The Future Of Paid Content Is Vertical Integration

March 6, 2013


There are many people pontificating on the future of content these days and with shows like “House of Cards” breaking the mold for how high-quality television is produced and viewed, in what many people already describe as the new Golden Age of television, there is room for such speculation.

With the rapid evolution of technology across all fronts of content production, from the advent of crowd funding to the democratization of technology to produce cinema quality content, it is simply the most level playing field the world has ever seen. Anyone and everyone can tell stories as good as anyone and everyone else. What’s resulted though, is a wild west of sorts. A deluge of undifferentiated content that is still dominated, at least in the collective attention spans of pop culture, by movie studios and broadcast TV.

So, what will rise to the top? And how will it do so?

To illuminate this further, a case study. At Sundance this year, there premiered a movie called “Upstream Color.”

This is a highly polarizing, independent film by a filmmaker named Shane Carruth that many called beguiling, impenetrable, dense, and/or one of the best films of the year. Carruth has only one other film to his name, an equally complex time-traveling mind bender called “Primer” that also premiered at Sundance in 2004 that many (definitely including me) consider one of the best independent films made in the past 20 years.

What generally creates buzz at Sundance though is the “buffet” aspect. While it is a “film festival” per se, in the past decade and a half it is most likely better described as a “shopping spree”. All of the movies that premier are explicitly for sale. The buzz therefore is created, yes, by a film’s quality but more so by its saleability.

However, “Upstream Color” was easily one of the most talked about films of the festival despite being completely, and unusually, off the market. It wasn’t for sale. That’s because Shane Carruth owned it completely and had made the radical decision that he was also going to distribute the movie himself. More so, beyond writing, directing, editing, shooting, producing, financing, scoring and even acting in the film, he also plans to distribute it, market it, merchandise it, and build buzz for it himself. Completely free of any deep pockets or studios taking their cut or having their say. All him, everything. Top to bottom.

This complete and total control is rarely seen these days and hasn’t been since an oligopoly of  film studios owned all aspects of their content in the ’20’s and ’30’s, even the movie theaters they were shown in.

However, like Rockefeller’s oil empire, this level of vertical integration was outlawed by the Sherman Act and soon became de facto shorthand for the evils of capitalism. Everything old though, is new again and it’s a return to this form of vertical integration where the future of paid content lies.

This is because the name of the game is control and ownership. Films, TV, movies, and other forms of content used to be extremely expensive to make but that was fine, because they also raked in extreme amounts of money and there was a lot of room for many people to get a slice of the pie. But as walls crash down around journalism, music, and now the film industry, there just simply isn’t room for glut. In order to produce content and make a profit, the middle men will, by force of market, get cut out.

New technologies though have brought down the cost of all aspects of producing but mainly they’ve made it so people can cut out all the unnecessary secondary and tertiary people in the process.

What Shane Carruth is doing with “Upstream Color” would have been unthinkable even three or four years ago. While he maybe would have been able to pass around a hat to family/friends to collect the money to shoot it, he’d have no mechanism to get it to an audience. Now he has platforms to promote his film (Twitter/Facebook), ways for people to see it (Hulu/Netflix/iTunes/etc.), and can even book movie theaters himself.

The movie certainly won’t make tens of millions of dollars, but by controlling and owning all aspects of his narrative, he doesn’t have to. And that’s the real point, making profitable, high-quality content for less money entices consumers to pay for content and makes it easier for content producers to stay in business.

This phenomena of near-to-total autonomy in the content producing process is not exclusive to micro-budgeted indie films either. There are plenty examples, large and small, including the aforementioned “House of Cards” and Netflix’s goal of creating content they own all the way through the pipeline, as a strategy to lure in new subscribers.

In journalism, it’s also popping up more and mor with sites like Longform, Longreads, and Byliner transitioning from merely a place that aggregates amazing journalism to profit making entities that can author original long-form pieces and publish them directly to a loyal readership, free of dusty newspaper monoliths. In music, people are successfully crowdfunding their new albums, sometimes to great effect, and getting their fans to buy or download directly from their own sites.

Whatever the future of paid content is, there is one thing for certain, and that is that those who do create will exert an ever growing amount of control over how their works are made and viewed. More and more people, both big and small, will try and own as much of their work as possible and make as much money out of an ever shrinking pie. If it facilitates more artists to create works like Shane Carruth has though, I’m all for it.