7 Lessons from the Future of Content: Part One — Tools Are Cheap, Time Is Expensive

16 years ago, I shot a feature film. It took three years to complete, cost over $10,000, and only made it into two film festivals, one of which I had to pay to get into.

Three years ago, I shot a web series. It took two years to complete, cost me nothing, and was distributed on two global platforms.

When I say the web series cost me nothing, I mean that the biggest “expense” was a $2,000 laptop with especially strong processing power that I probably would have bought anyway.

And that’s the point. The costs incurred on the feature film — film stock, processing fees, film equipment, editing time on a computer — were specialized. They were only incurred because I was making a feature film. The film stock, processing, camera, lights, editing bay, and sound equipment had no value outside of that goal.

Now take a look at this.

This is a camera.

This is an editing bay.

This is a camera and an editing bay (and a distribution platform).

If I want to shoot, edit, and distribute even a feature film, I only need these devices (any of them, really). If I never want to shoot, edit, or distribute a feature film, these devices still hold a great deal of value. I probably own them anyway. This brings us to lesson one of the future of content:

Lesson One: The Tools for Creation Are Not Specialized

Which is to say the tools for creation are sunk costs. I can make a movie using items that are, in all likelihood, already lying around my house doing other things. This is a major shift in the history of filmmaking (not to mention various other art forms). This convergence of tools means a lowered barrier to entry that constitutes a change in kind, not just degree. My ability to tinker, dabble, or play filmmaker tourist has exponentially increased and my potential to get my 10,000 hours in without even necessarily meaning to becomes increasingly plausible.

And here’s the thing, that’s not how I did it.

When I made my web series, I actually did specialize. I got a nice Panasonic GH2 DSLR camera. I got some nice lenses for it. I bought some lavalier mics for good sound and a Zoom H1 to record onto. ALL of that still cost less than the laptop.

So even if you do want to use specialized equipment, the cost has never been lower.

So why aren’t we all filmmakers now? Well, remember the one thing that didn’t really change in the two scenarios? Both films took 2–3 years to create. Why? They weren’t my day job.

I didn’t make a thin dime on either the film or the web series. I probably lost money on the former. They were labors of love (although in the former case I had Clerks-like dreams of hitting it big). But the latter labor of love was possible because of sunk (or extremely low) production costs. But time was still expensive because I couldn’t quit my day job to do it. Meaning the web series was shot and edited on nights and weekends. For three years.

That is the challenge of the modern filmmaker. Not so much how to raise capital to produce the film itself, but how to raise capital to pay for the time to create it.

You used to need money to get into the game. Now you need money to have time to devote to it.

In our next lesson, we’ll get into how we try to make that happen.