Internet distribution has not only opened up possibilities for distribution outside of the established channels – it’s also opened up the possibility of zero-infrastructure distribution. Put something you’ve produced up on a filesharing service such as BitTorrent, and if it becomes popular the consumers themselves will provide the bandwidth for the distribution.
A project that is using this method of is the independently produced science fiction series “Pioneer One”. The 720p version of the fifth episode has, at the time of writing, about 25,000 seeders. (For torrent size, that is on par with a popular torrent of a current episode of a major TV hit show.) The website claims over 250,000 downloads for the episode, and 3.5 million downloads total. All distributed at next to no cost for the makers.
Of course there still has to be a budget. Cameras are cheaper than ever, the cost for film material and development has vanished with digital production, and the technical means for post-production are there in the form of a standard PC and free software. Everything outside of the technology hasn’t joined the race to zero cost. Even if all people involved in a project donate their time, there are still items like paying for props and locations, renting lights and other auxiliary equipment, catering and so on. Film production is amazingly complex and expensive.
There are quite a few ways of raising money on the internet for projects like this, and “Pioneer One” is employing a few of them. You can pay for online streaming access, with different price points that give you better quality and added digital incentives. Then there are the donations that give you things up to producer credits and mentions on the eventual Blu-Ray/DVD release. So far only 2100 tickets have been sold, and $ 33,000 collected.
This is a conversion rate in the range of 1%. I have no idea whether this is good or bad for an internet media project. If it is about average, then it might just be that you need viewer numbers on par or in excess of that of a conventional TV show to get equivalent budgets. Crowd-support is not an easy thing.
The packages on offer start out low enough at $ 5 that every fan of the series should be able to afford one.
The average payment/donation was around $ 16, with the last ten contributions listed showing only two $ 5 ones and one $ 50 one (and being relatively close to the average). So once somebody is willing to support the project financially, they are probably willing to spend more than the bare minimum contribution amount. How much more may then just be a question of clever incentivizing. “Pioneer One” is not doing too well on that. I spent $ 10 after watching the first episode, but that was a gesture of goodwill. The silver ticket I bought gives me nothing I want over the episode itself that I torrented (and I watched the torrent instead of streaming, which just doesn’t work while on a train). Even more importantly, the $ 50 and $ 100 donations are hardly used. Credits may be appealing to some, and it’s possible somebody gifts a stream to a friend, but generally it might the web comics route of offering some physical goods such as T-shirts at a significant markup over cost seems like a better idea. These are on offer, but not linked to in any obvious way from the streaming website that I first landed on. Clearly there’s room for improvement here.
The series itself? I’ve only just watched the first couple of episodes. The limited budget and production means generally are visible at every point. They’re keeping location shots to a minimum, going for lots of close-ups instead. The dialogue could have needed a more professional script doctor, the acting is often so-so, and even on no budget, the initial voice-over is really, really bad. But overall? There’s a story there, or at least enough hints at one, it’s got a heart, and it’s in the right place. It’s amazing how often this is lacking in modern series storytelling. The minimalist means also lead to a style that is often refreshingly relaxed. There’s something to be said for a complete lack of Hollywood show-off and just telling what you have to tell. And, most importantly: it’s a SF series, and there aren’t too many of them around to watch. I’ll certainly watch the other episodes once I find the time. If that keeps up the standard, and they offer me a nice coffee mug, I’ll be happy to contribute more, to do my small part to keep the show alive.