Cable networks? Game of Thrones budgets? Net neutrality? Mostly, these sound like concerns for big players in the media landscape, not a tiny fan supported company like ZOE. But the linked Salon article identifies several issues that are extremely relevant to all media creators.
First, net neutrality, about which much has been written. Yes, it will threaten everything, no, we’re too small to do anything about it other than join larger lobbying groups and educate the public where we can.
Second, the question of how television budgets have been subsidized at a level that can support massive shows like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. See, ZOE’s work receives zero subsidies, only fan support. And quality TV is not cheap to produce. And if it is cheap, that means that somewhere in the pipeline, somebody wasn’t being compensated for their time and labor. This is (mostly) fine if you’re a hobbyist working on a weekend project. But if you’re a professional producer? It’s not okay!
The final question raised by this article is key: would you rather, given the choice, reduce quality or the scope of the story? We have had countless internal discussions about this issue. Quality shows professionalism. It looks good. It sounds good. It’s creatively fulfilling! And without budgets that would make you, the fan funders, shudder in fear, it’s almost impossible to maintain unless you’re telling stories about a couple of characters in a room, talking and maybe drinking tea. Why? Because somewhere in the pipeline, somebody worked for less than a reasonable wage to close the gap between the budget and the dream.
In some ways, it sounds like a Catch-22. Without cable-level technical quality, what if people don’t take us seriously? What if the fans stop watching? What if our shows never win any awards? But on the other hand, how feasibly could we raise a half-million dollars minimum for each new season of a show like JourneyQuest, Gamers, or anything else that we have in development? So we’re faced with the same choices on every new project: raise more money, cut the story, or cut the quality.
Who here remembers The Gamers? Technically, the quality was beyond amateur. It’s a visual nightmare for film professionals. But do you want to know a secret? It’s one of the two top-selling films in the DG/ZOE catalog? People love it. And do they love it for the story, for the humor, and for the heart. Here’s another secret: JourneyQuest Season Two, the most visually accomplished show we’ve produced to date (we had to sacrifice quality to the Story Gods on Gamers 3—and we’re okay with that!) is our biggest financial flop. Don’t get us wrong, we’re completely proud of that season. But as a benchmark for what we can achieve visually, it would cost us easily over half a million to do again. Why? Because everybody involved in that show made major personal sacrifices to bridge that budget/dream gap. We did it because we believed in the show. And we still do. But that kind of sacrifice burns people out, no matter how passionate they are about a project. To shoot a show like JourneyQuest on an ongoing, sustainable basis requires boatloads of cash. (Or reducing quality to levels that would cause deep embarrassment to our entire team.)
So what does all of this mean for ZOE, both for the creators and for the fans who fund us?
Keeping a show like JQ going at the level we’ve been producing it means getting tons of new fans on board with funding a third season. At least 5000 people willing to put in $100 apiece, or 10,000 at $50, or 20,000 at $25. That’s a lot of new viewers hitting the “back this project” button. And that’s a lot of money to put into the kind of show that you could view on Netflix as part of an $8 a month subscription. But we’re not receiving cable subsidies. We don’t have enough viewers to attract large corporate sponsors or significant advertising revenue. And if you read the article, you know that those shows and their quality are at risk too!
That’s where we come back to the core ZOE motto: No Studio, No Network, No Cancellation. Being fan supported—and being a fan supporting our shows—means embracing the fact that we’re different. On the producing end, we retain creative control because we’re not relying on fickle networks and studios. On the fan end, you retain the freedom to fund content directly, in direct collaboration with the producers. We empower each other in a way that is totally unlike the Hollywood model. But that comes with costs and choices: without (at risk) cable subsidies and other traditional funding sources, we have to maintain the best balance we can between visual quality and storytelling choices. And you have to decide whether the experience and shows we offer are worth the premium cost of supporting our work.
So what does this mean for all of us moving forward?
First, for JourneyQuest to continue, viewership and fan funding have to quadruple. We’ll be setting up a special web page where you can share the show with friends, nurture their latent fandom, and encourage them to sign up for the “Fund JQ3” mailing list. When that list has 5000 people who have committed to $100 in funding apiece, we’ll launch a Season Three Kickstarter campaign.
Second, while you’re rallying the troops to increase the JQ fan base, we’re going to keep working hard at a more sustainable funding model than Kickstarter. We’ll be launching a new show, Strowlers, that can be affordably produced on a monthly basis in between massive tentpoles like JQ and Gamers. And most importantly, we’ll be working on a massive transition from Kickstarter funding to a revamped Phase II campaign.
Phase II will be moving to Patreon. This will allow us to spend 100% less of our time hand-coding fixes to our current (broken) subscription system. You’ll be able to choose a funding level that fits your budget. And we’ll be able to fund a new episode of content every month: no more year-long gaps between releases.
For long term sustainability and ongoing production, monthly subscriptions will allow us to predict revenue, hire full time help, and dramatically close the gap between funding and releasing new projects. You’ll be able to join and leave when it works for you. If you don’t want to subscribe, you’ll be able to pay what you want for episodes when we release them, from $0 to… well, whatever you choose to put in. With predictable revenue, we’ll be able to be MUCH more efficient with your dollars.
And if we all commit to this together, we’ll be producing awesome, independent, Creative Commons licensed, fan funded content while the studios and networks are looking back at the golden age of television and wondering what went wrong.