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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


paywalls and tipjars and ads, oh my!

Claire Harlam

For many reasons, I'm excited about the new Made in NY Media Center, a pioneering institute run by the Mayor's Office of Media Entertainment in partnership with IFP and General Assembly that will give a home and various support to the many people studying or working within the fertile and freewheeling space where the entertainment, technology and advertising industries meet. Central among my reasons for excitement is their "Digital Advertising Academy," "a think tank [that will] help solve real-world brand marketing challenges." The deeper I get into my CRI research project, the more strongly I feel like innovative digital advertising is one of the more critical missing pieces in the online-content-revenue-generation-puzzle. Experiments in digital distribution run rampant, but their innovations lie mostly in streamlining technological processes to get films online and into key distribution channels or in using crowd-sourcing to revise traditional models of financing and exhibition. I've written already about how many of these new platforms fail to actually bring filmmakers and audiences together, despite some of their claims to, and how important this social element is to both the creation of a successful "online community" and to a filmmakers' ability to identify his audience ("niche" or not).  I haven't yet explored one economic apparatus that could potentially sustain such an "online community"--innovative advertising.

"It doesn’t make sense financially to inconvenience my viewers with ads,” says Mr. Urlakis. “The amount of money I’d be making would not be enough to improve the quality of the videos or my own quality of life significantly,” he adds. Dave’s theory is that running ads early in the life of Awkward Spaceship may actually turn viewers away and stifle long-term growth for his channel.

Mr. Urlakis, commenting for an article on titled "How to Monetize Your Youtube Channel," references a decision he made to not take advantage of YouTube's Partner Program. Some lucky generators of content ("filmmakers?" "artists?" whatever) have managed to make a living and then some through the Partner program. Still, Urlakis makes the important point that he could alienate potential fans by running the ads he needs to earn an income.

Vimeo's platform has since its inception been an antidote of sorts to YouTube, a place where artists less concerned with virality than quality feel comfortable sending people to watch their work. It would make sense that they have taken a different approach to content monetization.

“We knew that when we wanted to start allowing users to monetize their videos that we still had to do it our way,” Mellencamp told us. The focus has to always be on the user and the content. “For us, this isn’t even necessarily a revenue driver,” she said — noting that the potential to drive revenue does exist. Instead, it’s about “helping our users create more great work.”

To help their users make income and thus be able to "create more great work," Vimeo introduced to their site "tip jar" and VOD services. The tip jar allows for seamless deposits into the filmmaker's PayPal account, and the VOD service, to be launched in early 2013, acts as a typical paywall with pricing set by the filmmaker. The tip jar service invokes the interesting "Pay What You Want" behavioral context, which is appropriate since it allows people to feel like they're doing a good thing by paying for content, which is (let's be real) the impulse behind the financing of most truly independent films. Vimeo's tip jar is very young, and its VOD service has yet to launch, so little information exists on whether/how much artists have benefited from these services. Inevitably, there will be some success stories. Still, one service is fundamentally based in old guard economics (pay for content), and the other is, simply, charity.

Vimeo and Youtube are both obviously paramount platforms for generators of content and filmmakers alike, and they should be commended for offering their users opportunities to make income from their work--especially if, as Vimeo CEO Dae Mellencamp suggests for her company, there is no revenue in it for them. It's still worth noting that paywalls, tipjars and (traditional) ads are familiar features of pre-digital distribution, and it's worth wondering what's next.

Filmmakers should be able to find their fans online. Fans should be able to discover films online (whether they comprise a target audience or not). Perhaps a platform has not been able to make this happen sustainably for itself and for its filmmakers because advertising has not entered the equation in an innovative way. What kind of advertising would fans of quality content be not just willing but happy to sit through? Maybe this kind of advertising wouldn't require sitting through but interacting with. How could such interaction be incorporated authentically into a social context? These questions are vague, but a response has been defined by the Made in NY Media Center: innovators from the filmmaking, advertising and technology worlds will come together as a think tank to address the challenges facing producers, startups, and brands alike. This cross-industry collaboration is a pioneering innovation itself, and one that will be so exciting to follow!