And/or both/either.
This type of program model is defined by developing your funding up-front —
using a combination of grants, corporate underwriting, trade-outs, etc. to
pay for your production costs before you even get to the distribution stage.
Ideally, I’d say, you’d send your programming out over NETA’s satellite link
with no charge to the stations for airing the program (other than a
postcard/email letting you know airdates & response); this helps to
encourage further dissemination of the program & can even make it easier to
find corporate underwriting/grants (more stations are likely to air it if
it’s free to them, and sponsors tend to like wide-spread recognition).
Following this line of reasoning: your program airs, albeit scattered around
the country; you retain all rights to the program; and assorted programming
directors around the nation start to gain appreciation for what you have to
offer. If you create something that provokes a response, something of
quality that people actually find interesting/informative/entertaining, then
the PBS stations & networks of stations will want more programming from you.
If you’re willing and able to provide more programs that are valuable to the
stations, at some point it makes sense to charge for the programs — at
whatever amount the market will bear. Since (following this type of model)
your production costs have been already taken care of, this additional
revenue generated from the stations becomes “profit” or “capital to invest
in your next project.”
For example, put together a documentary on, say, the creativity of pets
(parrots that paint, etc.). Conform it to basic standards (30 minute show =
26:50, 60 min = 57:40; shot with decent DVCAM gear with clear audio, etc.)
and get money from a pet store (a local franchise of a national chain,
perhaps?) for corporate underwriting, as well as a grant from an arts
foundation for promoting the arts, and maybe even Joe’s Texaco ’cause he
once had this hound dog that was sooo funny — using this revenue to balance
your budget for production and postproduction. Research, shoot, and edit the
documentary. Send the documentary out nationwide over a service like NETA
for $50 or so, to public TV stations. Create promotions to spread awareness
of the doc (live event in conjunction with pet store to invite people to
bring their pets to compete for some prize, or some such, and get as much
media exposure as you can, even going on TV/radio morning shows to discuss).
If TV stations like the doc, they may air it (albeit 3 am in Nebraska). Now
you’re the producer of a “nationally-distributed documentary”. Try more
angles for promotion. Send it out over the satellite again to garner more
airtime. Tally up the response & interest and set the stage for creating a
series of docs along the same theme. Move up the ladder for corporate
underwriters based on your success so far (perhaps the corporate HQ for that
pet store will now take your calls?), gaining more funding to flesh out your
production budget to allow you to create 10 30-min shows. Spend the next 12
months putting together your documentaries, sending them off in a timely
manner for distribution for the stations to air for free (via NETA, etc.).
Now you’ve finished your first season, with 11 shows under your belt. Based
on the response to your shows, develop plans for another season. Gather more
grants, more underwriting. Create 15 shows in season two. And since the
stations know what to expect, decide to charge them $100-$300 (based on
market size) per station per episode for season two. Season two ends, with
ever-growing production budgets, more recognition, and now you have 26 shows
under your belt, and perhaps that knocking at your door is a cable channel
eager to sign you up for a development deal (as well as for rights to re-air
your existing shows). Don’t forget to sell copies of the shows whenever
possible (“for a DVD send $35 to…”; “hey, look, this Pet Store is stocking
DVD copies of these shows…”). Take profits from this pet series and
re-invest appropriately, perhaps creating a new doc on this public school
education issue that bothers you. Follow similar model as above. Rinse and
Or, let’s say you put together the initial documentary, get the production
costs covered, send it out to the public TV stations, and there’s little or
no response. You’re out $50 for distribution costs, and there’s probably not
much of a future for that documentary anyway if no one wants to watch it. So
you shrug your shoulders, file it away on your shelf, find another idea and
pursue it to see if it works. Rinse and repeat.
Ideas are powerful. TV stations are hungry. As I like to say, “Our
communities are content-rich, but distribution-poor.” Is it likely that your
documentary will be a “success” (however that’s defined)? I think the more
pertinent question is, How likely are you to do what needs to be done?
Is it at all apparent I’ve been taking some cold medicine? :->